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Torah Attitude: Parashas Balak: "Making one's teacher wise"
The next thing the Mishnah mentions, that one needs to acquire Torah, is "making one's teacher wise". The student should refrain from asking his questions so as not to embarrass the teacher. "Making wise" means that the student must always hold his teacher in high esteem and appreciate his wisdom. A student can only succeed if he has proper respect for his teacher. "How silly are those people who stand up for a Torah scroll but do not stand up for a Torah scholar." Accomplished Torah scholars were totally subservient and accorded outmost respect to the Torah leaders of their time. A person cannot fully appreciate the greatness and wisdom of his teacher until after fourty years. "You shall respect your teacher as you respect [G'd in] Heaven." The Chofetz Chaim told a parable about a great doctor who had discovered a special cure for a debilitating children's disease. Only when we afford proper respect to our rabbis and teachers can we acquire Torah knowledge and values for ourselves and pass them on to future generations.
"Making one's teacher wise"
The next thing the Mishnah mentions, that one needs to acquire Torah, is "making one's teacher wise". The Midrash Shmuel explains this in two ways. He first explains that when a student consistently asks good questions in class, he brings about that the teacher must be well prepared, and sometimes he will even need to investigate further to find an answer. In this way, the student is instrumental in broadening the teacher's knowledge and literally "makes him wise". This corresponds with the words of the Talmud (Taanis 7a) that Rabbi Chanina said that he learned more from his students than his teachers and colleagues. This in turn enables the student to acquire more Torah from his teacher.
Not embarrass teacher
However, sometimes the inquisitive student will find that his teacher is not capable of answering his questions. In such a case, says the Talmud (Chulin 6a) the student should refrain from asking his questions so as not to embarrass the teacher. This may not be satisfying for a student who thirsts for knowledge and wants to understand the details and get to the root of the subject being studied. In such a case, says the Talmud, there is no other option than to look for another teacher.
Always hold teacher in high esteem
Obviously, there can be other issues that disqualify a teacher. But often when the student is not satisfied, the problem is not that the teacher does not know how to answer his questions, or is otherwise not qualified. Rather, the student does not realize the worth of his teacher and appreciate his wisdom. The solution to this problem is the second way the Midrash Shmuel explains how "to make one's teacher wise". He says that "making wise" also includes that the student must always hold his teacher in high esteem and appreciate his wisdom.
Only succeed with proper respect
This applies to any age group. For young students it very much depends on the parents' attitude. Rabbi Avraham Pam, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodas, was an educator par excellence. He once gave a special lecture to a group of rabbis and teachers. Rabbi Pam stressed that a student can only succeed if he has proper respect for his teacher. He pointed out that if a child hears a parent make even one negative comment about his teacher it will detract from the child's ability to learn anything from this teacher. If the child complains about a teacher, the parent should listen without giving an immediate opinion about who is right or wrong. Afterwards, when the child is out of hearing, the parent should investigate and find out what happened and deal with the problem accordingly. No matter what he tells his parent, said Rabbi Pam, the parent must not let the child speak negatively about his teacher. For example, the parent can say "tell me what happened but do not tell whether it was fair or not." By an advanced student that already has studied for a while, it can happen that he feels that he is somewhat equal to his teacher. With this approach, he obviously lacks the proper respect for his teacher. And in such a situation, the student himself causes that he will not be able to learn from his teacher.
Respect and appreciate brilliance
The Talmud (Makkos 22b) states: "How silly are those people who stand up for a Torah scroll but do not stand up for a Torah scholar." Sometimes this lack of respect is due to the distance between the layman and the scholar. But it is not an excuse. This is comparable to a simple worker who, with his limited education, cannot appreciate the brilliance of a great scientist like Albert Einstein. However, he nevertheless can respect Einstein for his intellectual prowess although it is totally beyond the worker's comprehension. In the same way, the layman may not be capable to understand the lectures of a brilliant Torah scholar. But he can still appreciate his greatness and respect him accordingly.
When someone has studied science himself, he ought not only to respect the accomplished scientist but to appreciate his brilliance as well. The same applies in regards to Torah wisdom. The more Torah one has studied, the more he should respect and appreciate the Torah scholars. In general, we find that accomplished Torah scholars accord outmost respect to the Torah leaders of their time. The famous Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk had a disciple, Rabbi Baruch Ber Levowitz, who himself headed a yeshiva in Kamenitz. Reb Baruch Ber was in tremendous awe of his great master. The story is told how he was once travelling by train. When the train reached Brisk he got up out of respect since this was the town of his master. Similarly, Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, the Rosh Yeshiva of Baranovich Yeshiva, held his master the Chofetz Chaim in the highest esteem, and appreciated him more than anyone else. But it takes both time and a high level of integrity to reach this level of appreciation. These great Torah scholars understood and appreciated the level of their teachers and were therefore totally subservient to them.
Fourty years to appreciate teacher
In his last speech to the Jewish people, Moses said to them (Devarim 29:1-3): "You have seen everything that G'd did before your eyes … those great signs and wonders … but G'd did not give you the heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, till this day." Rashi quotes the Talmud (Avodah Zara 5b) that points out how Moses said this after leading the Jewish people through the wilderness for fourty years. This teaches us, says the Talmud, that a person will not fully appreciate the worth and wisdom of his teacher until after fourty years. Till then the student must realize that he is lacking the ability to fully appreciate the greatness of his teacher.
This corresponds to what it says earlier in Pirkei Avos (4:15): "You shall respect your teacher as you respect [G'd in] Heaven." We have no way to fully understand the ways of G'd, as it says (Isaiah 55:8): "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways, says G'd." To some extent, this also applies to our Torah scholars whose wisdom is based on the word of G'd. Even when their decisions do not make any sense to the layman, our respect for them obligates us to follow their directives. This especially applies to the great Torah leaders of the generation, but also to some degree to regular Torah scholars.
Chofetz Chaim parable
If we do not show proper respect to Torah scholars, we undermine their authority. We do not always see the irreparable harm we thus bring about and sometimes it may take several years before we experience the dire consequences of our own lack of respect. Rabbi Pesach Krohn (Along the Maggid's Journey, p.41) brings a story about a distraught father who once came to Rabbi Zalman Plitnick, the Rabbi of Liverpool England, and implored him to speak to his daughter who was about to intermarry. The Rabbi spent a considerable amount of time with the young woman, but to no avail. The father was very disappointed with the rabbi, as he had hoped that he would have some influence on his daughter. The Rabbi said to him, "Let me tell you something that I once heard personally from the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim told a parable about a great doctor who had discovered a special cure for a debilitating children's disease. The doctor often travelled to cities and villages to dispense the medicine as only he knew the right blend of ingredients to make it effective. Once as he was travelling he was assaulted by three robbers who took all his belongings and ran away. A little while later the robbers came to a bridge and started looking through the various bags that they had stolen. As they found no money or valuables in the bags, they threw everything into the raging river below, to get rid of the evidence of their robbery. In the meantime, the doctor continued on his travels and the next morning went to the clinic where he knew people would be waiting for him. He felt terrible, as he had no medicine, and had no way to help them. At the head of the line waiting to see him, was a man with his son. 'I need your help doctor', the man called out frantically. 'My son is very sick and only you can help him.' The doctor recognized the father as one of the robbers and said to him, 'I regret that I cannot help you. But tell me, don't you recognize me? You yourself robbed me last night. Where are all my bags that you took from me?' The father was totally shaken up, as he said, 'I threw it all into the river.' Sadly the doctor said to the distraught father, 'You had the remedy in your hand and you threw it away. Now there is nothing that I can do for your son.' When the Chofetz Chaim finished telling this parable he added, 'People want the rabbis to provide the answers and counsel for their children when they need them. However, these same people often come home from shul on Shabbos and criticize everything the rabbi said in his sermon. They ridicule the values the rabbi tries to teach, and thus make the rabbi powerless when they need his help for their problems.'" The poor father had nothing to say. He knew very well how critical he had always been of Rabbi Plitnick, and he had only himself to blame for the rabbi's failure to influence his daughter.
Proper respect for rabbis
It all depends on us. Only when we afford proper respect to our rabbis and teachers can we acquire Torah knowledge and values for ourselves and pass them on to future generations. Thus we will be a link in the eternal transmission of Torah.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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