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Torah Attitude: Parashas Yisro: Educating with praises and prizes


The time had come to reunite Moses and his family. It is important to let each child know that he is "number one". "Educate the youth according to his way." Every individual has been put in this world for a specific purpose and has been given the tools suited to fulfill his unique purpose. "Due to a small measure of silk that Jacob gave only to Joseph, the brothers became jealous of Joseph, and this eventually brought about that our ancestors had to go down to Egypt." We must be extremely careful not to cause any jealousy among siblings or students. There is nothing wrong in an educator giving prizes and rewards for achievements and good behaviour. Too often schools and teachers do not put enough effort into academically weak students. The story is told about Rav and the teacher who knew how to encourage the weak and unmotivated students. Education must be a joined effort between school and home to educate every child to fulfill his potential, enabling him to achieve his unique purpose in life.

Moses reunited with family

In the beginning of this week's parasha (Shemos 18:2) the Torah relates how Yisro, Moses' father-in-law, came out to the wilderness with Moses' wife, Zipporah, and her two sons. Rashi explains that when Aaron had come out to meet Moses on his way back to Egypt, he advised him not to take Zipporah and the children with him. Moses listened to his older brother and sent them back home to Yisro. But now when Yisro heard how G'd had taken the Jewish people out of Egypt, he felt that time had come to reunite Moses and his family.

Each child special

When the Torah (Shemos 18:3-4) tells us the names of Moses' two children, it says, "The name of one was Gershom and the name of one was Eliezer." This seems a little strange. Normally, one would say "the name of one was and the name of the second one was " The Torah here teaches us a profound lesson in education. When one deals with children whether as a parent or a teacher, it is important to let each child know that he is "number one". This can be a major challenge for an educator. However, one must always make sure that every child feels special and not secondary to anyone else.

Educate "according to his way"

King Solomon says (Mishlei 22:6) "Educate the youth according to his way." King Solomon here teaches that just as every adult has strengths and weaknesses, so does every child and youth. One must identify the child's areas of strength in order to develop and nurture a child's self-esteem. These strengths are the starting points on the child's and youth's specific way. Once we make the child feel good about himself, it will be much easier to rectify the child's character flaws and work on his weak points. If we put all the focus on the negative, and only try to help him with what he is not good at, it will break the child's self-esteem, and he will never realize that he is good at anything.

Specific purpose

No two people are alike. As our sages say (Midrash Rabba, Bamidbar 21:2) "Just like people's faces differ one from another, so do their minds." We all have a specific task, and we have been blessed with the tools suited to fulfill our unique purpose. It is the educator's job to help the child develop to fulfill his special purpose in life. If we manage to let the child feel there is an area where he is special and better than his peers, then we have succeeded to lay the foundation for the child's education and development. This starts from a very early age. Even young children crave for praise and recognition for their effort. This in turn encourages them to try even harder, and to utilize their potential and abilities to the fullest.

Jacob and Joseph

The Talmud (Shabbos 10a) states: "A person shall never set one child above other children. Due to a small measure of silk that Jacob gave Joseph, his brothers became jealous and this eventually brought our ancestors down to Egypt." Rabbi Nossan Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, explains that no doubt Jacob had the best intentions when he gave this special jacket to Joseph. The Torah (Bereishis 37:3) refers to Joseph as "a child of old age". The simple meaning of this is that Joseph was born to Jacob when Jacob was already old. But Onkelus explains that Joseph was extremely diligent in his studies and whatever Jacob had learned in his early years he transmitted to this special student. It is very likely that Jacob wanted to reward Joseph for his diligence.

Jealousy spill over

Maybe, adds the Alter, Jacob also thought that this would encourage the other brothers to put more effort into their studies. The Talmud (Bava Basra 21a) explains that although in general jealousy is a negative character trait, academic jealousy is commendable, as it brings about that the students are more diligent in their study. However, we learn from this incident that it is a mistake for an educator to single out and reward only one student, for the other children might not just be jealous of his learning, but it will spill over to other kinds of jealousy. Obviously, we cannot compare ourselves to Jacob and his children. Joseph's brothers were mature adults and their jealousy was so miniscule that they did not even realize it themselves. The Sforno (Bereishis 37:18) points out that Joseph's brothers made a major mistake and totally misunderstood Joseph's actions and intentions. However, says the Sforno, this does not change the fact that they were righteous people, and all their actions were done with pure and honest motives. Nevertheless, as our sages point, we must learn from Jacob's mistake and be extremely careful not to cause any jealousy among siblings or students.

Praises and prizes

There is nothing wrong in parents and teachers giving prizes and rewards for scholastic achievements and good behaviour. The Torah constantly promises us rewards if we fulfill the word of G'd. This teaches us that it is acceptable to utilize rewards as an encouragement for both children and adults to do their jobs. However, one must be extremely cautious and make sure that every child is given the opportunity to excel and earn some praise or a prize, so that everyone will feel good and experience success. Sometimes the educator will have to go out of his way to find how to praise or reward a particular student.

Improvement not success

In Parashas Bamidbar (4:3) the Torah describes how G'd instructed Moses to make a special count of the tribe of Levy from ages thirty to fifty, as they were chosen to do the work in the Tabernacle. Later in Parashas Beha'aloscha (Bamidbar 8:24) it says that G'd told Moses to inform the Levites to come to the service in the Tabernacle from the age of twenty-five. These two instructions appear to contradict each other. Rashi answers this with a quote from the Talmud (Chulin 24a) that at the age of twenty-five the Levites should come to study the laws how to perform the service. But the actual service was only performed at the age of thirty. Concludes the Talmud: "From this we learn that a student that has not seen any improvement after five years of study is unlikely to succeed". The Talmud does not say that if a student has not had total success after five years then he will never succeed. Rather, the Talmud refers to lack of any "improvement" over the five years. Such a situation is extremely rare and hardly ever occurs. Too often schools and teachers do not put enough effort into academically weak students. They are only interested in dealing with the highly intelligent and successful students. As a result, the weaker students are left at the side, and often they turn into the losers in society, all because they were not given a fair chance in their education. Rav and the teacher

The Talmud (Ta'anis 24a) relates an amazing story. The great Rosh Yeshiva known as Rav came to a place where there was a draught. Rav decreed a public fast day, but not a drop of rain fell. Only when a certain person lead the congregation in prayer the situation changed. As he repeated the Shemoneh Esrei and said "He makes the wind blow" a gush of wind swept through the congregation. When he said "He makes the rain descend" the rain started pouring down. After the service, Rav asked the person "what is your occupation?" He answered, "I teach young children, I accept the children of the poor just as the children of the rich, and whoever cannot afford tuition I do not charge. I own some fish ponds, and when a student does not want to read I bribe him with a fish, and I work with him and appease him until he is ready to read." This teacher went all the way for his students. He knew how to encourage the ones who were weak and unmotivated, and he was ready to work with any child from any background. G'd clearly showed how pleasing the actions of this teacher were, and He let everyone benefit from his good deeds.

Fulfill potential

Every single child has the right to be helped according to "his ways", building his strengths and overcoming his weaknesses. The Talmud (Bava Basra 21a) relates how at the time of the Second Temple the High Priest Yehoshua ben Gamla instituted that in every town and in every province there should be teachers to instruct the children. Ever since it has been the pride of the Jewish people, that every child is given the opportunity to learn at one of the educational facilities to assist the parents in their holy task to educate their children. School and home must combine their effort to educate every individual child to fulfill his potential and thus achieve his unique purpose in life.

These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel