Parshat Tetzaveh

Sermon Saturday Morning


1. Shabbat Shalom

2. When studying Torah, one of the first lessons we learn is that everything in the Torah is important. What is written is important. What is missing from the text is important. Every word and every letter is important. The Talmud teaches us that the sages were able to derive all manner of laws from every little nuance in the written text of the Torah. In fact, we learn that the great Rabbi Akiva was so adept at this style of learning that he could infer great heaps of laws from the decorative crowns that adorned the letters.

3. We have a textual anomaly at the very beginning of this week’s Parsha. God commands Aaron to bring pure olive oil to the Mishkan in order to have a light continually burning in the Menorah. The problem is that the text uses two different words to convey the same thought. “L’meir L’ha-alot” To kindle and to light – Why is the same command used in two different ways?

4. Sampson Raphael Hirsch, in his extensive Torah Commentary, makes note of the double wording in the text and he makes this comment: “This term for kindling lights (L’ha-alot) is used only in connection with the care of the Menorah. It precisely describes the task of the keepers of the flame; i.e. to hold the kindling flame against the wick to be kindled until the wick ‘continues burning on its own.’ The task of the Torah teacher is to render his services unnecessary. His task is not to keep the ‘laity’ forever dependent upon him. This is meant as an admonition to both teachers and students that they should be patient and persevering.”

5. Writing almost 200 years ago, I think Hirsch is on to something here. One of the great issues in education is all about the role of the educator. There is a midrash about a pagan who came to the great sage Hillel and asked him to convert him to Judaism on the condition that Hillel only teach the Written Law to the student and not the Oral Law. The man only wanted to learn Torah and not Mishna or Midrash Halacha. Hillel accepted the condition and the next day the man came for a lesson. The first lesson was learning Hebrew so Hillel taught him “Aleph, Bet, Gimmel…” The next day, the second lesson, was “Gimmel, Bet, Aleph” “You taught it to me differently yesterday,” complained the student. Hillel replied, “Just as you must depend on me to teach you the letters, you must also depend on me to teach you Torah through the Oral Law.”

6. One way of looking at education is to find a teacher who can enlighten us as to what Torah is all about. Whenever we have questions, we go to our teacher and we learn the answer to the mysteries at hand. Teachers are very powerful people. We learn to see the world through the eyes of our teacher and we come to appreciate how our teacher combines knowledge and logic to find the answers, not only to the great questions of the past, but to questions that are new and difficult to understand. Such a teacher can make us feel at home in the world, safe with the knowledge that every problem does indeed have a solution and every question has an answer. If we don’t know what to do, we can always rely on our teacher to set us on the right path.

7. I understand the reason why people would want to have all the answers; it really makes living much easier. To know that every problem has a simple solution makes all of our problems disappear. If I don’t know the answer I need, I can go to my teacher and the teacher will tell me what I need to know to solve the challenges I face. But as one philosopher notes, “Every problem has a simple solution; that is usually wrong.” Aristotle, the great Greek teacher taught that if you were to drop a stone and a feather, the stone would fall faster than the feather. Heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. Over a thousand years later, Galileo, the Italian scientist, decided to finally test the teachings of Aristotle. He took iron balls of different weights and had them dropped from the tower in Pisa. The heavier balls should have landed first, but every time he tested the theory, they landed together in one thump. Galileo had no choice but to say that Aristotle was wrong, and no matter what the weight of an object, gravity pulls on them with the same force.

8. Hundreds of years later an Apollo astronaut, standing on the moon, a planet with no atmosphere to disrupt the fall of a feather, dropped a hammer and a feather and both landed at the same time. Aristotle’s answer was not the right answer. It took a greater understanding of gravity, to finally see where Aristotle had gone wrong.

9. Hillel is not the only kind of teacher in Judaism. There is, in our faith, another model for educators. The philosopher, Martin Buber tells a story of a man who came to the Kotzker Rebbe with a problem. “I keep brooding and brooding and I am unable to stop!” “What do you brood about? Asked the Rabbi. “I keep brooding about whether there really is a judgment and a judge.” “Does it matter to you?” asked the Rabbi. “Rabbi! If there is no judgment and no judge, then what does all of creation mean?” “Does that matter to you?” asked the Rabbi. “Rabbi! If there is no judgment and no judge, then what do the words of the Torah mean?” “Does that matter to you?” asked the Rabbi. “Rabbi! Does it matter to me? What do you think? What else could matter to me?” “Well, if it matters to you so greatly,” said the Kotzker Rebbe, “then you are a good Jew after all. And it is quite all right for a good Jew to brood; nothing can go wrong with him.”

10. The Kotzker Rebbe was a very different kind of an educator. He was not interested in teaching facts to his student. He was all about asking questions. He did not instruct the man, he guided the man to understand his questions better and to see his concern not as a problem at all, but as an opportunity to really live his life as a good Jew. Through his constant questioning of the student, the student was able to step away from his brooding long enough to see that it was not taking him in the wrong direction in life, rather his brooding was the logical result of one who has learned many facts but is now struggling with the very essence of life. The learning, says the Kotzker Rebbe, is not in the facts and not in the answers, but the learning is found in the struggle to understand.

11. Just as there are different kinds of teachers, there are also different kinds of learners. When a student who wants to know the answers to questions, looks for a teacher, the student is looking for someone who will give him or her all the answers. If such a student were to find a teacher who only asked questions, he or she might find that teacher very difficult to understand. In the same way a student who is looking for a mentor and guide needs a teacher who will gently guide the student to find the answers for him or her self using basic questions and principles. If that student were to have a teacher who only gives the facts the student might find that teacher and his teachings very frustrating.

12. Rabbi Hirsch teaches us with his comment on the Torah that he is a follower of the style of the Kotzker Rebbe. One needs to teach basic principles and then get out of the way, as the student finds his way through the world. In some ways, this is the more mature way of teaching students. When we are young children, the question is always “Why? Why? Why?” demanding answers from our parents and teachers. Later, as we grow, we try to use our knowledge to understand more difficult problems, testing our understanding with experiments and with sharp discussions with those who disagree. As we mature, the answers are less important than the way we arrive at our answers. It is not enough to learn one haftara, we want to learn the Trop, the ancient musical markings so we will be able to read, on our own, any haftara.

13. One of the effects of internet and cable television is that there is more information available to us than ever before. Every minute there is another talking head telling us some facts about something he thinks is important. Since news is always on, the newscasters must always have something to say, there must be a constant flow of facts to match the images and the news as it unfolds all over the world. For some people this constant flow of information is wonderful. These people live for facts and they collect them as one would collect stamps or coins. But what can they do with their facts? They need the advisers, the experts and the pundits to tell them what all the facts mean. They rely on their teacher to show them what they should do.

14. But others are not seeking facts, they are seeking light. They don’t want anyone to tell them how to think or what to think; they want to hear and form their own opinions. They do not rely on one line of thinking or another, but take what they know and weave their own outlook on the world. It is true, that from time to time they find that they have drawn wrong conclusions, but they are less interested in the conclusions than they are in the process of how they can decide between differing possibilities.

15. What makes this approach interesting is that each person who is added to the discussion is like another candle lit up against the darkness. All it takes is one candle to push back the darkness, but if one candle lights other candles, the light of the first one is not diminished; in fact, as more and more candles are added to the room, the light only increases and the darkness is pushed back to the farthest corners of the room. So it is with learning. The more a teacher helps a student understand difficult concepts, the more light is added to the discussion and the darkness of ignorance is pushed farther and farther back. Even if the student is far from his teacher, the light of learning never really abandons him to the dark. Like the Menorah in the Temple, the light of wisdom burns eternally.

16. Rabbi Hirsch has given us great insight into the workings of a good teacher. Light the lamp of learning in your students and then get out of the way. Let them grow and find their own answers to life’s most difficult problems. The meaning of life is not found in the answers, but in the way we search for our answers. As we share our light, we spread more light throughout the world.

May God give us the learning we will need to find our way in the world. And the proper teachers, who may not give us the answers we seek, but who will challenge us by asking, “Why do you want to know?”

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s