Wednesday, May 25, 2005


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

During one of his trips to America on behalf of Lev L’Achim I asked Rav Uri Zohar what most impressed him about America and Americans. While he found much to admire, he said that compared to Israelis, Americans are apathetic. “Apathy,” was his response, “Adishut.”

Uri Zohar was obviously never at a Torah Umesorah convention. Had he been there he would have seen enthusiasm, selflessness and dedication to Torah. He would have seen men and women of all ages dashing off to glean yet another bit of advice on how to better teach and inspire their students.

He would have heard Rav Avrohom Schorr tell the story of a first grade rebbe who had noticed that the child was having a difficult time catching on to the aleph bais. The rebbe recited the entire Tehillim to pray for the success of his student, but the prayers went unanswered. Undaunted he recited the entire Tehillim again, but to no avail.

He recited it for a third time and, unlike his experience with many other struggling students he had taught, the prayers were still unanswered; he could only conclude that the child did not possess a yiddishe neshomo. Amazingly, further investigation revealed that the Rebbe’s intuition was correct.

This rebbe’s boundless dedication takes the very concept of mesiras nefesh for chinuch habonim to a new level.

Rabbi Zohar would have heard speaker after speaker address the participants with emotion, with fervor, with heartfelt sincerity. The speeches were not just words; they were expressions of years of accumulated commitment and perseverance to the hallowed goal of committing generations to Torah.

The words were infused with passion, jumping from the hearts of the speakers into the hearts of the assembled.

Words, they can mean so much and mean so little, it all depends on how we use them. It depends on how much thought and heart we invest in them, it depends on what we do with them and what we use them for.

Some people think that words are everything, some think they mean nothing. Some people think that with speeches they will solve all the world’s problems. Some think with words they can change minds and people.

Rabbeim and Morahs know that the words they use have lifelong impact on the lives of their charges and thus choose them wisely—and with love.

Words do have impact. They can be very effective. But most of the time words need to followed with, and preceded by, action. Words themselves are meaningless and talk is cheap.

To use a Lag B’Omer allegory, they are like arrows in the hands of the archer.

A rebbe who once took aside a student and asked him why he was not paying attention in class still remembers the boy’s response—unusual for its honesty.

“How can you sit there spacing out and daydreaming?” the rebbe demanded. “We are discussing a Shas machlokes. All the rishonim talk about this machlokes, as do many of the acharonim. It’s one of the most interesting sugyas. How can you not pay attention?”

The boy was quiet at first. What was there to say? It was probably safer to keep his thoughts to himself. But the rebbe persisted. He really wanted to know what it was in this boy’s mind that shut out the gemorah they were learning. “What are you thinking of? Why aren’t you with us?”

The boy groped for words. “Because it’s all just words. And words don’t interest me. You see, first they taught me letters and siddur words. Then they taught me chumash words. Later on as I got older they taught me mishnayos words. Then they taught me gemorah words. So now you’re teaching Rashi and Tosefos words. It’s just words. It doesn’t mean anything to me.”

Decades later, the rebbe remembers that conversation. The boy was describing an alienation from learning that was so profound that he, the rebbe, was stunned.

How does such alienation come about? Granted this student may have been an extreme case, but rebbeim and moros today encounter disinterest and boredom in regular, mainstream students who are by all accounts bright and on-the-ball.

What happens to the zest for learning these students enter school with at ages four and five? Did you ever encounter a child in pre 1A who didn’t want to learn the aleph bais? Is there any child in the primary grades who isn’t proud to bring home his or her Shabbos sheets, whether they know all the answers or not?

When my children were learning the alpeh bais, every time they opened a siddur, their excitement was contagious they would point at the letters they knew and call out with great excitement, “Look, an aleph! There’s a bais, and a little yud…”

When they are young their learning is made exciting, interesting, the teachers are vibrant, every day they look forward to learning something new. They know Morah loves them, and they love her. Every day they color something; they learn and review a new letter every week. How exciting they are to show off the letter kuf they learned this week. Friday is the most exciting day of the week; they know they will have a Shabbos party; they know they will get to bring home the little arts-and-crafts they and their morah spent a whole week coloring. They know they will bring home a parsha sheet and a letter for their mommy and totty.

The challenge for teachers is to make the subject come alive, to avoid the pitfalls of monotony that turn kids off. The challenge is give children the essential tools to help them to build and grow. Look around and see the successful rebbes, moros and teachers, those who are excited about what they are teaching are the ones who can convey excitement to their charges.

What happens to squelch that delight in mastering a new skill, in gaining knowledge, reaching a new milestone? When does the thirst for learning and accomplishment begin to dissipate in some children?

Those familiar with the complex issues of chinuch today know there are no pat answers. Yeshiva classrooms are often terribly overcrowded. Without splitting the classes or hiring remedial teachers and assistants –for which there is invariably no money—helping the weaker students while keeping the brighter ones challenged turns into an impossible mission.

Even the most seasoned and gifted rebbeim and moros feel taxed by the myriad problems encountered in many of today’s classrooms.

But having said all of that, one must also admit that even when the aforementioned problems do not apply in a particular school or classroom, the phenomenon still exists of far too many good “all-around” kids losing interest in learning and working far below their potential.

Often these children begin spacing or tuning out, clowning around and infecting other students with their lack of application.

School and learning has to be more than words. Children [as well as adults] need to constantly have their attention charged. If we want kids to learn, we have to make learning come alive and we have to keep it interesting. Projects, assignments, trips, contests, all contribute to make going to school something a child wants to do. All the pontifications and all the speeches about chinuch cannot replace that simple fact.

Take a closer look at those teachers who breathe life into their lessons, whose own love of learning is contagious, who build incentives and motivation into the fabric of their teaching. Watch how they inspire and stimulate their students by, above all, caring about them and believing in their ability to succeed. Observe how their students revere them and exert themselves to the utmost to win their praise and approval.

These outstanding mechanchim make an art out of winning minds and souls. They invest huge amounts of energy in creating special projects, assignments, trips, contests—they are masters of motivation.

We can never properly compensate them for the gifts they pass on to our children—the lifelong love and excitement of learning. All we need to do to stir up true appreciation for their efforts is to take a look at students who were not fortunate enough to be taught by people of this caliber. The difference speaks for itself.

We need to do more than feel appreciation; we need to demonstrate it, to show these special rebbes and moros that we do not take them for granted, that we realize that they are carrying out a sacred task—and in so doing, aiding us in what is essentially a parent’s foremost obligation—to be mechanech the next generation in Torah and yiras shomayim.

I was privileged to have spent last Shabbos in the presence of many hundreds of mechanchim gathered at the Torah Umesorah Convention to gain chizuk, insight and inspiration. If you think apathy describes Americans you should have been there, too. Hope, enthusiasm and positive thinking pervaded the event. The mechanchim there would have restored your belief in the goodness and dedication of the Jewish people.

It is very likely that if you would take the time to speak to your local mechanchim and hear them talk about their sense of mission and their hopes for their students, you would also be inspired. It never hurts to express gratitude to this wonderful cadre of men and women to whom we are so indebted.

Granted, apathy is a very real problem in our society. It comes from taking one’s gifts and advantages for granted. Many of us expect everything to get done by the ubiquitous “they.” They who take care of everything will take care of any problem which pops up. They who help everyone will help the latest case of someone who needs assistance. They who clean the shul and put away all the siddurim, chumashim and seforim after davening will make all the arrangements.

Very few people get really worked up enough about a problem to do anything serious about it.

Apathy is a disease which affects people who are comfortable with their lot and oblivious to what goes on around them. Apathy afflicts those who only care about themselves and what goes on around them. They have no interest in helping anyone outside their immediate circle. Apathetic people are indifferent to the suffering of others and don’t bestir themselves for anything that doesn’t promise them a big payoff. They have no time, patience or money for anything besides their own petty selfish interests.

Apathetic people are closed to any talk of involving themselves in the bigger picture. They really couldn’t care less about anyone for whom they have no use. A world populated exclusively with people who suffer from this disease would be a very cold and lonely place.

Let us learn from the passion and devotion of the rebbeim and moros who demonstrate the exact opposite; whose caring and mesiras nefesh guarantee the transfer of our precious mesorah to the next generation. As we reap the rewards from their hard work, let us absorb the lesson of giving of ourselves unstintingly for a good cause, even without a payoff.

In the end, that kind of investment will be the most rewarding of all.


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