Ve’Shinantam Le’Vanecha: Can We Do Any Better?

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An old, run down looking classroom with empty desks

What does it mean to really teach, not merely stand in front of a classroom filled with students?  To make a world come alive for your students and not simply transfer information; to fully engage a student so that his life, and yours, are enlarged?  To be a true teacher is to establish a relationship of respect and trust between you and your student.

Too often, teachers firmly believe that respect is a one-way street that it is incumbent upon the student to come to the relationship with respect and the teacher’s to receive respect.  But it is the teacher’s responsibility to establish and nurture that respectful relationship.  Rambam suggests as much in Hilchot Talmud Torah:  K’shem shehatalmidim chayavim l’chabed ha’rav, kach ha’rav tzarich l’chabed es talmidav u’lkarvan – “Just as the students are obligated to honor the rebbe, so must the rebbe honor his students and draw them near.”  Even more than honor, Rambam adds that the teacher need be careful with his students and love them, since they are the children who give him pleasure in this world, as well as the next. The keys to successful teaching are kavod  (honor), kiruv (drawing them near), zehirus (care and concern) and ahavah (love).

Too often, our teachers teach as though their students are obligated to them rather than they being obligated to their students.  At best, they treat their students as passive vessels to be badgered as they are filled with information.  And should they fall short…?  They treat them as being unworthy of their time and attention.

But I ask, can a young man fail at being a Jew?

Is a student any less a Jew if he performs poorly in his studies or if he behaves incorrigibly?  Is his soul worth any less to G-d?  Is he any less dear to his mother and father?  Is he to be banished for his failings?  Or should ways be found to hold on to him, knowing that each and every soul is worth the whole of creation?

Sadly, these are not theoretical questions.  Too often, yeshivot (Jewish schools) administrators and teachers lash out at students in anger and rigidity rather than showing them the devotion and concern Rambam counseled.  Sometimes, to tragic ends.  According to an account, reported exclusively by Kikar Shabbat, a young man had attended a respected school five years ago.  While the young man was studying at the yeshiva, his father fell seriously ill and was hospitalized for a period of time.  The young man, who was not a model student before his father’s hospitalization, struggled more after this increased emotional stress in his family.Empty desks

Did the young man’s teachers and yeshiva administrators reach out to him or to his family?  Did they show needed sensitivity or compassion?  By all accounts, no, which, in turn, only served to worsen his emotional state.

This is when things truly began to unravel in this young man’s life.  Rather than show its student rachmanut, compassion, as his emotional stress was reflected in his behavior and performance, the yeshiva expelled him beginning a story which has no happy ending.  As a young adult, this former student took his own life.

His brother had no doubt where to place the blame for this tragic loss:

I learned in the same school and I know the situation first hand.  The teachers killed him. I remember that period very well, when he wanted to come back to school and they did not permit him to. Even if a child is a joker and troublemaker, they must know how to deal with him and not to break him.

Bitter words.  Hard words.  Words, admittedly, expressed during a time of extreme grief.  However, there is one point that resonates true, that needs to be examined.  “[They] must know how to deal with him and not to break him.”

When did our teachers cease to love transmitting knowledge and become, instead, masters of discipline?  When did we stop seeing our children as priceless and unique and instead come to view them as fanatical automatons?

When a student does not respond to one style of teaching, why is it the student who must bend?  Why must he conform to a teaching style, rather than the teaching style adapt to him?   There are those who look askance at such “liberal” and “permissive” learning methods.  But is it so wrong to provide a variety of learning menus for those students, those innocent young children with precious Jewish neshamot, souls, who simply can’t meet the yeshiva’s methods and expectations for whatever reason?

A demonstration of genuine love and concern for the talmid (student) would be to provide a full spectrum of learning opportunities.  These could include Talmud, but also Chumash, Navi, machshava (thought), hashkafa (religious outlook), the works of musar (character improvement) and, an introduction to practical skills necessary for eventual parnasah needs.

About such students, those who are shunned by their teachers, Rav Ovadya Yosef asks, “Whom are you throwing out? A rock?  Some accumulated trash?”

Worse, to what environment are we throwing them?  To a world teeming with sin and squalor, to a world filled with drugs and senseless temptation.  To a place that will only bring them further down.

What does it say about us that we treat our students thus?  Rav Shmuel Brudny, one of the most esteemed Roshei Yeshiva in Brooklyn’s Mir always stood up when approached by a student!  Imagine!  He would never remain seated when speaking to any of his students.  What love and honor he communicated to them in that simple, determined gesture of respect!

Fine and good for a prominent and beloved rabbi, but what of the exhausted and beleaguered teacher?  After all, it is all fine and good to elevate teaching to such a high spiritual level in theory, or as the behavior for the blessed few.  But in practice, teaching is hard work.  Students come to class with a myriad of problems and issues that seem far beyond the scope of the teacher to solve or even address.

Yes, teaching is challenging.  Very.  But it is never wise to conclude that your student’s problems and issues have no solution.  Every child can be reached.  This must be the fundamental belief and strategy of every teacher.  Perhaps it appears impossible with the traditional methods but it need not be so with more creative, caring methods.  Every child can be reached.  Every Jew prays daily “V’haer eineinu b’Toratecha” – light up our eyes with Your Torah.  Each of us can be turned on to the light of Torah.  If not, why beseech G-d for the light?  The key to teaching is finding the right switch to turn on that light – to fully identify with the student, to understand where he is “coming from.”

When you can see and sense what your student does, then you will find the solution to how to teach him.  Is it really so radical to ask that the teacher reach out to the student?  Is it so unconventional for a teacher to “walk a mile” in the shoes of his student so that he can better help them see the light of Torah?

Too often, we teach as if our students were not living, breathing human beings but some defined quantity of “student” to simply stuff with knowledge.  Where, in that, is the dignity of learning?  Of teaching?

Rav Pam speaks of the introduction of R’ Akiva Eiger to his Teshuvos, Responsa, wherein his children describe his guidelines for publishing his responses. Among those guidelines was the instruction that they delete all honorary titles addressed to him in the letters asking the questions, being that many of the sha’ilot (questions) had been posed by his very many talmidim who eventually became rabbis in various European communities; in the printed sefer he insisted that none be addressed as talmidi – my student.  “I never called anyone ‘my student’ because who could know who learned more from whom, me from them or them from me?”

If we only shared this same humility, respect and love of our students.  Talmidim are quite literally thrown out to the streets like so much discarded trash.  And the community’s response?  Sure, we bemoan all the teens at risk out there.  It’s terrible.  A shanda, a shame.  But do we ever stop to ask, How did they get there?  

We remain silent even as louder and more pronounced “threats” are voiced.  Students who do not conform will not be allowed back in the yeshiva, nor will their siblings be allowed to attend for fear they might bring “impurities” from their homes into the school!  Wouldn’t it benefit ourselves and our students to embrace the sentiments of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik who taught that:

Teaching involves more than the transmission of knowledge and understanding. It requires empathy between teacher and student, and a sharing of feelings, thought and motives. There is an interaction of personalities, an exchange of values and insights.

To teach is to know how to unlock not only the mind, but the heart, feeling and interest of every student, as well. “What we require,” Rav Soloveitchik continued, “is the warm embrace as much as the brilliant idea; sympathetic understanding, true befriending, and a human reaching out: a suggestion that we care; the teaching role is inadequate.”

Rather than seek to unlock the heart of their students, yeshivot lock their doors to them and throw them out.  Do they ever think, Where should they go and what will become of these “throw-aways”?

It wasn’t so long ago that we embraced every student who was willing to sign up for yeshiva; only a short few decades ago that we feared the day would come when we would have to close our yeshivot for lack of students.  And now?  Yeshivot are greedy for more classroom space to accommodate the multitudes of students.  The thinking seems to be, We have more than enough students to spare.  We have the “luxury” of being “choosey”; of throwing out all who do not conform to our strict standards.  

So, indeed, where do they go when we throw them out?

Of all our questions, this is the easiest to answer for the answer stares us in the face every single day.  We see and meet the expelled talmidim on the street corners and avenues of all major Orthodox neighborhoods, entrenched in all that is ugly and foreign to Torah life.  Instead of turning away, pause and speak to these young men.  Ask them, How did you get here?

You will hear the answer openly and honestly.  “They threw me out of the yeshiva.”

What offense committed in yeshiva deserves such a fate?

Look where our children end up, on the streets!  WHAT IS OUT THERE?! We must hold and keep our children in our embrace, nurture them, help them become good Jews. No one ever entering a classroom with this mission statement as his or her credo would ever consider allowing a student to fall by the way side into the street.  But how do we hold on to them?

Rav Ovadya Yosef counseled patience:

Don’t throw them out.  We are dealing with nefashos (souls)!  This is dinei nefashos (category of Jewish law dealing with capitol punishment).  Our Rabbonim only addressed dinei nefashos when there was a Sanhedrin, 23 chachamim. This is dinei nefashos. You throw him out and what will be with him then?  You know what will be?  Do you accept responsibility for what he will become?

Therefore, you must love him and smother him with love… bring them closer with sweet words and this is how we bring them into the Torah fold.

Think of this child as your son, what would you do? You would tolerate him! This is a son, your son! Ve’shinantam le’vanecha (and you should teach it to your children) refers to your students.

The power and importance of Rav Yosef’s counsel can be found in an article in Ami Magazine.  The article, which I paraphrase here, was related by Sarah Pachter and concerned an incident that happened long ago in a yeshiva in which a young student had been caught smoking… on Shabbat!  The mere mention of the trespass seemed so blasphemous as to make one shudder.  Certainly such an offender would be expelled from the yeshiva, never again to study a daf Gemara, a page of Talmud.

That is what would happen today, for a much lesser transgression.  But that is not what happened.  As the story was told, before such an outcome could unfold, the transgressor found himself briefly in the company of the Chofetz Chaim.  What happened during those brief moments when the two were together remained known only to the two of them.  What was known to the young man’s classmates was that he returned to yeshiva a few minutes later, reopened his Gemara and from that moment forward dedicated himself to his studies with devotion and determination.

In fact, he eventually became a rav.

Such an unexpected outcome!  What had the Chofetz Chaim said to this young profligate?  What could he have said, what could anyone have said that had the power to transform a person in such a short time?  The answer to this question puzzled many; and they often considered it as they went about their own lives over the years and decades that followed.

And then, many years later, it happened that another rabbi was delivering a Shabbat afternoon lecture in a hotel in Miami.  On this particular Shabbat, post-afternoon nap and post-Mincha, the room was filled with participants.  The rabbi began with a quote from the Gemara where Rabbi Tarfon says, “I doubt that there is anyone in this generation who accepts reproach. If you tell someone, ‘Remove the splinter from between your teeth,’ he will retort, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes.’”

In the context of this quote, he recounted a story he had once heard, a story of a time the Chofetz Chaim had touched the heart of a wayward bochur in Radun with the most amazing results.  “And although we don’t know what the Chofetz Chaim said, we do know that the young boy stayed in yeshiva and was later ordained by the Chofetz Chaim himself.”

The rabbi then proceeded with the rest of his drasha, sermon.  When he was finished, an older man rose and slowly approached him.  Shaking the rabbi’s hand, the man asked him where he knew the story from.

The rabbi shrugged.  “To tell you the truth, I’m not really sure where I heard it. Maybe I read it somewhere a long time ago. What’s more, I can’t even verify its authenticity, but there’s a great message to be learned there.”

A faraway look took over the elderly man’s mien.  “Oh, the story is true; there’s no doubt about that. I was just curious where you knew it from.”  Then he sighed.  “I didn’t realize anyone still remembered it…except for me.”  He raised his eyes to the rabbi and held him in his gaze.  “I was that young man.”

The rabbi looked at him, astonished.  Without waiting, the old man went on to say how, as a young man, he had wanted to break free from the yeshiva, to see and experience the world.  He got no joy or pleasure from his studies; no meaning.  But his parents were adamant.  Being determined, he decided that, if he could not leave on his own accord, he would do something that would force the yeshiva to send him away.

And so he did.

The rabbi listened with deep consideration until the old man paused.  “So, nu, tell me. What earth-shattering insights did the Chofetz Chaim share that caused you to change direction so suddenly?”

The older man smiled even as his eyes misted over with the power of that long ago moment.  “He said, ‘Shabbos.’”

The rabbi’s eyes arched questioningly.

The old man nodded.  “That is all.  He said, ‘Shabbos’ and then he began to cry.  How his tears splashed down!  He took me in his arms, hugged me, and repeated the one word, ‘Shabbos.’ It was not the length of time his ‘reproach’ took; it was its intensity, the largeness of his heart.

“And then it was all over. As he walked me to the door I was suddenly filled with the feeling that there was obviously nothing more important in the world than Shabbos. If the Chofetz Chaim loved it, then I loved it too. It was as simple as that.”

If one is to teach, this is the lesson he must learn.

Love.  Caring.  Joy.  These will return a reprobate to the fold; not punishment, not banishment.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of communications and marketing.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.