If King David, who learned nothing from Achitofel except for two things alone, nevertheless referred to him as his “master,” “guide,” and “intimate,” it certainly goes without saying that one who learns from his fellow a single chapter, a law, a verse, a saying, or even a single letter of Torah, is obligated to revere him.
-Ethics Of The Fathers, 6:3
Our sages tell us, “There are three partners to the creation of man: G-d, his father, and his mother.” The capacity to procreate is, in essence, a distinctly Divine nature…The same is true regarding the “regenerative power” contained in a teaching: when G-d is a partner to their endeavor, the teacher-student relationship yields an infinite progeny.
Commentary on Ethics of Our Fathers: Chapter 6
Tammuz 11, 5771 * July 13, 2011
I’ve mentioned before that the student-teacher relationship can yield enormous benefits, assuming an honest, knowledgeable, and inspired teacher and a student willing to be open. However, as we see from the quotes above, the teacher isn’t necessarily the most important partner in the transaction, which is good, since human beings are fallible. God is always present when Torah is taught and learned, which makes the act of study not only educational but holy. The Creator is the indispensable element in the room whenever people come together to learn the Word of God.
Rabbi Chalafta the son of Dosa of the village of Chanania would say: Ten who sit together and occupy themselves with Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them, as is stated: “The Almighty stands in the community of G-d.” And from where do we know that such is also the case with five? From the verse, “He established his band on earth.” And three? From the verse, “He renders judgment in the midst of judges.” And two? From the verse, “Then the G-d-fearing conversed with one another, and G-d listened and heard.” And from where do we know that such is the case even with a single individual? From the verse, “Every place where I have My name mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you.” –Ethics of The Fathers 3:6
“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” –Matthew 18:20 (NASB)
But from who can we learn? It’s desirable to find a worthy teacher; one we can call our “Rebbe”, but there are problems with this. There are many unworthy teachers out there who are anxious to gather a following out of their own ambition, men and women who believe they have a special insight and who are entitled to share their particular “theological axe” which they desire to “grind”. From these “teachers” we learn there are those who are not to be trusted. Also, Christian tradition, unlike Judaism, doesn’t have a history of “Rebbes” or exalted teachers who pass their knowledge, wisdom, and compassion from one generation of disciples to the next. We are (often rightly) suspicious of gurus, cult leaders, and false teachers who ultimately lead people away from God. Christians even distrust the study of Torah and Talmud from valid and worthy Jewish Rabbis for fear this will lead the Christian away from Jesus.
And yet we are commanded to obey our leaders and teachers in the community of faith:
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. –Hebrews 13:17
We also see from David’s example with Achitofel that we are to honor a person who teaches us “a single chapter, a law, a verse, a saying, or even a single letter of Torah.” While we can seek to learn the teachings of an honored Rebbe such as Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory (and I’m learning much from his teachings as related by Rabbi Tzvi Freemen in the book Bringing Heaven Down to Earth), we see from the following that a good teaching can come from even a bad source:
It is possible to utilize for G-d’s service, [in a manner] according to Torah, all behavior-traits. This includes those traits that are unwholesome, and even those that are evil, as their names and descriptions indicate. For example, the tzadik Rabbi Meshulam Zushya of Anipoli, of blessed memory, learned [from his Rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch] a number of ways of serving G-d from [the ways of] a thief:
- He works quietly without others knowing.
- He is ready to place himself in danger.
- The smallest detail is of great importance to him.
- He labors with great toil
- [and] Enthusiasm.
- He is confident and optimistic.
- If he did not succeed the first time, he tries again and again.
-[From HaYom Yom by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, translated by Uri Kaploun (Kehot)].
found at Chabad.org
This shouldn’t be so surprising, since the Master, our own great Rebbe in Christianity told us this:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. –Matthew 23:1-4
Look at what Jesus is saying. He’s not telling his audience to ignore or disregard the teachings of the Pharisees. He’s saying “you must be careful to do everything they tell you”. What? Aren’t Pharisees hypocrites, liars, untrustworthy, and “under the Law”? Don’t they deny the true teachings of God and the grace of Jesus Christ? Why did Jesus tell his disciples to obey everything the Pharisees told them to do?
It’s because what the Pharisees taught was correct and consistent with the Torah, however the Pharisees of that day were corrupt and indeed, they were hypocrites who, under the Roman occupation, exalted themselves and did not “practice what they preached”, so to speak.
But what they actually taught was worthy of being learned and obeyed.
It’s also important to realize that not every single Pharisee was corrupt and no good. After all, Nicodemus was a Pharisee and he ended up becoming a disciple of Jesus. After the crucifixion of the Master, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin, approached Pilate and asked permission to bury the Master’s body before the Sabbath began (we aren’t quite clear as to whether this was the eve of Passover or the weekly Sabbath). Not all Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin were evil and corrupt, so we shouldn’t paint them all with the same broad brush.
Look at the teaching of the Rebbe about how to learn from a thief. He doesn’t say the thief is a good and worthy teacher and that we must devote our lives to learning at the feet of a criminal. He says that, by simply observing the thief, there are habits we can learn and adapt to a life of holiness. The same is true of learning from anyone, even if they are unworthy, a hypocrite, or a thief, simply by watching them and listening to them, we can learn much, as long as we continue to use our powers of discernment and to view everything through the lens of the Bible and the Spirit of God.
Remember, in any transaction between two people, one being a teacher and the other being the student, God is there as the indispensable partner in the exchange. Being a student and disciple does not mean being a mindless sponge with no will of your own. In fact, your will, your judgment, and your questioning nature is as necessary to being a student as your attention, openness, and eagerness to learn. You cannot be taught corruption if you are paying attention and you do not have to take anything at face value without asking questions. Even the Bereans didn’t take Paul at his word and checked everything he taught against scripture (Acts 17:10-12). If you feel you have been lead astray by a teacher, look to yourself when asking the question, “how did this happen?”.
I’m sure you’ve heard or read the list compiled by Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. From this, we learn that small children can teach us something. Even the Prophet Isaiah said “and a little child will lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6).
The Maggid also taught Rabbi Zushya, his disciple that we can learn three things from a child:
- Never for a moment is he idle.
- When he needs something, he demands it vigorously.
- He is merry for no particular reason.
-[From The House of Rizhin by Rabbi Menachem Brayer [Mesorah].]
The Pirkei Avot; The Ethics of the Fathers teaches us that a life of learning and performing Torah yields many rewards:
The sages expounded in the language of the Mishnah (blessed is He who chose them and their learning):
Rabbi Meir would say: Whoever studies Torah for Torah’s sake alone, merits many things; not only that, but [the creation of] the entire world is worthwhile for him alone. He is called friend, beloved, lover of G-d, lover of humanity, rejoicer of G-d, rejoicer of humanity. The Torah enclothes him with humility and awe; makes him fit to be righteous, a chassid, correct and faithful; distances him from sin and brings him close to merit. From him, people enjoy counsel and wisdom, understanding and power, as is stated, “Mine are counsel and wisdom, I am understanding, mine is power.” The Torah grants him sovereignty, dominion, and jurisprudence. The Torah’s secrets are revealed to him, and he becomes as an ever-increasing wellspring and as an unceasing river. He becomes modest, patient and forgiving of insults. The Torah uplifts him and makes him greater than all creations. –The Ethics of the Fathers 6:1
Being a student, a disciple, and a person of faith is not a passive activity. Learning isn’t something you only do sitting at someone’s feet or taking notes in a classroom. It’s not always accomplished by reading a book or by visiting inspirational websites. A disciple is always moving, always asking questions, always observing, always sharing their insights with others and asking for feedback. Most importantly, in any learning situation (which is to say, in every waking moment of our lives), we are always turning to the “silent” voice in the room, the indispensable partner in the teaching of Torah. God is with us and He sent us a counselor who will teach us all things (John 14:26). Even when reading the Bible by ourselves at night, we are never alone.
Our teachers can be anyone. Our teachers can be anywhere. We just have to be paying attention to where we are and what we’re doing.
“A brilliant mind without faith is like a beautiful face without eyes.” -Shalom Cohen