Parshas Pinchas: The Teacher-Student Mesorah

In this week’s parsha (chutz la’aretz), Parshas Pinchas, Moshe Rabbeinu is informed that he will see, but not enter, the Land. וַיֹּאמֶר האֶלמֹשֶׁה, עֲלֵה אֶלהַר הָעֲבָרִים הַזֶּה; וּרְאֵה אֶתהָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי, לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵלand Hashem said to Moshe: ascend to this mount of Avarim, and see the Land that I have given to the Children of Israel; וְרָאִיתָה אֹתָהּ, וְנֶאֱסַפְתָּ אֶלעַמֶּיךָ גַּםאָתָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר נֶאֱסַף, אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָand you shall see it and you shall be brought into your nation, as Aharon your brother was brought in (Bamidbar 27:12-13).

Instead of mourning this decree and wallowing in a state of despair, like the exemplary leader that he is, Moshe’s sole concerns are with his flock.  And so, Moshe asks Hashem to appoint a leader who will lead the people after his demise.  יִפְקֹד האֱלֹקֹי הָרוּחֹת לְכָלבָּשָׂר, אִישׁ עַלהָעֵדָהMay Hashem, the G-d of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the assembly, אֲשֶׁריֵצֵא לִפְנֵיהֶם וַאֲשֶׁר יָבֹא לִפְנֵיהֶם, וַאֲשֶׁר יוֹצִיאֵם וַאֲשֶׁר יְבִיאֵם, who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall take them out and who shall bring them in, and let the assembly of Hashem not be like sheep that have no shepherd (27:15-17).

And Hashem said to Moshe: take Yehoshua bin Nun, a man in whom there is spirit, וְסָמַכְתָּ אֶתיָדְךָ עָלָיו, and lean your hand upon him (v.18).  Moshe is commanded to give semicha to Yehoshua in the presence of Elazar ha’Kohen and the entire assembly and command him before their eyes (v.19)… and Moshe did as G-d commanded him to do and commanded him (Yehoshua) like Hashem spoke (v.20-23).

The ever-selfless leader, teacher, father and rabbi par excellence, Moshe transfers his glory and eminence to Yehoshua, his talmid muvhak, the diligent student who himself will become the next leader.  All that Moshe learned, he transmitted to Yehoshua, who was ever faithful to his master and rebbe: וּמְשָׁרְתוֹ יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּןנוּן נַעַר, לֹא יָמִישׁ מִתּוֹךְ הָאֹהֶלand his minister Yehoshua bin Nun, a lad, would not depart from the tent (of Moshe) (Shemos 33:11).  

In fact, Chazal teach us of the transmission of Torah at the very beginning of Pirkei Avos.  The opening teaching of the Mishnah is: משֶׁה קִבֵּל תּוֹרָה מִסִּינַי, וּמְסָרָהּ לִיהוֹשֻׁעַ, וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ לִזְקֵנִים, וּזְקֵנִים לִנְבִיאִים, וּנְבִיאִים מְסָרוּהָ לְאַנְשֵׁי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָהMoshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted the mesorah to Yehoshua, and this transmission continued in an unbroken chain down to the Men of the Great Assembly (Avos 1:1).  

Of the teacher-student relationship, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rav zt’l, movingly teaches, “The teacher is not a creator ex nihilo (out of nothing), (however) Judaism looks upon him at least as a fashioner, an artisan who takes primordial matter and impresses form upon it.  The teacher shapes something amorphous into something beautiful and fascinating.  The subject does not belong to the king, but the pupil belongs to the teacher, because the latter trained and enlightened his mind, sensitized his heart, molded his personality and brought out the noblest and finest in him.

“Judaism considers the teaching of Torah a reflection of the infinite process of creation initiated by G-d at the dawn of existence, which has never come to a close.  G-d summons man to participate in the great, wondrous drama of creation.  The teacher, the rebbi, answers the call and joins the Creator; hence, he has a share in the student.  He owns him because he is responsible for that for which the student stands.  And it is self-evident that with the ownership comes authority.

“… The creative gesture of teaching consists in the opening up of one’s existence.  It consists not in the mechanical passing on of information, but in letting the student share in the great spiritual treasures stored up in the depths and recesses of the teacher’s personality.  One cannot teach unless one tears down all the barriers separating individuals from each other, unless one is ready to establish an existential community where there is an exchange of ideas, a continuous flow of thought, a confluence of experiences, one rhythm of heartbeats, compassion and affection.

“In the master-disciple relationship, malkhut finds its realization. No wonder Hazal spoke of rabbis as melakhim (Gittin 62a).  The rabbis were kings, but they were not wealthy.  We know of the poverty in which our scholars found themselves.  They were melakhim because G-d delegated them authority – authority which not even kings possessed.  To be a disciple means to participate in the existential experience of the master.  To be a teacher means to open up the recesses of one’s own existence. 

“The glorious tradition of the dynasty of the House of David, which is supposed to find its culmination in the King Messiah, rests upon the king-teacher doctrine… The Messiah is the great, wondrous teacher-prophet, who will instruct and enlighten, and by doing so he will redeem the world” (Vision and Leadership, p.158-159).

Rav Nosson Tzvi (Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt’l, Rosh Yeshiva Yeshiva Mir Yerushalayim, 1943-2011) considered himself forever indebted to his rebbe from his youth, Rav Yehoshua Levinson.  “A particularly poignant moment of Rav Nosson Tzvi’s life took place at Rav Levinson’s levaya, which was a year and a half before Rav Nosson Tzvi was niftar.  By that point, Rav Nosson Tzvi was very weak most of the time.  The levaya was to take place close to Shabbos, and out of courtesy, Rav Nosson Tzvi was informed of the levaya.  To everyone’s surprise, not only did Rav Nosson Tzvi join the levaya, but he ran after the mittah and tried to grab onto it, crying bitterly, ‘Rebbi, rebbi, all that I have is yours!’” (Rav Nosson Tzvi, Artscroll, p.170-171).  

As we journey, once again, through the Three Weeks of churban and galus (destruction and exile), let us hope and pray for the ultimate redemption, and the fulfillment of the prophecy of the End of Days, when וְהָיוּ עֵינֶיךָ רֹאוֹת אֶתמוֹרֶיךָ (Yeshayahu 30:2), with the mesorah from teacher to student having carried us through each generation, we will merit that our eyes will see our One Teacher, Who will be revealed with clarity and grandeur before our nation and the entire world.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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