August 7, 2018

The growing pains on the death of a teacher


In this talk – which I have titled ‘the growing pains following the death of a teacher’ and which is inspired by a wonderful talk by R’ Yisroel Reisman – I would like to discuss how to harness the real pain felt when a teacher passes away and understand how we can grow in response to their loss. To do so, I will review four stories of great Torah teachers which span the Tanach, Talmud and modern period, beginning with a fascinating episode described in Chapter 2 of Melachim Beit (II Kings) involving Eliyahu Hanavi – Elijah the prophet.


Eliyahu has spent his life fighting false idols while dedicating the rest of his time to mentor his student Elisha to whom he had become a spiritual father figure. Eliyahu was now around 80 years old and he knew that this particular day would be his last afterwhich he would ascend heavenward. Given this premonition, Eliyahu asks Elisha on three occasions to ‘remain here’, knowing that he is soon to pass away, but on each occasion Elisha refuses, answering ‘as the lord lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you’. Eliyahu accepts the fact that his dedicated student wishes to be with him until the very end. However, as the moment when Eliyahu’s ascent is about to occur, he turns to his protégé and says Ask what I shall do for you before I am taken away from you to which Elisha responds by saying, I beg you, let a double portion of your spirit be upon me. [Eliyahu replies] you have asked a difficult thing; nevertheless, אִם־תִּרְאֶה אֹתִי לֻקָּח מֵאִתָּךְ יְהִי־לְךָ כֵן – if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so.’ We then read that as they were walking together, a chariot of fire appeared and Eliyahu ascended heavenward in a whirlwind, while at the same time, Elisha was watching while crying out, ‘אבי אבי – My father! My father!’. Once Elisha could no longer see Eliyahu, he tore his clothes in mourning, and as promised, we are then told that ‘the spirit of Eliyahu rested upon Elisha.’

This story is one of the most fascinating in Tanach, yet it is by no means simple. What seems to occur is that at the moment when Elisha was experiencing his greatest pain from losing his teacher, he also experiences his greatest spiritual gain by receiving the רוח – the spirit – of his master Eliyahu. In order to understand this concept further, let us now refer to Gemara Ketubot 17a.

  1. KETUBOT 17A

In this section of Gemara, we are taught about the laws of funerals and specifically, when it is appropriate to cease Torah study in order to attend a funeral. The Gemara relates that Rav Yehuda Bar Ilai interrupted his Torah studies to attend a funeral, but it adds that had there been a sufficient number of people at the funeral then he would not have needed to attend. This leads the Gemara to ask ‘And what is a sufficient number?’, to which one reply is 600,000 people.

Now, this number is astounding, and it should be noted that there have been very few Jewish funerals throughout history with this quantity of people attending. So what is being taught here?

To answer this question we must follow general Jewish practice and ask another, which is what is the origin of this number 600,000? The answer is Matan Torah. We are taught that there were 600,000 people present at Matan Torah, and it is this fact which leads these Rabbis to state that ‘נטילתה כנתינתה – it’s taking away is like its giving; meaning, just as the Torah was given in the presence of 600,000 people, so the funeral of someone should be accompanied by 600,000 people.’

From this Gemara we see something extraordinary which is that a comparison is being drawn between the death of a person and the giving of the Torah. Just as 600,000 people were present at Matan Torah, ideally this same quantity of people should be present when someone leaves this world. But, as Rav Aharon Kotler explained in the hesped he gave for his father-in-law R’ Isser Zalman Meltzer, this is not merely a discussion about the desired number of people who attend Jewish funerals. Instead, what we are being taught here is that when we are pained by someone’s death, we have an opportunity to harness that pain and attain some sort of personal revelation that enables us to spiritually grow. But how is this achieved?

The way Rav Kotler – and subsequently Rav Dessler in the hesped that he delivered upon the passing of the Chazon Ish – explain this idea is that when a parent or teacher passes away, we should not only grieve for their loss from this world, but also, for the wasted opportunities that we could have maximised to learn more from them during their life. Meaning, we shouldn’t just focus on their absence; instead, we should focus on what they brought to the world and gave to the world – as well as what we should have learnt from them while they were alive – and by dwelling on their greatness while grieving, we are able to continue to be inspired by their teachings despite their death. Thus, the pain of their death is counterbalanced by a greater drive for spiritual growth that follows in the footsteps of the teacher, and this increase in spiritual aspiration at this moment means that the bond between the student and teacher is actually strengthened.

I should add that others – such as Rabbeinu Nissim in Drashot HaRan – understand this process differently. According to Rabbeinu Nissim, when a person passes away they are released from the limits that their physical existence places on them; this allows their greatness to be even more apparent, and it enables a deeper spiritual bond to be forged between student and teacher.

However, whichever way we understand this process, what is clear is that the story of Eliyahu and Elisha, as well as the insight from Gemara Ketubot, suggest that there is a close relationship between the loss of a teacher and a divine revelation, and that it is possible to harness the real pain felt when a teacher passes away and to grow in response to their loss. But what many people may not realise is that this concept is connected with a mini-festival that will be celebrated this week.


This Wednesday night is Lag BaOmer, and on this day Jews throughout the world – and especially in Israel – will get together a celebrate the Hilula – which is the Sephardic equivalent of a Yartzheit – of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. They will sing, pray, learn Torah and light bonfires. But why?

According to tradition, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai died on Lag Baomer, and when he died, rather than his students mourning the loss of their teacher, they celebrated because it was at this moment when the secret Torah wisdom that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai had studied was revealed to his disciples.

Basing ourselves on what we have discussed so far, this idea is actually much more comprehendable than one might have thought. Just like the revelation to Elisha that took place upon the ascension of his teacher Eliyahu, we see in the story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai that נטילתה כנתינתה – when a person passes away, we have an opportunity to harness our personal pain and attain some sort of spiritual revelation that enables us to grow. In fact, according to tradition, it was Eliyahu himself who taught Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai all these secrets as they hid in a cave for a period of 13 years, which means that this concept of revelation upon death may well have been one of the many ideas that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai actually learnt from Eliyahu.


In case you are yet to be convinced with this idea, let me share one further Gemara, this time from Ketubot 103b, which describes the death of Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi, otherwise known as Rebbi.

Having given instructions to his family and students while on his deathbed, we are told that Rebbi died at which time a heavenly voice went forth and announced: ‘Whosoever was present at the death of Rebbi is destined to enjoy the life of the world to come.’

However, this Gemara puzzled Rav Dessler because, as he points out, how can someone merit the world the come if they are not deserving of it? How can someone achieve this great reward simply for being present when someone else died?

The substance of his answer are his above-mentioned remarks that by dwelling on the greatness of someone, we are able to continue to be inspired by their teachings despite their death, and therefore, the death of a great person can have a transformative effect which can inspire people to grow in response to their loss.


So far I have spoken about the story of Eliyahu and Elisha, the customs surrounding Lag BaOmer and the hilula of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and the events that took place during and following the death of Rebbi. However, I would now like to bring things a little closer to home and speak about Moreinu V’Rabbeinu Dayan Lopian zt’l.

Dayan Lopian was a significant guide and teacher to me, and over the many years he was also a tremendous support to our family and many others sitting here. Like me, I suspect that many of us remember where we were when we heard the shocking news of his petira, and although I was not here physically, I watched the hespedim that were delivered here and a clip of the levaya that left from here. However, while I could speak for some while about the gadlus of the Dayan, I would actually like to explain how the petira of the Dayan has impacted on me, and how I hope it has impacted on you as well.

You will recall the words of Eliyahu Hanavi who said אִם־תִּרְאֶה אֹתִי לֻקָּח מֵאִתָּךְ יְהִי־לְךָ כֵן – if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so which I have explained to mean that despite the real pain felt when a teacher passes away, we have the ability to harness this pain and attain some sort of personal revelation – our own mini Matan Torah – that enables us to spiritually grow, and personally, I genuinely felt what I have described as ‘growing pains’ in the days and weeks after the Dayan’s petira. Just like Rav Dessler explained, I regretted the wasted opportunities that I could have maximised to learn more from the Dayan during his life, but this feeling of regret, while also focussing on his greatness, provided me with a greater push for spiritual growth which thereby strengthened further the bond between myself and the Dayan. So what is my message?

My message is to keep on going and growing, and to use the pain of the Dayan’s absence to push you even further, and if you are not sure what direction to take, let me remind you of the Dayan’s greatness as written on his Matzeivah:

גדולי הוראה סמכו עליו להשיב דבר ה’ זו הלכה

Meaning, ‘great decisors [of Jewish law] relied on him to given them the word of God, meaning [that he explained and ruled] halakha.’ From here we learn that we should learn and continue to learn Torah, so that we can teach and guide others.
רחוקים קירב לה’ יתברך בהראם מתיקות התורה

Meaning, ‘he brought those who were far away closer to God Blessed Be He, through showing them the sweetness of the Torah. ‘From here we learn that we have an absolute duty to reach out and inspire Jews who are disconnected from their Judaism.
שלום אהב ורדף לאין קץ ותכלה

Meaning, ‘he loved peace and placed no limits on his pursuit of [peace].’From here we learn that we should make sure that our home, work and community are places of harmony and peace.

ורבים נהנו ממנו עצה ותושיה

Meaning, ‘And many benefitted from his counsel and wisdom’. From here we learn that we should do our best to give people sound advice. And lastly,
נפלא היתה אוהבתו לכל אשר בשם ישראל יקרא

Meaning ‘he had an extraordinary love for all Jews.’ From here we learn that we should show love to all people. Of course, this is by no means simple and we should recall that it is in this Omer period between Pesach and Shavuot when the students of Rabbi Akiva died because they did not show love and respect to one another. However, this is something that the Dayan did in abundance.

To conclude, what I have tried to do since the Dayan’s petira is grow from the pain, grow through the pain, and live a life that would make him proud. Especially as we near towards Shavuot when we celebrate Matan Torah, it is fitting to consider the ways in which the Dayan revealed so much Torah to this community, and to continue our task of learning and growing.


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