Chinuch - Priorities
I once purchased an uncommon photograph of the Rogachaver Gaon from a Russian peddler in Jerusalem. The old man appeared neither particularly learned nor observant, and my curiosity was naturally piqued: why had he specifically chosen such an unusual article to sell? He proudly replied that he was born in Dvinsk and that he remembered the Rogachaver as a child. When I asked him if he had any memories of the Gadol, he began, "The Rogachaver used to give shiur in his beis medrash to a group of ba'lei batim, and as was common then, some children occasionally sat to listen along. Once, the Rav reached a piece of Gemara he felt was not appropriate for young children, so he sent us out to go to the courtyard to play. We ran outside and in the course of our rowdy play we broke some barrels and vessels which were lying there.
"Apparently the Rogachaver heard the loud crashes, because a short time later he ran out and screamed at us and expelled us from the courtyard. We were quite scared, so we kept away the following day as well.
"When the Rogachaver sat down to give shiur the next day he noticed that no child was present. A look of distress swept his face and he cried, "Oy vey, look what have I done! The children are insulted that I rebuked them yesterday, so they don't want to come back any more!" The balei batim tried to calm their beloved Rebbi down. "Don't worry! They caused a lot of damage yesterday - you gave them what they deserved." The Rogachaver was still not appeased. "Go tell all the children in my name," instructed the Gadol, "that I want them all to come back. And tell them that they don't have to worry. They can play as much as they want in the courtyard, and I promise that I won't yell at them again."
What is remarkable about this story - apart from its impact on the old peddler who remembered it even after decades living under Soviet rule - is the insight it teaches about priorities in chinuch. Not disturbing a Torah class is important and so is respecting another's property. But there was an even more important value that the Rogachaver wished to transmit: that youth remain feeling positive towards their rabbi, shul, and by extension, towards Torah and yiddishkeit. Certainly it is proper to reprimand children for breaking things. But at the cost of causing them to stay away from shul, is another story.
If the Rogachaver's concerns about the shtetl children of Dvinsk were applicable nearly a century ago, then how much more today. Despite the adage, 'boys will be boys,' Generation X (including Generation V and W) is not built with the same mettle as their century old counterparts. Contemporary poskim note how 'chulshah' - a spirit of both physical and psychological weakness - descended on the world, a factor that at times carries halachic weight. None of the classical mussar works written over a century ago deal with self esteem; apparently, to people then it was as natural as breathing. Now, it is among the subjects most dealt with. Consequently, raising children in the emotionally fragile world of today may require a different set of priorities to those of other generations.
This point is illustrated by a discourse by Rabbi Yosef Bloch zt'l, the Telzer rosh yeshiva in pre-war Europe. The classic mussar works speak of the need of constant introspection and to limit the indulgence of physical pleasures to a barest minimum. On the other hand, says Rabbi Bloch, obtaining a state of joy and self confidence is viewed not merely as a pure emotional need, but a vital prerequisite to Torah observance. At times the two ideals conflict; when refraining - or squandering one's energies debating whether to refrain - from a particular mundane pleasure would inhibit one's zest for life. In those circumstances the need to function in a positive, happy mindset becomes the overriding consideration, and those activities are deemed a necessity and even a mitzva.1 It follows, that a successful chinuch program, one which equips a youth leaving the protective custody of home and school to continue the path he was led in his childhood, is not based on comprehensive knowledge and practice in Torah laws alone. An equally important criteria is to facilitate their happiness and self esteem, so that they may walk through life energetically and with strong confident strides.
Baruch Hashem, this picture is lived today by the overwhelming majority of products of our Yeshivos. And the Jewish people owe an eternal debt of gratitude to today's parents and mechanchim who have successfully raised such a beautiful generation of Torah dedication against all odds. But as is well known, this is unfortunately not always the case. Rabbi Pam, Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Voda'ath, views a primary cause for yeshiva dropouts today as a result of low self esteem caused by overly critical and demanding parents and teachers. 2 But while non-conformity generally attracts more attention than personal suffering, it should be noted that for every youth that makes a total break away from yiddishkeit, there are many more who bear their resentment and disillusionment silently. Sometimes these scars are carried for life and passed on to future generations. Though a minority, their needs are significant and must also be addressed.
To a weak student, even one blessed with understanding parents and teachers, will at times find the classroom as the unavoidable source of dejection. The Gemara 3 relates that when Moshe ascended to heaven to receive the Torah he saw Hashem adorning the letters of the Torah with crowns. When told that Rabbi Akiva will some day expound the meanings of these crowns, Moshe asked Hashem permission to see him. Moshe turned around and found himself in Rabbi Akiva's class and sat inconspicuously in a back row. Moshe was not able to follow Rabbi Akiva's lecture and felt dejected until Rabbi Akiva was asked the source of a certain law and replied that it was transmitted by Moshe from Sinai. If the humble Moshe, teacher of Israel, felt dejected by not following one single shiur, then how much dejected would a young person, who is neither a respected teacher nor prophet, who sits in a class day after day, month after month, without comprehension feel!
True, Hashem bestows people with resilience, and many people challenged with unhappy childhood experiences later develop into outstanding adults. But there is a limit even to resilience. The Beis Halevi throughout his life was an exuberant and joyful man, but bitter life experiences broke his spirit in his last years. When gently reprimanded by a relative about his change of spirit, Rav Yosef Ber replied, "Not for nothing do we refer to savlanus as the midda or measure of patience. Just as one cannot expect a one kav measure to hold two kavim, so one cannot expect a person to bear suffering which exceeds his human limits." What a tragic waste if, instead of a place of nurturing, a young person finds his reservoir of resiliency drained during the prime years of youth, even before having to step out to face the challenges of adulthood.
The Mishna 4describes four types of students, one of them is compared to a strainer which passes out the wine and collects the sediment. Perhaps this mishna can be taken as a statement rather than an admonition. We are informed of four primary categories, which will forever comprise a total student body, in order we may accommodate all their needs. Some students will absorb the fine flour; some will be like a sponge and take in everything indiscriminately. But be sure their diet includes sediment, for though to you it may seem extraneous, it is another's soul food 5. Perhaps that is one of the reasons Rabba began his shiur with a humorous comment 6. While the greater minds were satiated with his great Torah insights, he wanted the lesser one's to at least derive some pleasure and benefit from hearing a light remark. 7
I learned this lesson from my great teachers whom I was fortunate to study from. When I was in Rabbi Mendel Kaplan's zt'l class, I certainly was not one of his better students, and sadly I am unable to recall a single chiddush from sitting in his shiur. But he made an effort to befriend me, even going raspberry picking with me by the wild shrubs around the yeshiva, or calling me out of second seder to go with him for a walk. During those times he would talk to me about all sorts of interesting subjects, and it is particularly those fascinating discussions which are forever etched in my mind.
Years later, when I came to the Lakewood yeshiva as an older single bachur, I became close with the Mashgiach, Rabbi Nosson Wachsfogel zt'l. Though in the yeshiva the Mashgiach constantly stressed the importance of the study of mussar, our relationship was strictly based on friendship. He must have sensed the pain I was going through as a result of my unmarried status and decided that I would gain more from a relationship with him as a friend rather than ba'al mussar. During all my single years in the Yeshiva he never once gave me mussar, said to me a harsh word or even asked me why I didn't come to his shmuesim and va'adim. Instead he would always treat me with warmth and respect, invite me to his home, and never tire from the role of sympathetic friend, whom older singles sometimes need to unburden themselves to.8 When years later I found myself sitting behind the teachers desk, I sought to return the favor my Rebbeim have done for me. To the better students who benefited from my class, I felt relieved to have somewhat fulfilled my obligations as a teacher. But what of the poor students who suffer day after day trying to make sense of what I'm saying and still don't get it. To them, I felt I owed a great deal of admiration and an obligation to reach out to.
Ironically, it was not the better students who occupied the bulk of my time and energy, who demonstrate the most appreciation. It was particularly the weaker students whom I made insufficiently few overtures of warmth, the ones whom I gave small rewards from time to time and joked around with after school, who would call to wish me a good Yom Tov even years after leaving my class. The impact a little love can have on the lives of these students cannot be underestimated. One of my prized possessions is a stuffed smiley doll, a sad, weak student gave to me the last day of class. Pinned on it was a note which read:
This (smiley doll) is a small reminder of what I was missing in my life and because of you was able to acquire for my neshama, heart and most importantly, to bring it to my life, b'sd. Thank you. May Hashem send you many more students.
What's good from the cow, good from the bovine?
Amongst the most enigmatic commandments in the Torah is the mitzva of para aduma - the red heifer. Paradoxically the very same water which when sprinkled upon a defiled person, makes him pure, defiles a pure person who unnecessarily handles it. Although to fully plumb the depths of this mitzva remains beyond human understanding, the Shela Hakodesh offers a practical lesson which can be gleaned from the mysterious heifer: the very same thing which is good for one person may be bad for another. What defiles you may purify me.
About twenty years ago, a number of young askonim from Zeirei Agudas Yisroel approached several gedolim with a proposal to arrange organized basketball leagues between High Schools in order to reach out to youth who would otherwise be hanging out in inappropriate places. Reb Shneur Kotler zt'l, among others, gave their wholehearted approval. In the course of his reply, Reb Yaakov Kamenetzky, zt'l related to them the following story:
In prewar Europe the effects of haskala penetrated even the best of homes. The son of a well-known maggid was one such casualty. Once, the maggid walked into his son's room and saw him reading a book from Achad Ha'am, a popular enlightened author of the time. The maggid expressed disapproval of the book, but his son readily countered. "Papa, I challenge you to open up any page of the book, read it, and tell me if you find anything wrong with it."
His father took the book, read a page and handed his verdict.
"I was right. It's treif."
"But what did you find wrong with it?" the son asked.
"If on an entire page, the name of Hashem doesn't appear even once, such a book is treif."
Concluded Reb Yaakov, "Similar to that maggid, I say to you. To put these boys in a wholesome environment where in an entire evening they will not be transgressing any wrong, such a project is a very noble thing."
Perhaps someone else would have concluded that an evening of basketball is like a page lacking G-d's name. But Reb Yaakov spun the story in the opposite direction to its simple meaning, though still embracing one unifying principle. For what one person is deemed G-dless - to be momentarily without G-d's awareness - is to another, G-dly - spending the same time without sin. While it is our duty to personally distance ourselves and our children from influences we think unbeneficial, at the same time it would be a tragic mistake to always advocate it's elimination. One person may find Torah verses put to a secular tune repulsive, but it may be another's source of spiritual elevation. I once asked a ba'al teshuva what his first religious experience was. He answered, attending a "Shlock Rock" concert. Similarly, a "Jewish" techno-thriller may be of no positive value to some readers. But to call for its demise may be depriving others a kosher alternative to far worse reading material.
There is a famous story of the Dubno Maggid about a man who checks into a hotel and asks the bellboy to carry his suitcase up to his room. The bellboy finally reaches the room in a state of exhaustion, complaining all the while about the weight of the heavy luggage. "What did you put in there, rocks or something!" cried the bellhop. "Rocks?" asked the guest incredulously. "My suitcase has fine silks which are light and a pleasure to carry. If the suitcase seems heavy, you must have taken someone else's by mistake."
Torah is light. It is a challenge; but a pleasant challenge. If Torah seems like a burden it may be because it is loaded with unnecessary baggage.
It is the greatness of our people that we continuously accept upon ourselves not only the barest minimum of Torah requirements, but also additional voluntary acts of devotion. But this is often a matter of personal choice. There lies a danger, however, to blur the demarcation between the obligatory and voluntary and to portray the whole lump definitively as "Torah." For if a recipient finds the excess burden imposed upon him unpalatable, he may be tempted to cast away the entire lot indiscriminately.
The Torah therefore takes into consideration the diversity of the human condition, and numerous mitzvos have been given elasticity as a result. The Torah exhorts us to 'be holy' 8a which the Ramban explains to mean that one should not be gluttonous even in permissible areas. But how many steaks and glasses of wine a person may eat and how many are considered excessive is not delineated in the Torah. This is because the definition of excess varies from person to person. One person's luxury may be another's necessity. 9 Another example is Torah study. While every person should strive to study Torah as much as possible, the Ohr Someach 10 writes that the obligation varies according to the specific nature of each individual. A person with "a weak consistency, particular needs that he is accustomed to, or whose natural abilities are dull and sluggish" does not have the same obligation to Torah study as one whose "soul feels with its sensitive intellect a tightly bound love for Torah study."
Accordingly, a young person may not necessarily be lacking frumkeit or idealism when he does not learn a night seder every night of the week. He may truly not have the physical or mental stamina for it. If we were to look down on him, or call him a bum for not doing the will of Hashem, he may be tempted to think, "If I'm a bum anyhow, I might as well enjoy being one. You think this is called a bum? I'll show you what a real bum is." But if we respect the abilities of those students and try to develop their potential according to their specific needs, (such as by providing life skills or structured recreation), they will respond with gratitude and become an irreplaceable resource for our people.
"Life and death I have given before you, the blessing and curse. And you shall choose life in order that you shall live" 11. Hashem commands us to exercise our free will and choose the portion of blessing and goodness. But the path of "life" is very wide road, which encompasses a varied spectrum of spiritual possibilities.
Diverging Paths of Life
At Har Sinai each soul was given a unique personalized measure of Torah. Some were given Tanach; others have the potential to understand Mishna, some Talmud, and some were given a share in all portions of the Torah. 12 How does one know what his portion is? The Shevet Mussar answers, "It is certain that the area of study which a person has a desire to study, and also comprehends, is the portion which was given to him on Sinai" 13.In a similar vein, the Arizal 14 writes that there are some people whose sole interest is to study the simple meaning of the Torah, while others pursue d'rash, remez, sod or even gematrias - all according to the unique mission he was sent into this world to accomplish.
This principle extends to general life choices as well. My Rebbi, Rabbi Mendel Kaplan would encourage his students to develop their unique personalities. He would sometimes ask his students, "If you can be anyone in Tanach, who would you like to be?" so they can get in touch with their inner strengths. In generations of old, artistic expression was a respectable mode of Divine service. The Ramchal wrote plays, Ibn Ezra poetry, and the beautifully crafted menoras and illuminated manuscripts from centuries ago testify to the love those artisans had for those objects of mitzva. I sometimes fear that even if David Hamelech wouldn't fare too well if raised in our times.
David: Father, look what I wrote! A song which speaks of my love for Torah. (Hands his father several pages.)
Father: You spent all that time writing this?! You could have better spent that time learning a Rashba! If you love the Torah as much as you claim, you'd spend all your time learning it, not writing songs about it. If I told you once, I told you 119 times, poetry is for girls. Why can't you spend all your time learning Gemara like your brothers? You're an embarrassment to our good family name. You have a good head, I know you can do better than this. If you want to do something people will remember you by, try writing a lomdushe sefer.
But nowhere is this diversity as clearly demonstrated as in choosing a vocation. In the view of the Torah, one of the legitimate paths of "choosing life" is by earning a livelihood 15. When a person who is not cut out for full-time Torah study leaves yeshiva to earn a livelihood, it should not be viewed pitifully as a sign of personal failure. Rather, it is the embarkment of a new stage in one's spiritual development 16. Such individuals comprise the ideal family, as King David describes the abundant blessing of the modest mother of Israel. "Your children shall be like olive shoots surrounding your table"17 .The Tanna D'vei Eliyahu 18 explains: "Just like the olive tree produces many varieties, olives for eating, olives for drying, olives for lamp oil. Similarly, the righteous modest woman's children are also as varied as the olive. Some children are masters of Scriptures, some are masters of Mishna, some are masters of Talmud, and some are businessmen." All are fruitful blessings of Hashem and a source of pride for their parents. The will of Hashem is achieved specifically through this diversity. Regarding the command to light the Menora it states: 'Towards the center stem of the Menorah shall the seven lamps cast light' 19. The obvious question is, since the Menora had six branches facing the center stem, the verse should have read, 'Towards the center stem shall the six lamps burn.' The Seforno answers, when the flame of all six branches face the center stem, only then shall all seven lamps bestow Divine spiritual light to the Jewish people. He explains, that the branches on the right symbolize those who are involved in spiritual matters exclusively, and the left those who are involved in the mundane affairs of the physical world. Only when both are directed to serving Hashem (which is symbolized by the straight center stem which is the main part of the Menora), does the Divine Light of the center stem function properly and radiate light to the Jewish people.
Only through the combined efforts of all, the varied services of Jews from all walks of life and situations, the Torah scholar as well as the tradesman, is Hashem's name elevated and exalted as Hashem intended by creation. This, he says, is what the Jewish people declared at Sinai. 'And the whole nation responded with one voice and they said, 'All the words Hashem has spoke we will do' 20.The plural tense of their acceptance signifies that only through the combined efforts of the entire nation will Hashem's intention for creation be fulfilled.
By appreciating and encourage the blossoming of each individual's potential we come one step closer to the fulfillment of the ideal state of mankind; 'v'asu kulam aguda echas la'asos retzoncha beleivov shaleim' - 'And may they all form a single group to do Your will with a perfect heart.'
1 Shiurei Da'as, vol. 2, p. 112.
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