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Pirkei Avot 2:5: The Teacher and the Student

He would also say: A boor cannot be sin-fearing, an ignoramus cannot be pious, a bashful person cannot learn, a short-tempered person cannot teach, nor does anyone who does much business grow wise. In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man. (Pirkei Avot 2:5)

Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura explained: “And a bashful person cannot learn” – for he is afraid that he will be shamed, so he will remain with his questions. And the teacher who is short-tempered with his students when they ask him questions will not be able to properly teach them. Rather, the Bartenura says, the teacher should kindly explain the laws being learned to his students. The student has to feel comfortable to ask his questions without fear of being shamed (even though this is negative shame that is not in its place). The teacher has to invite the questions and not be severe with the student who is asking.

In a more inner dimension, the relationship between the teacher and the student parallels the attributes of chochmah (wisdom) and binah (understanding), Abba and Imma. The teacher is the wise man, (the chacham) and the student is the talmid chacham – the student of the wise man. Binah receives from chochmah. The characteristic of binah is that it investigates, queries and clarifies. The student must adopt this characteristic and be a talmid chacham. Conversely, from the side of chochmah, everything is clear and illuminated. There are no questions at all. Hence, the teacher may become short-tempered (as a result of the fact that the root of chochmah is in the gevurah (might) of atik (the ancient one). He must be warned not to be severe, but rather to be patient with his student.

In truth, the student’s questions are important for the teacher as well. “From my students (I have learned) more than from anyone else.”[1] The questions of the serious student, the queries and requests for clarification reveal the depths of the teacher’s intellect. The teacher’s intellect is the “direct light” and the intellect of the student is the “returning light.” This creates a “striking” of the lights. First the direct light of the teacher meets the intellect of the student and ‘strikes’ it. Then the returning light from the student strikes back at the intellect of the teacher, and then the teacher relates to the student’s ‘strike’ and responds. This is called “the war of Torah,” in which each party becomes sharper through his partner/opponent.

Kabbalah explains that the striking of the direct light and the returning light creates a vessel. The stable rapport between the light and the vessel is the characteristic of the world of rectification. Here, as well, the meeting between the intellect of the teacher and the intellect of the student creates the proper vessel – an answer-solution for the student’s question, and then the light settles well into the vessel. In the process of the learning, ‘striking of the lights’ it may seem that the teacher and his student are opponents. Ultimately, however, they become beloved to each other[2] and there is peace between them. And peace is a vessel that contains blessing.[3]

[1] Ta’anit 7a.

[2] Kiddushin 30b.

[3] Mishnah at the end of Oktzin.

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