December 9, 2021 |

Lilmod U'Lelamed (To Learn and to Teach)

There is a story told (in Kiddushin 66a[1]) about King Yannai, who was one of the Hasmonean kings of the Second Temple period (2nd century BCE). Though he had a lust for power and glory, he managed at first to have a good relationship with the Rabbis, partially due to his wife's good influence. After a particularly successful military campaign, however, a Sadducee instigator (Elazar ben Po'era) convinced him to go public with his desire to not only be the king of Israel, but also its high priest[2]. He attended a victory banquet wearing the tzitz, the gold forehead band inscribed with God's name, worn only by the kohen gadol (high priest). One of the sages stood up and said to him: "Rav Lach!", or "This is too much for you!", the crown of kingship is enough[3] for you, leave the crown of priesthood for the descendants of Aaron!" This opposition and public insult did not make Yanai very happy, so he left the party in a rage. Under further incitement, he considered killing all the sages, to silence their opposition. But - vile and petty man though he was - he was concerned about what would happen to the wisdom of the Jewish people. "What will be of the Torah?" asked Yannai to Elazar ben Po'era. Elazar's answer shows how little he understood of Torah or authentic Judaism, for he said: "Bind it up and let it rest in the corner; all who so desire may come and learn it." In the end, Yanai did try to kill all the sages and only the heroism of Shimon ben Shetach and Yehoshua ben Gamla saved our tradition, but that is a tale of adventure for another time.

Yannai and ben Po'era did not understand that the Torah does not exist without teachers. It is not just a book, a collection of laws or of stories. It is a living legacy, something to be taught, experienced, lived, embraced, absorbed and transmitted. In Pirkei Avot Ethics of the Fathers 1:16), we are taught: "Get yourself a Rav", for without a teacher and a tradition, the text of the Torah is just a text and will become irrelevant. Yannai turned away from his teachers (the rabbis) and listened to the poison tongue of ben Po'era, who said that Yannai could be an emperor-priest and that Yannai could get rid of the rabbis and teachers, like a vindictive elementary school student.

The answer the sages gave to Yannai was "rav lach", "it is too much for you." Keep the kingship, but leave the priesthood to the priests. Keep the kingship and listen to the teachers of the Torah. Ironically, this is the same message Avot gives to us: "asei lecha rav", "get yourself a Rabbi", get for yourself one who is greater than you. Rashi comments on this that you should find a Rav even if there is noone fully deserving of the title or the role. You need to have one.

"Rav lach" means that we have to know when something is too much for us, when it exceeds our own capabilities. Getting a rabbi is a recognition that fully understanding the Torah by ourselves is beyond our grasp. It is an essential act of humility, an opening of the mind to the wisdom and experience of others.

However, it can mean something else as well. God said to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai: "rav lachem", "it is too much for you to continue sitting at this mountain." (Deut 1:6). I always understood this as a wake-up call, a gentle nudge that told the the Israelites that it was time to get moving. They had sat at Sinai for 9 months learning the Torah and now it was time for them to get back on the road, to continue their journey to the Holy Land[4].

Perhaps it mean something else as well. It can mean "you have (too) much" and it is time for you to move with it, to share it. If you have acquired much Torah, it is too mich for you to keep it to yourself. In their own way, the Israelites were denying the Torah its teachers. It was a comfort zone for them to stay at Mt Sinai and be taught. But, ultimately, anyone who learns Torah must begin to teach Torah. You cannot sit at the mountain (or in the classroom or the kollel) forever. The time comes when those who believe the Torah needs teachers must become teachers as well.

This is also taught in Pirkei Avot: "Rabbi Yishmael said: One who learns in order to teach, will have sufficient means to learn and to teach." In other words, a person may be afraid to become teacher because: a) their own learning will suffer if they spend their time teaching. This is understandable, but selfish, or b) they think that their learning is insufficient for them to be a teacher. This is humble, but perhaps too humble.

In answer to these concerns, Rabbi Yishmael explains that one who learns in order to teach will succeed as both a student AND a teacher.On the other hand , the Talmud says that one who learns but does not teach can be compared to "a myrtle tree in the desert[5]" (which will shrivel and die), to one "who sows but does not reap" and to one who "despises the word of God.[6]" In the first example, you hurt yourself by not sharing your knowledge. In the second, you selfishly deprive others of the fruits of your labors (your knowledge) and in the third, you hurt (or insult) God, who created you to teach the Torah you learn.

King Yannai desired to be both to king and priest, to achieve power in both realms. This was too much for him. Inversely, we may seek to not have power at all, to just sit quietly in the back of the class or syangogue and drink in the words of our "official" teachers. This is also too much, too much taking and ot enough give-back, to much passive and not active, too much entitlement and not enough responsibility.

In Pirkei Avot, it says that one should learn with the intention of teaching. That means that the moment you begin to learn Torah - even if you are a total beginner - your intentions should be to share that Torah with others. Now, this does not mean that you should start givng public lectures or acting like a know-it-all. But it does mean that everyone can be a teacher in their own way. If you learn something beautiful and precious about Torah, you can share that with a friend, a spouse or a colleague[7].

More importantly, you should believe in yourself that you CAN teach Torah. Sometimes, you just need someone to tell you like, l'havdil, God told the Jewish people. "rav lach", it is too much for you to just sit her, "rav lach", you have too much to share. So, I'm telling you. Shabbat shalom!

[1] Kiddushin is a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud dealing with betrothal and other kinds of contract.
[2] He was, in fact, of priestly lineage.
[3] Or maybe EVEN the kingship is "too much" for you.
[4] This is, indeed, what should have happened, had not the episode of the spies delayed their arrival.
[5] Rosh Hashana 23a
[6] Sanhedrin 99a
[7] Needless to say, don't club them over the head with it. It's only teaching if they areinterested and ready to listen.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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