It was November 1938. Dark clouds were gathering over all of Europe, and particularly over the Jewish communities in countries like Poland and Lithuania. Although few foresaw the horrific extent of the Holocaust that lay ahead, everyone knew that those communities were in very grave danger.
One man, a teacher and leader of those communities, found himself in the United States at that auspicious moment. He was preparing to return to his responsibilities back home in Eastern Europe, particularly his students at the yeshiva he led there.
His friends and supporters in the United States pleaded with him not to return. He steadfastly refused. “I belong with my talmidim, with my disciples in the yeshiva,” he insisted.
This leader’s name was Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, himself the foremost disciple of the Chofetz Chaim, the great sage of pre-World War II Europe. Rav Elchonon, as he was known to his many followers, already had many accomplishments to his credit, including several major published works and commentaries on the Talmud.
But Rav Elchonon’s core pride and joy was the yeshiva he created for early teenage youngsters known by the name of the town in which it was located, Baranovitch.
Rav Elchonon insisted upon leaving the safe haven in which he found himself in order to return to that yeshiva and those youngsters. He said, “I am their father, and they are my children. A father does not abandon his children.”
What was the source of Rav Elchonon’s strong feelings? He had children of his own, some of whom were lost in the Holocaust, and some of whom survived to become teachers and leaders of a future generation. Why was he convinced that the students of his yeshiva were no less children of his than the ones who were his real offspring?
The answer to these questions is to be found in this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar. “These are the offspring of Aaron and Moses at the time that the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai…” (Numbers 3:1). A simple verse indeed; so much so that you might wonder what homiletic spin can be given to so straightforward a verse.
The vigilant reader Rashi offers his take, noting that although our verse promises to list the offspring of both Aaron and Moses, only Aaron’s offspring are enumerated.
Rashi’s answer is deep and powerful: Moses taught Torah to the descendants of Aaron. That made them his descendants, no less than the descendants of their biological ancestor, Aaron. In Rashi’s own words, “He who teaches Torah to his friend’s child is considered by Scripture to be a parent of that child.”
Rav Elchonon took those words to heart, and he felt for his distant students, threatened by Hitler’s clutches, what a father would feel for his children. Remaining behind in a secure sanctuary while his children were in mortal danger was inconceivable to him. And so, he returned to Europe and met his ultimate fate in the Kovno ghetto at the hands of the Nazi murderers.
This is the secret of a great teacher. This is the root of all authentic pedagogy. The ability to instill in one’s students the sense that they are cared for by the teacher no less than children are cared for by their parents. Students who are confident in their teacher’s concern for their well-being are capable of the kind of learning that typified the students of those yeshivot of old.
It is a rare teacher that has that gift. Rav Elchonon was one of them. But Rashi assures us that, at least to some extent, “all who teach another person’s child Torah” have the gift of becoming a teacher-parent.
Parents must be teachers. Teachers can be parents. We all can be teachers.