Spiritual Parenthood

Sometimes we wonder how the translators arrived at the names they designated for the books of the Bible. But our parsha, the opening one of the book of Bamidbar, makes the translators’ choice self-evident. After all, what is this parsha more than a collection of Numbers?

Why did God count the Jews in this protracted census? And why did the Torah bother to tell us about it? Rashi explains that God wanted to demonstrate to us, his children, how dear we are to him. Like a caring shepherd who counts his flock after each storm and attack, God repeatedly counted us in the wilderness to exhibit and communicate the special place that each Jew holds in His heart. Thus, the exhaustive detail that the Torah affords each census: Tribe by tribe, and family by family, the Torah shares with us the numbers breakdown to stress the singular affinity that God has for every Jew.

Amid the details of the general census, the Torah takes pause to reintroduce us to the family of Aaron, the high priest. The associate kohanim — Nadav, Avihu, Elazar and Itamar — are introduced by the following repetitive clauses: "These are the offspring of Moshe and Aaron…. These are the names of the sons of Aaron."

"Where is the mention of the sons of Moshe?" the sages of the Talmud ask. "And what does Moshe have to do with the sons of Aaron?"

The subtle implication of the text, the sages explain, is that the sons of Aaron were also the sons of Moshe, their teacher, because, "Whoever teaches his friend’s son Torah, Scripture views him as if he birthed him."

The Torah elevates the holy task of the educator to spiritual parenthood. A good teacher, a great giver who imparts wisdom to his or her disciple, plays an essential role in rearing and shaping the student and is akin to a mother or father.

The Torah imparts this notion in another place as well. Jews around the world read the "Shema" every day and night, where it says, "You shall speak them to your sons" (Deuteronomy 6:7). Here, too, the sages of the Midrash explain, "’Your sons’ — these are the students."

The Torah once again defines the relationship between teacher and student, between rabbi and congregation, in familial terms.

But why did the Torah have to demonstrate this more than one time? In Numbers it taught that the student is like one’s own child. Why restate it in Deuteronomy?

Some years ago, a teacher of mine shared an answer: the Torah recognizes two distinct dimensions of a mentor or teacher. One role of the teacher is to impart information — an intellectual achievement that continues to provide for a student long after he or she leaves the classroom. But the teacher also plays a distinct role in influencing the subtleties of personal development and spiritual growth. Every child — indeed every person — must acquire knowledge. More importantly though, that same person must acquire wisdom.

One must recognize that those two roles can be satisfied by more than one person.

When it comes to our children — and our own spiritual growth — we must stay conscious of who those mentors are. Yes, our children are learning from us and from their teachers about the rich history and culture of Jewish tradition (not to mention algebra and chemistry), but their senses of morality and life values might be the product of prevailing popular conceptions, celebrity sound bites or even fictional characters. Our teachers may be Rabbi X or Rabbi Y, but our rebbes (mentors) might be Judge Judy or Forrest Gump.

Our responsibility to ourselves and to our children demands that we find spiritual mothers and fathers in those bearers of the millennial wisdom that has been our key to survival and success: the Torah. Together, we must teach our children how to steer through life guided by the moral compass of Torah wisdom.

Rabbi Gidon Shoshan is the director of outreach at the Los Angeles
Intercommunity Kollel (LINK) in Westwood. He can be reached at ravgidon@LinkLA.org.