A Post-Bar Mitzvah Message to Myself

An Anniversary

This Parshat B’ha’alotcha, I celebrate 36 years since my Bar Mitzvah.

Date: June 8, 1974.

Location: B’nai Avraham Synagogue, Winnipeg, Canada.

Between swallows of rum torte and cheesecake, I graciously receive yet another envelope.

Even Eighteen dollars is a lot to a young teenager in 1974. Unaware of the halacha proscribing handling money on Shabbat and Yom Tov, I ponder the swelling figures in my new bank account.

A generation later, I’d like you join me as I revisit the Torah portion chanted on that fateful day.

Come On, Aharon, Light That Fire

The parsha opens with G-d’s instruction to Aharon, the Kohen Gadol, to light the Menorah in the Beit Hamikdash.   Our sages note that the Torah uses the term b’ha’alotcha in reference to lighting.

Question: What does this term denote?

Answer: G-d is conveying to Aharon that he must hold the fire next to the wick until the flame of the menorah “goes up on its own”.   In other words, until the wick begins to draw oil, fueling itself.

A Simple Question

Rav Avigdor Nebenzhal, whose classic shiurim continue to enrapture, raises an obvious question:

Surely, this is the way to light a fire!

What new information, chidush, is being conveyed by this verb?

If the unique term bha’alotcha had not been used – would we have thought that holding the fire to the wick – without that flame catching and drawing its own oil – would constitute lighting ?

Jewish Education: Transforming the Individual

Girded with proofs that our tradition views the menorah’s light as a symbol of Torah knowledge, Rav Nebenzhal offers the following observation:

The Kohen is the paradigm of the Jewish educator, the wick –  the student. Fire?  Knowledge.   The Kohen must hold the fire to that wick until it draws oil on its own.

Translated: A Jewish educator must teach his or her talmid to become independent.

A true indicator of this independence?

When approaching a new text, an authentic talmid will attempt to apply the educator’s system of thinking:

  • What questions would my teacher pose on this piece?
  • What categories would he create to make sense of the material?

A Personal Story

About 15 years ago, I was asked to tutor up-and-coming students of Talmud in a Jerusalem Bet Midrash.  A young man approached me; I interviewed him, inquiring about his background.  His high school entry exam required him to answer dozens of intricate questions on ten folios of a complex Talmudic tractate.  Five years later, motivated to probe deeper, he came to learn.

After a couple of minutes, I realized that this young man not only had a long way to go in deciphering a page of Talmud with Rashi, he had virtually no analytical skills, the bread and butter of Talmud study.

How could this be?

His middle school teachers certainly taught Torah, but they didn’t teach him. Reams of information were no doubt absorbed over the years, but he, the student – wasn’t truly educated.

Since then, I hear he has developed into a noted Torah scholar and educator, and I’m sure that since 1995, he has far surpassed me.

But this story has stuck in my mind.  It’s a wonderful illustration of Rav Nebenzhal’s message.

A Final Thought

Rambam, the great Maimonedes, states unequivocally that the highest level of Tzedaka is helping a person find employment.

In other words, ridding him of his dependence on classic charity.

Why is it that we have not looked to Hilchot Tzedaka as a model for Chinuch, Jewish education?   No doubt motivated by lofty goals, we‘ve become accustomed to feeding our students facts and information, in much the same way a generous person pulls out his wallet to aid a needy person.

Why the disconnect?

Why the widespread failure to take the cue from the world of Tzedaka?

Ironically, it may be because we ourselves have much to glean from Rav Nebenzhal’s message.  Perhaps it’s time that we, as Jewish educators, make greater efforts to apply the lessons taught us by other disciplines within Torah.

Let us become the wicks and let the wisdom of the Torah – light our fire.

– candles and book photos from photos8.com


  1. Love the vort. Thank you!

    Can you round it out with a few practical examples?

    Should we TEST students more, to see if they’re absorbing teachings or just spacing out?

    Would you recommend giving students time to figure out pasukim (ala a yeshiva “first seder”) before hearing a shiur, so they develop their skills and independence? If so, how young? And don’t Yeshivas already do that—if so, why aren’t students getting it?

    Might you break some ground with a creative understanding or suggestion?

    Is there any class on “How YOU can look up a shaila in Mishna Berura”? Actually, that would be a great course, where to look up what questions, how far you can apply/extend a psak, etc.


    • I think that the kind of testing that I would propose (I assume you are referring to yeshiva students) would be unseen sugyahs in Gemara. We were tested in this fashion in Eretz Yisrael when I was in the Meretz Kollel. Questions could be tailored to respective levels; but this would be one way to determine if skills in reading/making a laining and/or conceptualizing have been internalized and can be generalized to a brand new piece.

      By the middle-level shiurim at Shapell’s, talmidim had 2 1/2 hours to make sense of the new piece of Gemara, after which they would attend a shiur and would see how close they’d come in understanding the material independently.

      This, of course, could be done with day school students as well, on their own level…

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