Rise and Shine| February 22, 2022
What happens when, after much hard work and self-sacrifice, you have actually achieved your goals?
What happens when it’s necessary for your entire self-definition to change; when, after nurturing and teaching and guiding, it’s time to let go and become invisible?
In describing the kindling of the lights of the Menorah in the Beis Hamikdash, the Torah uses the phrase liha’alos ner tamid, which Chazal interpret as the requirement to keep the kindling flame against the wick until the flame burns by itself. On this basis, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch offers an arresting insight: that the work of a Torah teacher is to make himself superfluous.
For so long as his students need him, he must be exceedingly devoted to them and available to them without respite. The Gemara (Bava Basra 8b) identifies the Amora Rav Shmuel bar Sheilas as the paradigmatic melamed tinokos, teacher of Torah to young children, and goes on to tell of how for 13 years straight he never took a break from teaching. But even when he finally did so, he told Rav, while on his break he was still thinking about his young charges.
Yet that same teacher who is the picture of years-long dedication is called upon to hope for and work toward the day when his students will no longer need him. And when that day comes, if he’s a melamed worth his salt, he is expected to graciously — joyously — step aside.
A rebbi most often has many students, and even if he becomes superfluous to some of them, he will remain relevant to the others who still need him. But eventually, every one of a rebbi’s talmidim, whom he taught first to crawl and then to walk, begin to do so independently. Then they learn to run, and eventually to fly solo.
And indeed, that master pedagogue and builder of men, the Alter of Slabodka, is reported to have expressed a fervent wish that after his passing from the world, it would be unknown that a man named Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel had ever been the menahel ruchani of the Slabodka yeshivah.
The greatest Torah teacher of all, Moshe Rabbeinu, strove to kindle the lights of Klal Yisrael in precisely this way, eventually achieving at least in some measure the superfluity of which Rav Hirsch writes. Perhaps that is why parshas Tetzaveh containing the very passage on which Rav Hirsch offers this insight, is the only parshah, from the time of Moshe Rabbeinu’s first mention, in which his name does not appear (observation made by my son-in-law, Reb Yisroel Kahn). That is because once his teachings and his influence are completely absorbed by his students, his work is done. This anav mikol adam, this humblest of men, is ready to disappear from view.
Perhaps this explains why the Gemara (ibid.) compares teachers of small children to stars. They shine brightly in the darkened sky, then fade into invisibility during the daytime and reemerge the next night when light turns to darkness.
This same cycle characterizes the rebbi-talmid relationship, too. Initially, the student is unlearned and uninitiated, enveloped in the dark night of ignorance and unsophistication. Slowly, thanks to his teacher, day dawns for him. And as Torah’s bright light fills him, his teacher correspondingly fades into the background as the sole, indispensable source of light in his life.
BUT SUPERFLUOUS AS HE MAY BECOME in terms of what he’s capable of teaching his talmid, a rebbi remains a rebbi. And even as the talmid strides confidently into life’s daylight, there will inevitably yet arrive times of darkness, of confusion, challenge, and travail.
And in such periods of nighttime, he may well suddenly realize the need to reach out to his long-ago, ostensibly superfluous teacher, if not for Torah, then for succor and inspiration and guidance. The star, which was always there in the heavens even if invisible due to a profusion of light, will reappear.
What Rav Hirsch is essentially addressing is the challenge posed by success. It is one that is faced by individuals and by institutions and organizations alike: What happens when, after much hard work and self-sacrifice, you have actually achieved your goals?
Your entire definition of self is bound up with the mission you have been fulfilling for so many years, and to let go of it means losing that self. What happens when you’re no longer needed or vital to the mission? It requires a slaying of ego that feels very much like a slaying of one’s entire self. The temptation is strong, perhaps overwhelming, to stay relevant, even if in reality, you no longer are — and for the best of reasons: because you have been so successful.
And so, a rebbi might seek to hold his talmid back from moving on and up, from branching out independently. An organization, unable to contemplate the unthinkable — declaring its mission accomplished and simply disbanding — looks for new vistas of communal achievement, even if they are not in the community’s best interests.
Everyone knows that failure brings many challenges. It’s the truly aware individual who recognizes that success brings its own.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 900. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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