Monday, Jun 10, 2024

Lesson from a Raccoon

The summer is finally over and that means that children everywhere are headed back to school. It is heartwarming to see students hustling and bustling about in various stores, shopping together for the upcoming school year. In their hearts, there are aspirations for new aliyah and growth. Then comes one of my favorite times of the year: opening day and welcoming in a new class. In my case, it means introducing students to life in a mesivta.

The boys sit there wide-eyed, with radiant faces, exuding hope for a successful new beginning. Inwardly, some of them are nervous. Who is this new rebbi? Will I make it in his class? Can I handle this new, challenging schedule? In my opening remarks, I try to reassure them that I will do everything possible to make their stay in my class a most fruitful and enjoyable one. At the same time, they must know that their level of success will depend on how much they are willing to exert themselves. I conclude with a bracha that the passing of time should not diminish their radiance of the first day, and that their excitement should remain with them until the end of the year, their aspirations fulfilled.


This is easier said than done. Any promotion to a higher grade means a greater challenge, and this is especially true when entering mesivta. Undoubtedly, there will be self-motivated students who, throughout elementary school, have excelled and will continue to do so on a higher level. There are those who did not take their learning too seriously until now, but upon entering this new stage in life will make a radical change and morph into bnei Torah. But there will be those who will inevitably find the new year difficult and will always be trying to catch up to the rest of the class. Will they be able to keep up? It can be exasperating and downright demoralizing.


A picture comes to my mind, a scene of niflaos haBorei that I once saw that a serves as a lesson for all of us as parents and mechanchim.


It was an Erev Shabbos afternoon on the rustic campus of the Telshe Yeshiva. It was a beautiful summer day and, after dismissing my class, I had taken a walk with a talmid who needed some chizuk. After wishing him a gut Shabbos, I got into my car and started to drive off to do some shopping. Suddenly, I saw a pack of raccoons darting out from behind some bushes, perhaps startled by the noise of my car. The mother ran ahead, followed by her younglings. But there was one little critter straggling behind, not quite able to keep up with the rest of the clan. Within seconds, the mother looked back to see if her brood was keeping up with her. Seeing the little one lagging behind, she promptly scampered back, picked it up in her mouth, and, carrying it, once again raced forward to lead her family.


Seeing this spectacle, I was enchanted by this wonder of Hashem. He endowed animals with the instincts to take care of their offspring. Upon further reflection, there is an important lesson to be learned from this. The mother raccoon was in a hurry to get somewhere, so much so that it ran ahead of its flock. However, in the process of scurrying off, it did not lose sight of the fact that it had a family to look out for, to make sure that they, too, were moving forth at a proper pace. Seeing one of them lag behind delayed its own forward progress, as it turned back to help the young one catch up with the rest.


Chazal tells us that even if we wouldn’t have been given the Torah, we would have learned various middos from different creatures (Eiruvin 100b). The actions of this mother raccoon speak volumes. We live in a pressurized society, whose pace is more accelerated than any other generation in history. This is the antithesis of menuchas hanefesh, which is so vital for success in all aspects of avodas Hashem. Coupled with the high cost of living, parents find it difficult to make ends meet.


All too often, while trying to juggle our various responsibilities in leading a family, we can lose sight of children who are straggling behind. It is incumbent upon both parents at home and mechanchim in the classroom to turn back, look behind us, and notice those who are finding it difficult to keep up. Then we must do all that we can to pick up the child and make every effort to bring him up to par with the rest of his group.


Sometimes, even the simplest acknowledgment of a child’s progress can accomplish wonders. As a rebbi for many years, I have seen this time and time again, but just recently, I was surprised to learn how far-reaching a little positive reinforcement can be.


Baruch (name changed), a former talmid of mine, is a very bright young man with a family and a successful career. He is multi-talented, publishes a weekly Torah page, and writes for various publications. For many years, he was a star staff member at Camp Kol Torah. But Baruch did not always taste success. When he first joined my class at Telshe Yeshiva, it wasn’t easy for him. He came from a non-mainstream, out-of-town community and found adapting to yeshiva life most challenging.


One night, I received a phone call from his mother, who sounded like she was in tears. “Oh no!” I thought. “What did I do wrong to Baruch and what is the complaint?” It was nothing of the sort. The mother was very moved by the fact that when her son had flawlessly repeated a p’shat that I had said during shiur that day, I flipped him a quarter as a reward. Now, this was no brilliance on my part. It was something I did instinctively, because that is what my seventh grade rebbi, Rabbi Koenigsberg z”l, did when we asked a good kasha or repeated a p’shat well in class.


“This is the first time that Baruch ever received any reward in school,” she said. “It meant so much to him and I would like to donate all the quarters that you give out for the entire year.”


“That is really not necessary,” I said, “as it is my pleasure to do this, but it really means a lot to me that you called.”


I thanked her, hung up, and shortly afterwards forgot about this conversation. But now for the rest of the story.


Just recently, over twenty-five years later, I chanced upon an article that Baruch had written in a local publication. Now that he has children in school, he was realizing much more the importance of positive reinforcement. Acknowledging a child’s accomplishments builds up his confidence and encourages him to do better work, he wrote. I enjoyed the article and I called him to tell him so. Getting his answering machine, I said, “I remember that the mother of a certain talmid of mine once thanked me for the wonderful feeling her son felt upon receiving a quarter in class.”


The next day, Baruch phoned me to thank me for the call. He then proceeded to repeat word for word the entire explanation that earned him the quarter over twenty-five years ago. I had long ago forgotten what I had said, but he remembered it and remembered it well. It was a shailah that the Ketzos Hachoshen discusses regarding “hodo’as baal din kemei’ah eidim.”


I was floored. It made me very happy, but at the same time it scared me. How great is our responsibility? If the mere tossing of a quarter can have such an impact on a talmid, building up his confidence and desire to learn, then we have a tremendous achrayus in using such methods. And if so, how many opportunities did we have in the past to inspire a talmid that we squandered?


The mother raccoon that I saw in action lifted her child up with her mouth. We, too, can elevate the spirits of our children and talmidim with our mouths, verbally, with gentle encouragement.


Not long ago, I received pages and pages of printed chiddushim from an old talmid of mine, a kollel yungerman in Lakewood. The chiddushim were intricate novella on the Torah of Rav Akiva Eiger and the Chazon Ish.


Today, probably no one would guess that when he first entered yeshiva, this talmid was lacking confidence and very unsure of himself. On the second day of class, he approached me in tears. “Rebbi,” he said, “I find the Rashis so difficult and I certainly can’t do the Tosafos.”


The fact that he was the oldest boy in the shiur exacerbated matters, as he felt like a failure.


I told him that it doesn’t say anywhere that he must master Gemara together with Rashi and Tosafos immediately. Take one step at a time, I said. “First try to master the Gemara by itself and you can worry about the rest sometime in the future.” Well, time wasn’t long in coming. Freed from the burden of having to do everything all at once, he concentrated on Gemara only, and he saw that he was good at it. It was amazing to observe that by the next week, he was learning Rashi and Tosafos fluently. All it took were a few words of encouragement. Today, he is an accomplished talmid chochom who delivers a Daf Yomi shiur and writes chiddushim.


Yes, using words to lift the spirits of our children and talmidim is an investment that can pay great dividends. It can also cultivate a relationship in which rebuke that we give to the child when necessary will not fall upon deaf ears. Rather, it will be taken to heart, because that same person who is now reprimanding him has time and again built him up and nurtured his aliyah. The child will not feel threatened or be put on the defensive. Rather, he will realize that these are devorim hayotzim min haleiv and they will penetrate the heart.


May it be a year of siyata diShmaya for the growth of our children and talmidim.



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