Come Up to Learn, Come Up to Inspire

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14 Jun 2011

“Be what you would have your pupils be. All other teaching is unblessed mockery and apery.” – Thomas Carlyle

When God commanded Moshe to instruct Aaron regarding the proper method of lighting the Menorah, the Torah records that, “Aaron did that, lighting the lamps to illuminate the Menorah, as God commanded Moshe.” What a strange observation this is! Could anyone have imagined that Aaron, the High Priest, would have failed to follow God’s instructions precisely?

Who among us would not do as God commands, particularly when the instructions are direct and personal? How much more would Aaron have done so? Rashi’s suggestion that the purpose of the Torah’s report is “to tell the praise of Aaron – that he did not act differently from what he was bidden (shelo shinah)” leaves us even more troubled and puzzled. Why highlight that the High Priest did not act differently from what he was bidden?

The Torah record seems to presume we would doubt Aaron’s fealty to God’s command.

As a result, we are left to wrestle with the report – are we to understand it as a compliment for Aaron, High Priest of Israel? Should we take note that Aaron did not alter the Divine instructions?

Of course there should be nothing of note in Aaron remaining absolutely true to the Divine instruction. And yet… and yet, for his esteemed stature, Aaron was, just like you and I, a human being. And so to see him going about his priestly responsibilities, day in and day out, for thirty nine years with the same fervor that possessed him when he assumed the priesthood is more than a little impressive. It is inspiring.

Who among us, attending to the very same tasks day in and day out for one year, let alone thirty nine, would not suffer the effects of “professional burnout”?

Yet, for Aaron, his priestly responsibilities never became rote; his priesthood never became merely a job; his role never became a burden. He “…did not act differently from what he was bidden.” Even as he gained experience and confidence, even as his prestige grew, even as his stature rose, even as he enjoyed what we might call “job security” he never ceased to be the same humble servant of God. He never ceased to be the man who, when initially approached to serve, expressed fear and apprehension. He never lost the sense of awe and trepidation that defined the awesome responsibility of his office.

Even as he wore the robes of the grand and lofty of Kohen Gadol, the man within never lost his modesty, sense of duty, his submission or self-abasement. Lo shinah.

It is in this continued sense of humility that we recognize in Aaron his true greatness. Imagine in our own workplaces – how many of our supervisors and colleagues are overtaken by their own sense of importance and ego long before serving thirty-nine long and devoted years? How many of our supervisors and colleagues hunger for honor and recognition long before their time has arrived? How many young men begrudgingly come to work, burnt out before their wick is even fully lit?

More than our High Priest, Aaron is our teacher. The prophet Malachi declares, “The Kohen’s lips shall keep knowledge and they shall seek the Torah from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord.” Based on this prophetic doctrine, the Rambam codified into law, “If the teacher is like an angel of the Lord of Hosts, they may seek Torah from his mouth. But if he is not, then they shall not seek Torah from his mouth.”

Aaron as devoted teacher is more illuminating than Aaron as High Priest. For it is in teaching, more than in many other professions, that we encounter “burn out.” Teachers just get tired of struggling to accomplish the same tasks same thing day in and day out, teaching the same lessons from the same pages in the same books, in the same place… all with little recognition and minimal, if any, professional “promotion.”

It seems inevitable that a once enthusiastic and idealistic classroom teacher will eventually fall into a rut, unable to motivate himself, let alone his students. He will lose his energy and creativity, tied down to the same lessons, same assignments, same materials and tests. Day after day. The same. All the same.

That “sameness” becomes boredom, irritability and frustration, becomes an unwillingness to reach out and communicate; becomes confrontation.

The teacher, the very person who must remain a shimmering source of inspiration and illumination, is precisely the person who most quickly suffers the devastating effects of burnout. Perhaps it is for this exact reason that the Torah reports that Aaron did just as he was told – still, even after thirty-nine years. Aaron continued to display the same devotion, excitement and drive that he had displayed as he faced his very first class!

He was not dulled by tenure or job security, by frustration or unruly students, by the same material and words. Rather, he was inspired by the source of his calling. He is the model for the teacher whose consistent and continued enthusiasm and idealism catches on like fire among students eager to imitate their hero, their teacher or rebbe, and it is this heroic accomplishment which merits great praise – Shelo shina.

The educational implications to Aaron’s response are legion. The most obvious being that the excited, idealistic and enthusiastic teacher should expect similar reactions and responses from his students. Conversely, the bored, boring, dull, unsympathetic teacher dragging himself into class only to do his job, should not expect anything other than yawning, disinterested, disgruntled and resentful students.

Such bored and burnt out teachers did not train at the “Aaron” institute, and of such teachers we are forewarned, “Not to seek Torah from his mouth.”

This very message may be inherent in the verb used by the Torah instructing Aaron not simply to kindle (l’hadlik) the Menorah, but rather be’haalotekha – literally, “when you cause the lights to rise.” Or, as Rashi explains, “that one must kindle them until the light ascends of itself.”

To teach well means to enlighten, inspire, motivate and raise students to the point at which their inner flames automatically ascend – because of the teacher’s kindling. Students must ultimately become reflections and mirrors of great teachers. Furthermore, our Rabbis derived from the expression be’haalotekha that there was a step in front of the Menorah upon which “the priest stood while putting the lights in order.”

As Rashi suggests, the successful teacher is the teacher all will look up to. He is full of vigor and dynamism. He is high up on a step, motivating students to come up and strive to reach higher and higher, as high as they can reach. During many years of educational administration, this powerful Torah message always seemed to be read to coincide with graduation, with a message not merely to students, but with a challenge to educators – Be like Aaron. Continue to humbly and enthusiastically serve God… and your students!

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran, serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of communications and marketing.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.