By Rabbi Nochem Kaplan
There is a growing movement in our Mosdos Chinuch toward a blending of “state of the art” educational ideas into the world of Jewish education and toward greater professionalism. We employ a wider range of instructional techniques to be able to reach children at either end of the spectrum, the gifted, the different and the dysfunctional learners. Mechanchim are using more and more technology to make their lessons more effective.
In the first piece in this series I wrote that as good as all this progress is I feel compelled to raise some concerns. I fear that in this general movement toward professionalism, we may lose sight of what we know to be the educational essence of all essences. We must make sure that all this progressive work does not overshadow our need to be constantly aware of the greatest imperative of all Chinuch Objectives, that of fostering of Yiras Shamayim and each child’s personal commitment to Torah and Mitzvos. And, we must concentrate the continuous development of Midos Tovos-the refined personal character of our students and their ethical and moral fiber.
It would seem obvious that what is expected of Chabad Chinuch above all else is to imbue students with the core Torah values which are prerequisite to the development of proper Yiras Shamayim and Midos Tovos. In this series of articles, I would like to briefly dwell upon the relative importance of three core values which we must imbue within our children from an early age, which make it possible to successfully develop our Yiras Shamayim goals.
The first prerequisite value, is the development of an attitude of Kabolas Ol (I wrote that I could not find the appropriate English translation, but for lack of better term) – the unequivocal obedience to a Higher (Devine) authority.
Children must be able to instinctively feel that Halacha is not negotiable. When he is told that something is a Halachic requirement for him, he must learn to feel that much as is it obligatory it is also the way to become closer to the Al-Mighty. This is prerequisite to Yiras Shamayim. The unique contribution of Chabad chinuch is that this very idea of obedience be presented with love and warmth by the rebbe or morah and accompanied by an encouraging and comforting narrative.
The second imperative is relates to the development of more refined value system and personal characteristics. We must spend more time and effort inculcating the essential value of Midos Tovos, caring about others, not in the abstract but in the small things children relate to in their daily lives.
In bygone times, one of the basic values which identified a successful Torah Mechanechwas his ability impress his students and imbue them with a more refined feeling for the importance of proper personal conduce and inter-personal relationships, Midos Tovos. This was a matter upon which Chassidim placed a great deal of emphasis.
Of course children always argued and fought among themselves but that took place within acceptable parameters; inflicting physical pain or causing acute embarrassment were out of bounds. There was great value placed on acts of kindness, on helping one another and watching out for each other’s welfare. On a most basic level, appreciation for one another implies that a child’s own desires sometimes must take a secondary role and someone else’s needs must be primary, at least for the moment.
A Chassidic Mechanech spent much time teaching and demonstrating the value of Ahavas Yisroel and Midos Tovos as Divine attributes which we cherish; they were seen as the foundation upon which proper Chassidic Chinuch was built. Somehow many of us have lost sight of the fact that these values are ultimately the essential ingredient of all desirable Jewish character traits. Midos Tovos are not an added value of proper Chinuch; they are the essence of proper Chinuch and they must be taught, they will not be learned by osmosis.
I suggest that these values have been neglected over the years as Chassidic life was transplanted from pre-war Europe to the blessed shores of America. In an attempt to blend more forward looking, Western ideas with traditional Chinuch we have over-compensated. These values, once most prized among Chassidim no longer assume their rightful place. We spend too much of our time upgrading our “educational systems” and not enough on assuring that our Chinuch exudes these essential values. I think we need to take a good introspective look at where Chabad Chinuch now concentrates its efforts and re-boot. We need to stress the values we know to be the essentials.
Let us acknowledge that our Mechanchim and Mechanchos are charged with an awesome responsibility. They must reach out to the Neshama of their students and within everything they do in the classrooms, they must see to it that they inspire their spiritual development of their students. What then must the Mechanech do in order to develop these essential ideals?
To shed some light on the issue let us look into the educational “magnum opus” of theRebbe RaYaTz directed by his father Rebbe RaSh’B OM”M, Koloei HaChinuch V’Hahadrocho. One of the cardinal issues, the Rebbe suggests is that imparting the essence of Torah and Chassidishe Chinuch is predicated upon a very personal relationship between the melamed and his talmidim.
We cannot replace the Melamed with a computer when it comes to transmitting the essence of Torah. Transmission of Torah requires Mesorah, the actual passing of tradition from generation to generation; the relationship between student andMechanech cannot be replaced. We need to look at relationship with our Talmidimcarefully and perhaps see if all the essentials of that relationship are in place.
The Rebbe writes in Koloei HaChinuch V’Hahadrocho (Ch. 13) of essential elements which must be present in order for a successful student – Mechanech relationship to develop. Three are expected of the student and three of the Mechanech.
The first is that the student must respect his Mechanech. It is not the external trappings of merely acting respectfully which the Rebbe is referring to, rather he means actually feeling an inner sense of respect.
I heard from the eminent MashpiaReb Shlomo Chaim Kesselman, who had studied in the preparatory yeshiva in Schedrin, Russia under Reb Shoul Ber Zislin, in the first part of the 20th century. Rabbi Zislin was only about 10 years his senior but the respect and esteem in which he held him never abated. 50 years later at Reb Shoul Ber’s funeral, Rabbi Kesselman was unable to speak of his mentor in the first person and admitted that he had never yet addressed him by name and he couldn’t bring himself to do so even after half a century.
That kind of respect is earned it is not cultivated. It was fostered in the yeshivas in Russia and became the basis upon which students built personal relationships with their mentors. It seems almost quaint to talk of that kind of respect today.
Secondly the Rebbe says, the student must trust his Mechanech. The Rebbe reportedly told one of my friends, “a Mechanech shouldn’t exaggerate the child will vicariously deduce that just as this was an exaggeration so too are other things he tells him”. One of worst things we can do to a child is rob him of his trust (abusers do that). A student must know beyond any shadow of doubt, that his Mechanech has his best interest at heart at all times and he can trust his judgment and advice.
What to do when a teacher is told something in confidence? The child must be told in advance “if you tell me something which I consider to harmful to you, I have to tell because I love you. Short term Loss, Long term gain
Finally, the student must accept the personal discipline expected of him. He must accept that the Mechanech is disciplining for his own good and that whatever limits are placed upon him, are there for his long-term benefit.
Rabbi Y. Ushpol related that in September of 1943, just two years after the fledgling founding of the Lubavitcher yeshiva in New York, the Rebbe, author of this work, whose health had seriously deteriorated, he was then recovering from a stroke, yet called the small staff of the yeshiva to talk to them about their responsibility. Rabbi Ushpol recalled that the Rebbe impressed upon the group that their job was to discipline lovingly. Some of the points he made were novel at the time and are as meaningful today as were then.
The Rebbe said, in a classrooms rules must rule, not the dictatorship
(or whim) of a teacher. He told them that discipline is established when the children understand that they benefit from it not when they accept it out of fear. The operative word is “Zehirus”, literally it means a warning to act with care, but the Rebbe said it means that the Mechanech must truly “care” about his students for him to be able to properly manage a class. If there is no demonstrable caring, he said, the child may become bitter and cynical.
The Rebbe placed the responsibility of developing these behavioral attitudes in the students, squarely upon the shoulders of the Mechanchim.
The Rebbe then discusses three essential issues which are expected of the Mechanech in his relationship with his students.
The first is that the Mechanech must endeavor to understand his students; that they are all individuals who come to him with differences in nature and nurture.
Every child is equipped with natural abilities; they are the basic tools with which he is equipped by his maker to make a success of his life. Similarly, his experiences may be the acquired limitations and/or the expanding skills-set within which he uses those tools. To be optimally successful a Mechanech must understand each student’s natural and acquired makeup, argues the Rebbe.
Much as he would not expect a lame student compete with a fleet footed one so too should two different students be expected to compete academically, each student should compete with his own previous record. And, much as the artistically inclined student will express himself differently from the musician, so too must students with different talents be given opportunities to sue their medium of expression, even if the ideas are the same. None of this is possible if the Mechanech is unaware of each student’s abilities.
In the yeshiva in Lubavitch standards of behavior were very strict; expectations were clear and consequences were sure. The story is told (I heard it from those who were present at the time) that once the Rebbe himself, as dean of the yeshiva, was poised to dismiss a certain student for his audacious language in addressing a member of the faculty. When his father heard of the incident he said, that since he is a young man who grew up in Nevel, where salty language was the norm, the dismissal was unwarranted. Even the Rebbe as a young man, was instructed by his father to overlook an obvious transgression because it light of the individual involved it did not warrant dismissal as it may have if another student had done the same thing.
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe did not allow students in the rabbinical school to attend any other institution or seriously get involved in other fields. When he was told of a particular student who had serious musical talent and was surreptitiously taking a music course, he instructed him to get private music lessons for which the Rebbe himself paid the tuition.
Second, the Mechanech must relate to his students caringly and lovingly. No matter who the student is and what the issue being dealt with is, the student must feel that there is genuine caring on the part of the Mechanech. The Rebbe uses the words “yachasey ahavah” what he is implying is that you don’t need to love all your students, but you must treat them lovingly.
The Rebbe once commented on the fact that in the injunction for continuous Torah study the expression is “and you shall teach them diligently to your children” in spite of fact that it speaks of mentor-student relationship. The choice of the word “children” is meant to teach us that the tool by which a teacher should assess his relationship with his pupils is “would I want this done to my own child”?
Treating students lovingly means encouraging rather than belittling them, it means careful choice of tone and words, it means complementing rather than denigrating them, it means understanding that are not always at their best and helping them live up to you expectations. It means going out of your way and going the extra mile to help them maximize their potential.
Finally, the Mechanech must from time to time carefully contemplate his student’s moral and ethical development. Torah is not an academic pursuit; it must guide one life and refine one’s behavior. Torah is not only a legal code, it is a moral code.
Reb Shlomo Chaim Kesselman once took me into his confidence. He had received a letter from the Rebbe about a certain talmid. The Rebbe had asked him to keep a particularly careful eye on a certain young man. “Efforts from on-high and below have been invested in him” the Rebbe enigmatically wrote, and he needed special care. Reb Sholom Chaim recognized that the fellow was going through a personal crisis but wouldn’t confide in him. Since he was a friend of mine, the Mashpia took the unusual step of asking me to be mindful and report to him if I saw anything unusual.
We just happen to know about this particular case, I can only imagine how many others there were in which the Rebbe himself instructed a Mechanech to support and encourage a student’s moral and ethical development.
So in Koloei HaChinuch V’Hahadrocho the previous Rebbe lays out these essentials as the foundation upon which the student-Mechanech relationship is built. It’s quite a bit to digest but realizing that the whole future of student may hang in the balance, it is our foremost Chinuch imperative.
The concluding piece in this series I hope to bring the reader back to its thesis: Our primary duty as Mechanchim is to assure the development of Yiras Shamayim and each child’s personal commitment to Torah and Mitzvos in addition to the development of Midos Tovos, their ethical and moral fiber.
–Rabbi Nochem Kaplan, Director of the education office of Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, is the author of the “Principal’s Administrative Manual” and of the widely acclaimed series of Halacha texts “Halichot Yisrael”, published by Torah Umesorah. He is the former president of the National Council for Private School Accreditation