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Parashat Beha’alotecha- Teaching and Growing

We read in Parashat Beha’alotecha of a conversation between Moshe Rabbenu and his father-in-law, Yitro (who is called here by one of his other names, Hobab), before Beneh Yisrael’s journey from Mount Sinai. Moshe asked Yitro to join the nation along their trip to the Land of Israel, but Yitro declined, replying, "I shall not go; rather, I shall go to my land and my birthplace" (10:30). Moshe then insisted, "Do not leave us, for you know our encampments in the desert, and you can serve as our guide. And when you come with us, that goodness which G-d will bestow upon us – we will bestow upon you."

Why did Yitro not want to join Beneh Yisrael? And what exactly was Moshe’s response?

To explain this conversation, let us examine a verse in the Haftara for this Parasha – a prophecy from the Book of Zecharya (2-3). The prophet Zecharya is shown a vision of the Kohen Gadol at that time – Yehoshua – standing before an angel. The angel assured Yehoshua, in G-d’s Name, that if he obeys G-d’s commands, then "Ve’natati Lecha Mahlchim Ben Ha’omedim Ha’eleh" – "I shall allow you to walk among these who stand" (3:7). This means that he would be granted the privilege of being in the company of the angels.

The Rabbis found it very significant that the prophet here refers to Yehoshua as "walking" ("Mahlchim") while the angels are described as "standing" ("Omedim"). Human beings have the unique ability to "walk" – to progress and advance. This is in contrast to angels, who remain the same throughout the time they exist. They remain the beings that they are, without ever changing. We human beings, however, are able to grow and change, to become better.

The Sages teach in the Gemara that one should learn only from a Rabbi who "resembles an angel." This has been understood to mean that a worthy teacher is one who is willing to compromise his own personal growth for the sake of teaching. A Rabbi is expected to be an "angel" in the sense of putting his own growth on hold in order to spend time working with students who know far less than he does, and who are on a far lower spiritual level than he is. He must, to a degree, resemble an "angel," which "stands" in place and cannot grow, because otherwise he will not be able to put in the time and effort to help his students realize their potential.

However, while a Rabbi must be willing to resemble an "angel" in this fashion, in truth, he will never end up actually sacrificing his own growth for the sake of teaching – for two reasons.

First, a Rabbi has the ability to motivate and inspire even without actually teaching. His very presence, and the example he sets, has a profound impact on his surroundings. And so in a way, a Rabbi has the ability to "teach" without actually teaching, and thus he does not need to compromise his own religious and intellectual growth.

But additionally, students help a teacher grow by asking questions and expecting answers. As Rabbi Yehuda Ha’nasi said, "From my students more than them all" – he learned more from his students then he did from his teachers and his colleagues. A Rabbi must be prepared to sacrifice his own advancement for his students, but this sacrifice in truth is not necessary, because a Rabbi grows through teaching inquisitive students who are eager to learn and to understand.

Yitro told Moshe, "Lo Elech" – "I shall not go." He did not want to join Beneh Yisrael because he knew that as a convert, who had joined Beneh Yisrael after having been an idol worshipper, he would be seen as a valuable asset, as someone who could teach and inspire the people in a very unique way. Yitro feared that as a result, "Lo Elech" – he would be unable to "go" further in his own growth and progress. He therefore preferred returning to his homeland, where he was an outcast, and where nobody would expect anything of him, allowing him the freedom to devote himself fully to his personal growth.

Moshe responded that this was not true. First, "Ve’hayita Lanu La’enayim" (literally, "You will be our guide"). Yitro’s presence would be valuable simply "La’enayim" – because the people’s eyes would view him and learn from his inspiring example. He would not need to take time away from his schedule to impact the nation. And additionally, "that good which G-d will bestow upon us – we will bestow upon you." If Yitro teaches, the "goodness" of the Torah which the people experience through his instruction would be bestowed upon him, as well. As a teacher, he would grow from his students. Moshe therefore begged Yitro to join the people and serve both as an inspiring model and an influential teacher – assuring him that his own personal growth would not suffer as a result.

We do not lose when we try to teach and influence the people around us. In theory, we must be prepared to compromise our own growth for this goal, but in practice, this compromise is not necessary, because we only gain by the experience of sharing our knowledge with others.

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