Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Growth and Greatness

With our children embarking on another school year, we find ourselves replaying all our annual hopes and concerns about the new set of challenges facing them. Will they be in good hands? Will they be happy and productive? Will they advance and grow in the right direction?

Thoughtful people are also occupied with broader questions. What should parents be striving for in their children’s education? What should the rabbeim and moros be striving for in their holy task of being mechanech the next generation?

The answer, in a word, is excellence - in all the crucial areas of scholastic, emotional and spiritual growth. Yet, there seems to be a general dumbing-down in society. Too many people seem at peace with mediocrity. They seem satisfied with a standard of “good enough,” instead of “good.” They are happy just getting by; the drive and ambition to excel seem to have fallen by the wayside. Pursuit of perfection is no longer at the top of the agenda.

Shouldn’t the quest for excellence be our motivating factor, the force that drives us in all we do and in the way we bring up and educate our children?

Last week, I quoted from Rav Yeruchom Levovitz about the importance the Alter of Kelm attached to seder, neatness and certain areas of self discipline. I mentioned the mivtzah project I had made with my children to try to train them to neatly return their chairs to their proper places when leaving the table.

Some people wondered why the Alter made such a big deal about it, and why I, too, focused on it. The article quoted Rav Yeruchom saying in the name of the Alter that failure to return a chair to its proper place is as serious as chillul Shabbos. People wondered how that could be and if it was a genuine quote. Others wondered why the fuss over such a seemingly trivial act.

The answer is that the Alter pursued excellence. He sought to produce talmidim who were the best that they could possibly be in every way. As one who sought excellence and perfection, he could not tolerate habits of sloppiness and carelessness that displayed a lack of chashivus for perfection. Such a person was not worthy of being a student of Kelm or of the Alter. Returning a chair to its proper place may sound like a simple task, but it is part of an overall training of character and the inculcation of a value system in which order and self-discipline are paramount.

My grandfather, Rav Leizer Levin, learned in Kelm for seven years. Anyone who knew him in the fifty-plus years he served as rov of Detroit could testify to his remarkable calmness. Every bochur who arrived in Kelm was given a middah to work on while he was in the yeshiva. Rav Levin’s middah was savlonus. Besides working on internalizing all the ideals for which Kelm was famous, he had the added task of working on that particular middah for seven years.

It is very difficult to change a middah, but if you are pursuing excellence, then it is part of a lifetime mission, and you work at it steadily until you have achieved your goal.

Rav Levin would often say that there was no way he could explain Kelm to us and that there is no parallel to it in existence.

With such training, the talmidim of Kelm were understandably examples par excellence of Torah and avodah.

Rav Elchonon Wasserman would leave his yeshiva during the Yomim Noraim and spend the holy days basking in the rarified company of his rebbi, the Chofetz Chaim. After the passing of the Chofetz Chaim, he would leave Baranovich and travel to Kelm and Rav Doniel Movoshovitz, head of the yeshiva during the period before World War II. Such was the holiness and intensity of Kelm.

The Alter and his successors groomed their talmidim toward the goals of perfection. They sought to produce leaders and talmidei chachomim who had refined their character and avodas Hashem as much as possible. One who failed to return a chair to its proper place, or who dressed sloppily, or who peered around the room during davening, displayed casualness in his service of Hashem that was at odds with a Jew’s duty in this world - to be a perfection-seeker.

That pursuit of excellence is lacking in our world. That ambition and drive to excel in every middah nechonah and in Torah and avodah is hard to find. Too many of us are pragmatic about life in general and about our ambitions in particular. We don’t value excellence or appreciate it in others. We don’t demand the best for ourselves in spiritual matters and we don’t demand it from others. We want the best when it comes to material aspirations, but easily settle when it comes to what is really important in life.

As the school year gets underway, we should try to instill in our children the desire to fulfill their potential in every way possible. We want the best for our kids; we have to train them to be the best they can possibly be in learning, mitzvos, middos and in the ideals we want to pass on to them. Every child is different, every person is different, but each and every one of us is endowed with special gifts by our Creator. Our task as parents, teachers and as people is to bring out those kochos.

That is why in regard to limud haTorah we are told that yegiah is so important. It is not enough to simply learn Torah superficially and by rote.

Rashi at the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai quotes the Toras Kohanim to explain the posuk of bechukosai teileichu and alludes to this concept. Rashi says it means shetihiyu ameilim baTorah. The way to achieve holiness and perfection is by working industriously to study and understand every word of Torah. The way to show that we are serious about following the path of Hashem and observing all of his mitzvos is by delving deeply and persistently into the difficult passages of the Torah.

The Rambam in Hilchos Talmud Torah writes that the Torah does not make a permanent impact on one who takes a lackadaisical approach to its study, nor on one who learns while indulging in earthly excess, or while satiated by food and drink.

The Torah belongs to the one who kills himself over understanding its words and refrains from sleep in order to learn and understand the word of Hashem.

That is why a rebbi is obligated to teach the same passage to his student several times until they understand it. If they don’t understand what they are being taught, the rebbi is not permitted to get angry with his talmidim, but rather should patiently explain it to them until they grasp its meaning. By the same token, a student should not be uncomfortable about admitting he didn’t understand what is being taught. He should ask to have it explained and reviewed as many times as necessary until he understands it.

One who is too embarrassed to say he doesn’t understand the material places his pride and fear of humiliation ahead of the larger cause of studying G-d’s word. Such an individual cannot excel. In order to excel, one must put his own personal considerations and ego aside and be totally dedicated to the cause of Torah.

We all know stories of gedolei talmidei chachomim who spent sleepless nights straining every faculty to understand the p’shat in a Rambam, and that should be our inspiration. Greatness in Torah requires total dedication. Only one who is consumed by ambition for spiritual greatness can grow in Torah.

As our children begin the school year, let us try to inculcate into them the importance of what they are doing and help them along so that they can grow intellectually as well as spiritually. Just as they require nourishment for the proper development of their bodies, minds and hearts, they need proper nourishment for their souls.

Greatness is not inbred; it must be fed delicately and with love into our children and students. It isn’t accomplished overnight and takes years of persistence and perseverance to constantly strive and aim higher. Sometimes it takes a lifetime of growth to reach the pinnacle. We have to be there to provide the encouragement and support necessary to sustain the will to make that constant uphill climb.

Our world is in turmoil. As we search for leaders to guide us through these difficult periods, we must do all we can to produce a new generation of leaders and giants to deal with the complex issues facing us.

Every person can grow up to be like Moshe Rabbeinu, every child has the potential for true greatness. As our children start school, and even after, it is our duty to help them achieve their potential.

So many of us have had the experience of taking our children to a gadol and asking for a bracha. The aged sage invariably turns to the young boy and says, “Do you want to become a gadol?” The child nods. The gadol then looks at him with a twinkle in his eye and says, “Az du vest velen vest du kenen - if you will want to become great, you will be able to.”

Our job is to give our children the drive tzu velen - to want - and to aspire to greatness. Let us all refresh our own aspirations to see our children grow, and may we merit that they experience a year of rich progress on the path to greatness, and bring their parents and community much nachas.


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