Today’s daf (Moed Katan 17a, and also repeated in Chagigah 15b) contains an oft-cited yet nevertheless cryptic teaching about the qualities of the ideal Torah teacher.
Quoting from Malachi 2:7, Rav Yochanan asks: ‘What is the meaning of the verse כִּי שִׂפְתֵי כֹהֵן יִשְׁמְרוּ דַעַת וְתוֹרָה יְבַקְשׁוּ מִפִּיהוּ כִּי מַלְאַךְ ה’ צְבָאוֹת הוּא – “For a priests lips should safeguard knowledge, and the people should seek teaching from his mouth, for he is an angel of the Lord of Hosts”?’. In response, he answers: ‘if a teacher resembles an angel of the Lord of Hosts then seek Torah from them, but if not, then do not seek Torah from them’.
Over the years, given the fact that I am a Jewish educator, I have collated a range of explanations of this teaching. Here are three different interpretations which I hope you enjoy!
1. Basing himself on the Gemara and Rambam, the Lubavitcher Rebbe (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVFXZK6LDb8) explains that the ideal Torah teacher should be someone who is able to overlook personal snubs, envy, and rivalry, and instead be someone who publicly and privately exemplifies the ideal qualities of a Jew through acting with modesty, through showing compassion, and though performing acts of kindness.
2. According to Rav Ezra Attieh, (Leader of the Generation – The Exalted Life and Times of Maran Rosh Yeshivat Porat Yosef The Great Gaon Rabbi Ezra Attieh zt’l, pgs. 378-9), the comparison between Torah teachers and angels relates to the idea that angels are referred to as ‘stationary beings’ (see Zechariah 3:7) as compared to righteous people who are described as ‘walkers’ (see Mishlei 20:7). While some people may teach Torah for their own prestige and in order for them to gain honour, the true Torah teacher acts like an angel because, rather than spending their time on their own learning, they use their time preparing their classes and answering questions they receive from their students. In so doing they choose to remain stationary for the sake of their students, and consequently, they resemble an angel of the Lord of Hosts.
3. Lastly, Rav Aharon Soloveitchik (Building Jewish Ethical Character pp. 11-18) explains that for a teacher to resemble an angel of the Lord of Hosts, they need i) Consistency, ii) a sense of Divine mission and iii) an abundance of love. This means that a teacher should live a life that is consistent with what they teach; they should consider their involvement in Torah teaching not as a profession but rather as a Divine mission, and they should convey – through their words and actions – a profound love of Am Yisrael.