10/02/2013 06:14 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2013

Sacred Joy in Getting Surpassed

When I was a sophomore in college, I helped found a program at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington that brought students and senior citizens together in a new way. Among the many students that I worked with as the program came to life, several stood out to me -- and one most especially.

Andy Siegel was only fourteen when I met him. But he carried himself with an air of experience. His questions were striking, and his ability to work with people of all ages was like nothing I had ever seen, especially in someone so young.

With great speed, Andy moved from being a student participant to an administrator in the project and helped us expand it to a variety of sites around the Washington, D.C. area and beyond.

Perhaps out of humility or perhaps because of our age difference, Andy always treated me like a mentor. It was flattering. Could I have asked for a more insightful, capable person to mentor?

In time it became clear that he was more my peer than my mentee. We gradually began to relate as friends. More recently, I have seen myself actually being mentored in small but growing ways by Andy.

In part, our age gap matters less now that we are both in our twenties (even if at other ends of that decade). But I sense that it has more to do with the fact that Andy has taken the ambitious step of founding an Internet start-up, set to go live in a month or so. This start-up, and the process of founding it, has given Andy practical experiences and a depth of knowledge that in many ways surpasses my own. He has worked for every bit of it, even when taking into account his raw talent.

This feels like a relatively new scenario for me as a person who at times takes himself too seriously or fancies himself a quick learner and hard worker. I have found it humbling to know that one of the first people I truly mentored is poised to achieve an extraordinary amount. But more than anything else, Andy's success evokes a deep sense of contentment and even outright joy. The kind of joy that makes you smile ear-to-ear and feel cheered that good things happen to good people and nice people can finish first.

There is something marvelous about finding a student who is so adept that he may well be in the process of becoming my teacher. It is affirming of so much by way of human possibility.

Even as I search for words to describe the source of my joy, I sense it may relate to the kind of teacher-student partnership most clearly highlighted for me in the rabbinic tradition. It is a sense of happiness imbedded within the sacred process of studying together.

Our tradition has long held sacred the relationship of student and teacher, mentor and mentee. They are the relationships that have enabled our chain of tradition to go unbroken even in adversity and challenging historical epochs. They are hailed in many places within the Talmud, but perhaps most commonly known in association with the rabbinic adage from Perkei Avot 1:6 (loosely translated here): "Get a teacher, obtain a friend."

This quote speaks to the reality that some may seek out a person who will instruct them -- only to find that under that with that person's mentoring, tutelage, and support, they find themselves becoming more and more like a peer. It is a phenomenon that many of us seek, perhaps with a touch of ego or aspiration as promising students.

What most fascinates me, however, is that the process has been reversed (at least from my perspective) vis a vis Andy. It might be more akin to "Obtain a friend, become a student." Or even, "Get a mentee, become a student."

The reversal of the adage does not seem to undermine the sacred designation of learning together, so much as it reinforces the idea that learning and teaching are complementary. Even, and perhaps especially within the context of a close mentor-mentee relationship, good teachers find themselves learning and good students find themselves teaching.

The boundary between the two roles is amorphous -- and as I am learning firsthand, perhaps interchangeable or reversible. Even inverted, the teacher-student relationship can hold. The initial intention of the relationship was to create trust through learning and learning through trust.

That goal can be perpetuated, even when it is unclear who the primary learner truly is.