The years of high school are formative and transformational for adolescents. All students, and especially students with learning challenges, should be able to thrive when they spend their high school years in a warm, supportive environment that offers individualized academic, emotional, and social support to facilitate their growth and development in all areas. It is important that students find their individual niche in a welcoming school environment. As they face the emotional ups and downs of their teenage years, students engage in the process of individuation as they discover so much about themselves as learners and as human beings. They learn to develop their strengths and compensate for their areas of weakness as they grow into sensitive, caring adults ready to find their places in the world. They transform from sometimes teary-eyed freshmen into confident seniors who graduate high school prepared academically and socially for the next step in their individual paths toward self-actualization.
The lessons from this week’s parsha provide an apt analogy for the work that mechanchim do with their talmidim. We learn in Behaalotecha: “When you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the Menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.” (8:1) Rashi quotes Chazal who explain the use of the word “Behaalotecha,” which really means “when you bring up,” as opposed to “behadlikcha,” which means “when you kindle.” Rashi explains that it is necessary for the kohen to keep the flame in place until “shalhevet oleh ma’eileha,” the flame rises on its own, from the oil in the wick and not from the kohen’s flame.
When the Torah teaches us the laws that apply to the lighting of the Menorah, it conveys to us the manner in which we should transmit Torah to our students. The rebbe should involve himself in the teaching process until the student grasps the material on his own. When one seeks to transfer the flame of Torah to a student, he must see to it that the flame burns brightly within the student—on its own.
This depiction of teachers imparting knowledge to students just as a candle passes on a flame describes the ideal relationship between a teacher and a student. Students may say, “I can’t do this,” and we help them discover that they can. They may say, “I don’t know how,” and we teach them and show them that they do indeed know how. At times, they may become frustrated, and we reassure them and help them try again. Ideally, educators meet every student where he or she is and then patiently stay with students as they gain the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate the world independently.
The difference mechanchim make shows. When students start high school, they are often apprehensive and unsure of themselves. We educators should strive to make sure that by the time they graduate they are confident, articulate and have a skill set for life.
This past year, a senior student came into my office and thanked me. He told me that when he was a freshman, he had been very unhappy, and that I had told him that I was confident that as a senior he would be coming to tell me that the problems he had initially experienced had faded and disappeared. Sure enough, he is now a senior, and he can confidently express that the social, emotional and educational support we provided for him has had a life-altering impact.
As mechanchim, we strive to give all of our students the education that is best for them, teaching and guiding them until the flame of knowledge is lit within them, so that they can go out and successfully tackle the world on their own.
By Rabbi Yehoshua Gold