How is a Teacher Like an Angel?
By: Rav Uri Cohen
They keep saying you can’t compare apples and oranges. I can. An apple is red and distinctly non-spherical; an orange is orange and nearly spherical. So, what’s the big problem?
– George Carlin<1>
In Parashat Mishpatim, Hashem speaks of sending a malach (angel) to lead the Jews.<2> To whom is this referring? Some commentaries say it’s literally an angel. Others think it means either Moshe or Yehoshua, a human being acting as Hashem’s malach (messenger).<3> But why would the Torah refer to a person with the word that normally means “angel”? After all, an angel is completely spiritual, while we humans combine the spiritual with the physical. Even the greatest human being cannot be an angel!
Nevertheless, any two things or beings can be compared to each other. Even apples and oranges, the classic example of items that are different from each other, still have some aspects in common; this is presumably what the comedian George Carlin meant in his observation above. So too, comparing a person to an angel is reasonable if it’s understood that the comparison is limited; it merely means that the person is like an angel in some sense. The question then is: in what meaningful way can a person be like an angel?
This question is often addressed in the course of explaining the following Gemara:
Rabbi Yochanan said: What is the meaning of that which is written (Malachi 2:7): “For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek Torah from his mouth; for he is an angel of the Lord of hosts”? The verse is teaching: If a rabbi is similar to an angel of the Lord of hosts, they should seek Torah from his mouth; but if not, they should not seek Torah from his mouth.<4>
Since the Gemara requires a Torah teacher to be like an angel, it’s pretty important for us to understand how a teacher is expected to be angelic! Let’s examine three approaches.
A ROLE MODEL
The Rambam has the most straightforward explanation:
One should not study from a teacher who does not follow a proper path, even though he is a very wise [person] and his [instruction] is required by the entire nation, until he returns to a good path, as [implied by Malachi 2:7]: “For the priest’s lips shall keep knowledge, and they shall seek Torah from his mouth, because he is a messenger from the Lord of Hosts.” Our Sages said: If a teacher resembles “a messenger of the Lord of Hosts,” seek Torah from his mouth. If he does not, do not seek Torah from his mouth.<5>
In other words, all that is expected of the teacher is proper behavior, presumably both halakhic and ethical. A role model is like an angel. More specifically, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe suggests that a teacher is considered angelic if he displays the three middot (traits) that are supposed to characterize Jews in general: modest, compassionate, and kind.<6> Other opinions are more demanding, pointing out that an angel is not subject to the yetzer hara (evil inclination),<7> and claiming that a teacher needs to emulate an angel in that way.<8> However, at most that would be a lofty ideal, not a deal-breaker as seems clear from the Gemara.
DEDICATED TO THE JOB
A second approach focuses on the double meaning of the word “malach” – angel and messenger. An angel is the perfect messenger, who views himself as a tool of his Sender<9> and doesn’t add or subtract anything from the message he’s been told to convey.<10> Devoted completely to his Sender, an angel is not interested in his own benefit.<11> So too, a teacher should consider himself a messenger of Hashem, and view teaching not as a profession but rather as a Divine mission.<12>
A variation on this approach points to the midrash that one angel cannot perform two tasks.<13> Rabbi Nisson Alpert (1927-1986) elaborates on this (as reported by his son-in-law, Rabbi Dovid Weinberger):
[H]umans can multitask, not angels. My father-in-law explained that this isn’t a limitation in malachim; it’s a sign of greatness. They have a shlichus, a mission, and to do anything besides that would take away from the perfection of that assignment. They are completely and wholly dedicated to their assignment, and this precludes them from focusing elsewhere. . . . [A teacher] must be like a malach in that they are completely dedicated to their shlichus, without a thought for anything else.<14>
In other words, the way in which a teacher is like an angel is by being dedicated to the mission of teaching.
DEDICATED TO THE STUDENTS
A third comparison of a teacher to an angel is based on the idea that an angel stands straight and unmoving. (This is the idea behind the custom to keep our feet together during Kedushah.<15>) What is the equivalent in a human being? Rabbi Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz suggests that it means staying in place spiritually. That is, a dedicated teacher helps his students progress, even though doing so may well prevent his own progress.<16> This is a theme of Mr. Holland’s Opus, a 1995 film that starred Richard Dreyfuss as a music teacher who is so dedicated to his students that the composition of his own symphony keeps getting pushed off.
Rabbi Ezra Attieh (1887-1970) elaborates on this intriguing idea:
Angels are called omdim, “stationary beings,” as is written (Zekhariah 3:7), “And I will give you strides among those who stand there.” Angels remain forever at the same spiritual level, whereas tzaddikim are called “walkers” or progressors, as it is written (Mishlei 20:7), “The just [person] walks in his integrity.” A righteous [person] is always moving forward, growing spiritually, never resting on his laurels and achievements. When a person seeks a mentor, a rav who can teach him Torah, he should investigate if that person is seeking the good of his student and not of himself. Does he stop to explain an issue patiently until the student grasps the difficulty? Does he invest effort in the student’s progress even at the expense of his own growth, when he could have used the same time and effort to reach higher spiritual levels? If so, that teacher does indeed resemble an angel, because he has chosen to remain stationary for the sake of his student’s upward progress.<17>
In other words, a teacher’s dedication to his students may well result in a type of self-sacrifice. Not only is this not a tragedy, but it is one more meaningful way in which a teacher can be like an angel.
1. George Carlin (1937-2008), Brain Droppings (New York: Hyperion, 1997), p. 201.
2. Shemot 23:20f. Cf. Shemot 33:2 and Bamidbar 20:16.
3. Those who interpret “angel” to be a human being include Bekhor Shor, Chizkuni, and Ralbag on Shemot 23:20; Rashi on Bamidbar 20:16; Rambam in Moreh Nevukhim 2:34. See Rabbi David Horwitz, “Parashat Mishpatim: The Mysterious ‘Angel of God,’” Jan 19, 2009. http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/730759/
4. Chagigah 15b (and compare Moed Katan 17a). The translation is slightly modified from Sefaria: https://www.sefaria.org/Chagigah.15b?lang=bi
5. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Sefer Madda, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 4:1. The translation is from Rabbi Eliyahu Touger: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/910977/jewish/Talmud-Torah-Chapter-Four.htm
6. In Hebrew, the three are “rachmanim, bayshanim, gomlei chassadim” (Yevamot 79a). Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) presented this idea in a talk on Purim 5747 (March 15, 1987). Excerpts appear in a short online video entitled “The Lubavitcher Rebbe On How to Choose a Mentor.” (Thanks to Rabbi Johnny Solomon for the reference.) The relevant part begins at https://youtu.be/JVFXZK6LDb8?t=113
7. Bereishit Rabba 48:11 (cited by Rashi on Bereishit 18:5) and Vayikra Rabba 26:5.
8. Rabbi Yehudah Leib Eidel (1757-1828), Iyei HaYam, Vol. 1, Chagigah 15b, s.v. “ve-Rabbi Meir” (the bottom left of p. 74a). A similar formulation appears in Geon Yaakov (an anonymous commentary on Ein Yaakov), Chagigah 15b (p. 37a).
9. Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik (1917-2001), “The Need for Mutuality in the Rebbe-Talmid Relationship,” Hamevaser, Adar Rishon 5749/February 1989, p. 8. (Reprinted from Hamevaser, 5724.)
10. Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson (1808-1875), Divrei Shaul: Chiddushei Aggadot, Chagigah 15b (the top right of p. 40b). Rabbi Johnny Solomon elaborates in an article entitled “Reflections on Teachers as Angels (A Message to Torah Teachers),” which he posted to Facebook on September 4, 2016: “[J]ust as an angel is unable to change the message that they are sent to communicate, so too an effective Torah teacher should neither add ideas to the Torah that are not found in Tanach or Chazal, nor ignore key ideas relating to the Torah that they teach. In my opinion this is a crucial perspective on what we do and it clearly serves as a reminder to prepare our classes with care. Sadly, far too often I hear stories of post Yeshiva or Seminary students who were mistaught or misinformed about key ideas, and this can have negative consequences later on in life. If we are careful to teach the Torah as it is, then – at least according to Rabbi Nathanson – we fulfil the criteria of resembling an angel of the Lord of Hosts.”
11. Rabbi Shmuel Dvir (head of the Tel Aviv beit din), as cited by his student Rabbi Moshe Tzuriel, Leket Perushei Aggadah, Vol. 2, p. 449 (on Moed Katan 17a) and p. 521 (on Chagigah 15b).
12. Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind (Genesis Jerusalem Press, 1991), pp. 7-8. Rav Ahron even used the term “missionary”; see Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer, “Reb Ahron’s Hesped in Chicago,” Mail-Jewish Email List, Vol. 7 #40, May 16, 1993, s.v. “The Gemara states.” This was published online along with eulogies for Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Rav Ahron’s brother), which are still available at http://www.shamash.org/mail-jewish/rav/rav_hespedim.txt
13. Three angels were needed to visit Avraham at the beginning of Parashat Vayera, because there were three tasks to perform (Bereishit Rabba 50:2, and cited by Rashi on Bereishit 18:2).
14. Rabbi Weinberger said this in an interview by Yisroel Besser, “The Rav’s Responsibilities Redefined,” Mishpacha [English edition], Issue 282 (17 Cheshvan 5770/November 4, 2009), p. 45. The idea also appears in Rabbi Alpert’s book, Limudei Nissan, Vol. 1 (New York, 1991), Bereishit 18:2, s.v. “shloshah anashim” (p. 154).
15. Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 95:2, based on Terumat HaDeshen #28.
16. Rabbi Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz (1731-1805), Panim Yafot, Shemot 33:20, s.v. “veyesh lehavin.” A variation of this idea is presented by Rabbi Horowitz’s famous student, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (“the Chatam Sofer”). Avraham did so much kiruv (outreach) that he chose to sacrifice his own spiritual growth in order to focus on the spiritual growth of others. The Chatam Sofer develops the idea in “Pituchei Chotam,” the introduction (by his son) to Teshuvot Chatam Sofer, Yoreh De’ah. An abridged version appears here: http://www.kiruv.com/articles/74/chasam-sofer-on-responsibility/
17. Rabbi Yehuda Attieh, Leader of the Generation: The Exalted Life and Times of Maran Rosh Yeshivat Porat Yosef, the Great Gaon Rabbi Ezra Attieh Zt”l (2012), pp. 378-379. (Thanks to Rabbi Johnny Solomon for the reference and for sending me the relevant pages.)
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