What makes a student “bright”?
This week’s sidrah opens with the daily commandment to light the Menorah in the Mikdash. Rashi (BaMidbar 8:2) explains that the name of the parshah, B’Haaloscha, describes this process as causing fire to “go up.” The kohen would hold the igniter to each cup of oil until the flame took hold and was able to rise on its own (Shabbos 21a).
Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch zt”l noted that this method is also the prescribed formula for successful Jewish education, a discipline represented by the flames of the Menorah (Bava Basra 25b). In the beginning, students and children require a lot of handholding and guidance as they begin to learn and grow. It is appropriate that teachers and parents be closely involved at this stage to ensure that the values they are imparting take hold.
However, this is not a sustainable way of life. The educator cannot be present to direct the student at all times, any more than the kohen can stand by the candelabra with a lighter all day. The initial scaffolding is necessary but must be done with an eye toward having “the flame rise on its own.” The ultimate goal cannot be for children to exhibit proper behaviors and values while residing under the guidance of their mentors. Such a structure would not prepare graduates to maintain these principles once they moved on, or – even worse – would not instill them with the confidence to move on at all.
Instead, the foundational instruction must be laced with the promotion of autonomy and sustainability. Impressionable minds must be charged with the perspective that, one day, they will be responsible to shine with their own light. They must be fueled with the expectation to think independently, while drawing on the lessons of their youth. If ignited correctly, former students can retain the close guidance of their mentors even as they grow physically distant from the source. In other words, a properly lit flame will be able to rise and burn brightly on its own.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l (quoted in Divrei HaRav, p. 105) highlighted that this is what the Men of the Great Assembly had in mind when they relayed the lesson of “Ha’amidu talmidim harbei” (Avos 1:1). This phrase is typically translated as “Establish many pupils,” though Rav Soloveitchik took note of the word “Ha’amidu,” which means to cause something else to stand up. As explained, successful education is one that encourages students to think for themselves and develop the tools to thrive independently. Embedded in this pithy teaching, then, Chazal included the secret to properly establishing disciples for generations: Train them to be able to “stand” on their own two feet. It is no wonder that this statement appears in the opening mishnah of Avos, as it contains the formula to properly transmit the rest of our mesorah that follows.
If we wish to truly “enlighten” our youth, then we must “raise” them to a self-sustaining “standing” in all traits and knowledge. Too often, we speak about raising good children. We should set our sights even higher and strive to raise good adults!