Tuesday, Apr 23, 2024



As we approach the end of school year and the beginning of summer vacation, we must think seriously about the chinuch of our children. Were the teachers and us as parents and grandparents successful this past year or not? Of course, first we have to set criteria for this evaluation. What did we try to accomplish in each grade and home and what was the result? Are any of these standardized issues or even universal?

Let us begin with a vort from this week’s sedra, Behaaloscha. The posuk (8:1) tells us that Aharon was told to light the menorah in the Mishkon, but Rashi, quoting the Gemara (Shabbos 21a), adds that “the flame should rise by itself.” Meforshim over the centuries have reminded us that the menorah is symbolic of the Torah (Taanis 7b) and the flame represents the students who carry the torch from generation to generation. The Gemara is telling us that the role of the rebbi and morah is be mechanech – train and teach – the students to the point that they can continue on their own.

On the other hand, it is pointed out that the menorah was one of three of the holy vessels that had to be miksheh (Shemos 25:31), made out of a piece of gold, no attachments or add-ons, completely pure and unadulterated. This has been interpreted to mean (see, for instance, Chaim Shel…, Simchos, page 214) that we much teach children Torah in all its purity, with no foreign contamination whatsoever. This can be understood in light of such gedolim as Rav Elchonon Wasserman and Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, who made sure to have a rebbi even when they were already roshei yeshiva and major leaders themselves. How, indeed, do we raise children to be independent, yet so totally rooted in tradition and mesorah that they will never deviate from the derech they have received?

Since I have just given several end-of-year speeches and listened to many others, the questions are on my mind, because they are in the air and on everyone else’s lips as well.

I believe that the answer can be found in the resolution of the above paradox and enigma. To return to the klei haMishkon, the other two keilim that must be miksheh are the chatzotzros (Bamidbar 10:2), the gold trumpets, and the Keruvim (Shemos 25:18) atop the Aron. The chatzotzros represent the teachers and leaders, for they lead the people and chart the road to be traveled. The Keruvim represent the children (Sukkah 5b). The message seems to be that in dealing with children, be they one’s own progeny or students, they must indeed be taught as if they are the future redeemers. The Gemara (Shabbos 119b) makes this clear when it says that the “children are called the anointed ones.” The Maharal explains that just as the holy vessels are consecrated with the holy oil, so are our children vessels of holiness with limitless potential if we guard their sanctity.

But this goes even deeper. The Gemara there adds that “the whole world stands upon the breath of the holy children.” When Rav Papa asked Abaye, “But what about our Torah, yours and mine,” he answered simply “One cannot compare holy breath and breath which is sullied by sin.” If we therefore put it all together, we see that the teachers must be pure and teach in kedusha, the children must be protected and the Torah must be left unadulterated. Yet, the children must be taught to value chiddush – new and novel thoughts – with which to explain the Torah.

One resolution to this seeming conundrum may be gleaned from Rav Chaim Shmulevitz. He points out what seems to be a glaring contradiction. On the one hand, it is said of Rav Eliezer that he said things that were so original that “no one in the world has ever heard them.” On the other hand, it was said of him that “he never said anything he had not received from his rebbi.” The answer, as given by Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, was that “Rav Eliezer always thought: What would my rebbi have said?” This answer may be understood in light of the example of Rav Elchonon and his rebbi, the Chofetz Chaim, and Rav Boruch Ber and his rebbi, Rav Chaim Brisker. Each said and published incredible chiddushim, but they were first tested in the crucible of their rabbeim. “What would the rebbi have said?” has been the clarion call of all the great talmidim of great rabbeim. That is what we should exemplify to our children and students and convey through our own lifestyles.

Another story which illustrated this process is more subtle yet sharper. It  is told of the Bais Yisroel of Gur that he was asked why he had made some changes in certain ways from his father, the Imrei Emes. He cryptically replied, “No, I do exactly what my father did.” His interlocutor persisted by delineating some differences. “No,” the rebbe responded, “my father did not do exactly what his father did and I don’t do exactly what my father did.”

The Meshech Chochmah (Parshas Bechukosai) famously notes that each generation needs and should add and supplement the avodah of their predecessors, but there is a difference between destroying what was and adapting their truths to the needs of each generation.

Since we have a wonderful rule that “Yiftach in his generation [is as great] as Shmuel in his generation,” the lowest of the shoftim is as much of a giant as the first of the shoftim, since he fits the needs and requirements of his generation. On the one hand, we no longer have Rav Akiva Eiger, the Vilna Gaon, the Baal Shem Tov or the Sefas Emes, but on the other, we have gedolim who understand the dangers of the internet and the way to inspire and teach those who are not only ADHD, but have grown up in a society that has almost zero attention span for profound thought and study.

This is all embedded in the words of the Gemara and Rashi that “the flame must rise by itself.” A flame which G-d forbid is extinguished is worthless. On the other hand, if it turns into a destructive conflagration, it can engulf the world. Each generation has always built upon the previous one, while incorporating the best of the past with applications for the present and future. If this rule is kept in mind and in check, allowing room for growth as the Meshech Chochmah teaches, it becomes a positive growth hormone for the future, but if we burn the bridges behind it, there is no continuity and we lose connection with the lofty past.

An incredible chinuch example of this paradox and its resolution was taught by my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (see Borchi Nafshi 3:339). He was sitting shivah for his rebbetzin when the famous mashgichim Rav Meir Chodosh and Rav Shlomo Wolbe arrived to be menachem avel. The rosh yeshiva related the story of his early days in the Yeshiva of Slabodka in Lithuania. He was very young, had just arrived from Warsaw, and was known, as was the custom, as Yitzchok Warshover. For some reason, the Alter of Slabodka, the head of the yeshiva, had not apparently paid him any attention and the young boy was not being successful in acclimating to the yeshiva and to the bochurim, who were generally much older than him.

Yom Kippur arrived with this situation still unresolved. Ne’ilah was over and Yechezkel Borenstein, the future author of the Divrei Yechezkel and known as one of the lions of Slabodka, went over to young Yitzchok with a message from the Alter asking for his full name and that of his mother. Excited that the Alter cared enough to daven for him, he decided that this was good moment to approach the Alter together with Rav Borenstein. However, when Rav Hutner approached, the Alter held up his hand in a gesture forbidding his approach. Everyone watched carefully to see what would happen next.

The rosh yeshiva continued to relate to his visitors, “At that moment, I decided…to commit myself totally and fully to the Torah.” Many others would have run away or perhaps collapsed in shame and mortification. For little Yitzchok Hutner, this was a moment of truth and a moment of aliyah and acceptance. After some discussion, the three, Rav Hutner sitting shivah and the two gedolei mashgichim, agreed that this method could never work in our generation. The Alter, recognizing the potential greatness of Rav Hutner, literally took him apart and put him together again. Later, he would say to the other talmidim that “Yitzchok Hutner is a prince,” but that seminal Yom Kippur, he had to be taught in a way that would elevate him for the future. However, that was then and this is today.

Almost all the gedolim whom I have been privileged to know have taught that the old, tough mussar is no longer applicable to everyone. Today, one must educate with love, with care, with music and with friendship, for that is what the generation requires. We must light the flame gently and whisper until it rises. We must let it grow bigger on its own, nurturing it within its capabilities and potential. Perhaps we are not the Alter of Slabodka or Rav Yitzchok Hutner. but we can apply the same rules. Think of what is best for them, not for ourselves. Consider what will work, not what seems to have been done in the past. And always be miksheh, be pure, teach purely, and, as Rav Dovid Trenk did, not just said, just love them.



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