“Giving Our Disciples A Firm Grounding”
(Revised and updated from B’ha’a’lot’cha 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha, G-d speaks to Moses and says to him (Numbers 8:2): דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו, בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ אֶת הַנֵּרֹת, אֶל מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה יָאִירוּ שִׁבְעַת הַנֵּרוֹת , Speak to Aaron and say unto him: When you kindle {literally, “when you raise up,”) the lamps of the Menorah in the Temple, make certain that the lights of the candelabra face toward the central lamp.

Many commentators ask why the Torah specifically employs the word בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ“b’ha’a’lot’cha,” when you “raise up” the candles, rather than the more conventional word, בְּהַדְלָקָתְךָ“b’had’lakatcha,” when you “light” or kindle the candles. Rashi, cites the Midrash, the legendary interpretation, indicating that the use of the term to “raise up” implies 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, from Shabbat 21a, cited by Rashi, emphasizes that the word “b’ha’a’lot’cha” indicates that the priest was to ignite the new candle until the flame of the new candle rises on its own.

The metaphor of kindling the light is often used in Judaism to represent Jewish education. In Numbers 11:17, when Moses empowers the 70 elders of Israel to serve as leaders, the rabbis again employ the metaphor. Rashi, citing the Midrash, asks: To what can Moses be compared at that moment? Answer: 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 in the Menorah until it remained lit on its own, serves as a rich source of insights about Judaism’s views and attitudes regarding educators and education.

In the many decades that I’ve been working with Jews with little or no Jewish educational background, and seeking to help them to become more literate and knowledgeable in Judaism, the metaphor of the candle has served me well. Furthermore, the traditional Jewish principles that we utilize in our engagement efforts also apply to the mainstream Jewish education of the already committed community and to much of general education, as well.

Over the years, I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that “reaching out,” is easy. What is most difficult is the “follow-up.” It may, in fact, be immoral to reach out to those with little or no background without a strategy for follow-up. Students who are excited by the 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 solid, one-on-one, counseling and study, the effects of even the most effective and impressive engagement programs are often 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 basic principle for all follow-up, is that an engagement “professional” or teacher must be concerned with the entire person, and not just a particular aspect or objective. Those involved in Jewish engagement must never look at a person as simply another “neshama to chap”–-another soul to capture, in order to put another notch on their engagement belt. Secular teachers, as well, should not consider it their mission to produce another literary or scientific prodigy, but should rather aim to produce a mensch-–a thoughtful and moral human being. One way to judge whether the engagement/educational effort is properly focused, is to see whether the mentor is prepared to follow-up with those students who fail to make a religious commitment.

Although this may sound incongruous, the primary objective of engagement efforts should not necessarily be to ensure the religious commitment of unaffiliated Jews. Allow me to explain. I have often stated that for those involved in Jewish engagement, there is no such thing as losing or defeat. Even those students and participants who fail to make religious commitments, have, hopefully, had their lives enriched. The positive, joyous Jewish experiences and the meaningful educational opportunities that they have shared, will last a lifetime. It’s important to acknowledge that many who go through the “Teshuva process” are unable to, ultimately, make the commitment to practice Jewish rituals. Nevertheless, they leave with positive feelings, and, who knows, perhaps because of those good feelings will send their children to Jewish schools where the children may develop a greater commitment to rituals and mitzvoth, in turn, influencing the parents. The fact that after their positive experiences they identify Jewishly and remain within the community, even if only on the periphery, means that there will be other opportunities to successfully engage them.

Sensitive teachers are well aware that education is always 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 person is G-d’s gift to everyone. There must be “chemistry” between student and teacher. Some students prefer a more cerebral intellectual approach, while others respond to dynamic experiences. Teachers need to be able to detect when there is a lack of symbiosis between student and teacher, and be prepared to direct non-responsive students to other teachers who might connect more effectively with those students.

I have often felt that Western education is really off target, because teachers are not held sufficiently responsible and accountable for students’ lack of success. 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 candle lighting imagery, is that, once the candles–the students, are “lit,” they must be able to ultimately 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 and mentors, 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 and experiences. Students must be given the opportunity to study with a variety of teachers who present divergent points of view and different approaches, rather than there being one, and only one, teacher.

Unfortunately, we today are witnessing much greater restrictiveness in the Jewish community and in Jewish pedagogical circles. Doctrinaire approaches seem to be becoming more popular. Teachers today are more likely to proclaim that only their methodology is “valid,” 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, their education will prove meaningless. Divergent approaches are frequently invalidated.

This very sad state of affairs has led to a great reduction in the effectiveness of the movement of Jewish engagement. Doctrinaire approaches almost always scare away prospective neophytes and make it more difficult to attract independent thinkers and better-educated students. Unfortunately, the so-called “committed” community is also seeing an increase in dropouts due to its “cookie cutter” approach for all students.

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

If we genuinely hope to reach the masses of unaffiliated Jews, we need dramatic changes in the educational approaches that are currently popular in our community. It is critical that we offer a greater diversity of methodologies to reach larger numbers of neophytes who respond differently to the different approaches. This, of course, applies, with at least equal merit, to mainstream Jewish education that is offered 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 more effectively nurture a world more imbued with light, specifically the light of Torah, and undoubtedly hasten the redemption of all our people, Israel.

May you be blessed.