“Giving Our Disciples A Firm Grounding”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Beha’alotecha, G-d speaks to Moshe and says to him (Numbers 8:2): “Daber el Aharon v’amarta aylav,” Speak to Aaron and say unto him: “Beha’alotecha et ha’nayrot, el mul p’nei ha’menorah ya’eeru shiv’at ha’nayrot,” When you “raise up,” when you kindle, the lamps of the menorah in the Temple, make certain that the lights of the candelabra face towards the central lamp.

Many commentators ask why the Torah employs the word “beha’alotecha,” when you raise up the candles, rather than the more conventional word, “b’had’lakatcha,” when you light or kindle the candles. Rashi, the foremost biblical commentator, cites the Midrash, the legendary interpretation, indicating that the use of the term to “raise up” teaches that there was a step in front of the Menorah, upon which the Kohen, the priest, would stand to set the candles in order. However, an earlier Talmudic interpretation cited by Rashi  (Shabbat 21a) emphasizes that the word beha’alotcha indicates that the priest was to ignite the new candle until the flame of the new candle rises up on its own.

The metaphor of kindling the light is often used in Judaism to represent Torah education. In Numbers 11, when Moshe empowers the 70 elders of Israel to serve as leaders, the rabbis again employ the metaphor. The rabbis ask: To what can Moshe be compared at that moment? To a lit candle in a candlestick that was used to light other candles, but the candle itself was not diminished.

The particular Talmudic statement quoted by Rashi, indicating that the priest had to ignite the candle until it remained lit on its own, can serve as a rich font of information for those seeking insights about Judaism’s views and attitudes towards educators and education.

In the decades that I’ve been working with Jews with little or no background, and attempting to educate them to be more literate and knowledgeable in Judaism, the metaphor of the candle has served me well. Furthermore, the principles that I utilize in my outreach efforts, which I have gleaned from Jewish tradition, apply to much of general education and to mainstream Jewish education among the already committed community as well.

Some examples: Over the years I have learned that reaching out is easy. What is most difficult is the follow-up. Without a strategy for follow-up, I have often felt it immoral to reach out to those with little or no background. Students who are excited by dramatic and persuasive presentations on Torah and Jewish life need to be gently guided and helped to understand the often radical implications of this new knowledge. If the “epiphany” of Jewish discovery is not followed-up with some solid one-on-one counseling and study, the effects are mostly ephemeral. After such letdowns, it is not uncommon for students to feel lost and betrayed, and attempts to win them back for a second chance are slim.

Related to the need for follow-up, and perhaps the basis for follow-up, is the vital principle that the outreach professional or teacher must be concerned with the entire person and not just a particular aspect or objective. Jewish outreach workers should never look at a person as just another neshama to chop–-another soul to capture–in order to put another notch on their outreach belt. Secular teachers as well should not consider it their mission to produce another literary or scientific prodigy, but rather aim to produce a mensch-–a thoughtful and moral human being. One way to judge whether the outreach professional is properly focused is to see whether the outreach worker is still concerned with a student who fails to make a religious commitment.

Although this may sound incongruous, the primary objective of a professional outreach worker should not necessarily be to assure the religious commitment of unaffiliated Jews. Allow me to explain. I have often stated that there is no such thing as losing in outreach. Even those students and participants who fail to make religious commitments have hopefully been enriched. The positive, joyous Jewish experiences and the meaningful educational opportunities that they have shared will last a lifetime. It’s important to understand that, even though many who go through the outreach “process” do not make ritual commitments, they nevertheless leave with positive feelings, and, who knows, perhaps their children will go to Jewish schools and develop greater commitment to rituals and mitzvot. The fact that after their positive outreach experiences they identify Jewishly and remain within the community, even if only on the periphery, means that we’ll have another generation to reach them.

It’s important for teachers to realize that education is a process. There is no such thing as instant conversions. The quicker the conversion in, the faster the conversion out! Teachers must realize that no one is G-d’s answer to everyone. There has to be chemistry between student and teacher. Some students prefer a more cerebral intellectual approach, while others seek a more experiential approach. Teachers need to be sensitive to a lack of symbiosis between students and teachers, and they need to be prepared to direct non-responsive students to other teachers who might connect more effectively with particular personalities.

I have often felt that Western education is really off target because teachers are not held sufficiently responsible and accountable. In our parasha, the description of the candle standing on its own underscores the fact that Jewish tradition maintains that teachers have a clear responsibility to successfully transmit the information to the students. In Judaism, students don’t fail, only teachers fail!

Perhaps the most profound implication of the imagery of the candles is that, once the candles–the students–are “lit,” they must be able ultimately to stand on their own two feet. This means that a healthy Ba’al Teshuva and a healthy student is one who, although respectful of, and grateful to, their teachers, is not unduly dependent upon them. For this to be so, every Jew who seeks to connect to Judaism must be afforded multiple religious exposures. Rather than there being one, and only one, teacher, students should be given the opportunity to study with a variety of teachers who represent multiple points of view and different approaches.

Unfortunately, we today are witnessing far more restrictiveness in the Jewish community and in Jewish education. Doctrinaire approaches seem to be gaining sway. Teachers today are more likely to proclaim that only their methodology is “truth,” and that unless the student strictly adheres to that particular approach to Judaism, be it left or right, chassidic or mitnagdish, Kabbalistic or mainstream, emotional or experiential, the education will prove meaningless. Other approaches are invalidated. This very sad state of affairs has led to a great reduction in the efficacy of the Jewish outreach movement. Doctrinaire approaches scare away prospective neophytes and make it more difficult to attract more independent types and better-educated people. The “so-called” committed community is also seeing an increase in dropouts due to its “cookie cutter” approach to all students.

While Judaism’s greatest leader, Moshe, is known in our traditions as Moshe Rabbeinu–our teacher and our master–Moshe still had seventy elders assisting him in leadership. In addition to Moshe, Aaron and his sons, and Joshua as well, served as teachers, so that the people of Israel received multiple religious exposures, leading to a more healthy and balanced religious education.

If we genuinely hope to reach the masses of unaffiliated Jews, we need dramatic changes in the educational approaches that are employed by our community. It is critical that we offer a greater diversity of methodologies to reach larger numbers who respond differently to the different approaches. This of course applies with at least equal importance to mainstream Jewish education as to the already committed community.

If we remember well the message of the lighting of the menorah–-the need for each candle to stand on its own–we will better foster a world more imbued with light, specifically the light of Torah, and soon behold the redemption of our people, Israel.

May you be blessed.