Teacher - open the door and your students will walk through

Facts.  Knowledge.  Information.  These are, of course, necessary but not nearly sufficient for the Teacher who wants to not only teach but uplift and inspire. Let us open the door.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran

Judaism Classroom (illustration)
Classroom (illustration)
צילום: INN:RS

"Ein yeiush ba’olam klal - With the right approach, there is hope for every single Jew" -Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

A new teacher arrived at her first classroom to find a young boy by the door, looking despondent.  She asked him what the matter was.

“It’s locked,” he said, glancing at the door dejectedly.

The teacher than reached into her purse to take out her keys.  The young boy’s expression immediately brightened. “You’re a teacher!” he exclaimed.

She smiled at him.  “What makes you think that?” she asked, amused by his sudden change in mood.

“You have the key!”

She put the key in the lock and opened the door.  “Yes,” she said, nodding both to herself and to the young boy.  She felt herself well up with pride. “Yes, I do.”

If only every teacher considered this small moment of revelation when he or she prepares to teach – to the teacher is given the great gift of opening doors!  

“I don’t need to tell you about the typical trajectory followed by boys like these,” said the Rosh Yeshivah. “They don’t get along in the frum school system for various reasons, their parents and teachers don’t know what to do with them, and they end up on the streets, skidding downhill. I know I’m not telling you anything that you don’t already know — but I think we’re onto something here at Lev Tzion.”

This is part of conversation recounted by Rabbi Moshe Grylak in Mishpacha (January 23, 2019).  Rabbi Grylak had visited a beis midrash that was, at first glance, anything but a beis midrash.  There was none of the regimentation, none of the rigorous structure, none of the rote learning.  Indeed, it almost seemed as if the “inmates were running the asylum”, l’havdil.  Some boys were without head covering.  Some read newspapers rather than Jewish texts.  One simply strummed a guitar.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik 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.

The need – the call – to be a warm, caring teacher has been true through the ages, but the sad reality is that, despite how it limited effectiveness or made students miserable, for many years we tolerated (even exalted, to our discredit) teachers who were stern and strict, who were demanding.  For years, parents and students alike often equated such strictness with excellence!

That time, however, has passed.

We live at a time when the confluence of culture, history, and psychological understandings no longer allow for such judgements.  The proof of this is in the sheer numbers of students we are losing; the astonishing number of young people who are becoming OTD – and they are but the tip of the iceberg in terms of this failure.  Our manner of teaching, rather than opening doors and raising students up is frequently slamming doors shut and turning young souls away.

We need the key to open the door.

Of course, the “key” has been within our grasp and in our sight, all along.  We need only listen to The Master Teacher Himself, G-d, teaching a lesson to his star pupil, Moshe. The specific lesson was to convey the specifics of charity – terumah – needed for erecting G-d’s sanctuary.  The lesson begins with general instructions.  “Speak to the children of Israel, that they may take unto Me an offering,” and then moves on to details of implementation. The terumah, Moshe is told, may be offered from gold, silver, copper, skins, wood, oils and stones.”

Facts.  Knowledge.  Information.  These are, of course, necessary but not nearly sufficient for the Teacher who wants to not only teach but uplift and inspire.  G-d adds to these basic instructions feeling and emotion, Veasu li mikdash veshachanti betocham – and let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.

As Rabbi Grylak writes, “Years ago, I was having a conversation with Rabbi Uri Zohar, when I mentioned that there seems to be a striking yeridas hadoros when comparing his and my generation of yeshivah-educated men to today’s young generation, which seems so shallow by comparison. His response was a stunning, truth:

“’Reb Moshe, there’s no yeridas hadoros. This is just another, different kind of generation!’

“I believe that statement can serve as a key to understanding what is incumbent on us. Because our failure to realize this is our big mistake when we try to deal with our youth at risk. We want to bring them back to our standard yeshivot, back to keeping mitzvos the way we do. But we don’t understand their antipathy for the way of life they abandoned when they slammed the door behind them.”

In looking at the parasha, the Kotzker notes that G-d does not say that He will dwell in His midst, but rather “in their midst.”  The task is clear – to be where your students are not to demand that they be where you are before you even begin to teach.

The students Rabbi Grylak observed had already been where the “strict and stern” teachers thought they should be.  And they rebelled with their hearts and souls; they wanted nothing to do with it.  

What should a teacher’s response be to such a rebellion?  To consign them to the garbage heap of humanity? To force them out onto the streets?  To take away the key – figuratively and literally?

No!  The teacher must open the door, not slam it shut.  He must teach content, yes. He must teach facts, pesukim, dapim.  But to do so, he must first “dwell in their midst.”  He must teach love and acceptance of each soul. Everyone must have ample room and easy access within his being for G-d to enter and remain as a permanent resident, betocham mamash.  It is the teacher’s responsibility to teach in a way that arouses positive feelings.  It is not, as too many teachers presume, the students’ responsibility to create within themselves such feelings.

By showing our students respect and love, as G-d showed Moshe, we invite our students into the wonder, awe and power of what we teach.  And even if our students are slow to grasp the “why’s and the wherefores’” they should always come away from our lessons knowing that they are worthy and cherished.  

I have met these “rebellious” young people, young souls who are determined to run as far as possible from homes and yeshivas that have failed to show them respect and love.  (And yes, it is the homes and yeshivot that are failures, not the young people!)  Sadly, too often, their rebelliousness means running from their own blessed souls, causing them to doubt their own worthiness.

“We teach krav maga here,” Rabbi Tendler told me. “We offer music lessons, because they can express themselves better through music. You see, most of them are carrying scars left by various kinds of abuse they’ve suffered in cheder or in yeshivah, and they’ve developed a hard shell that isn’t easy to penetrate. We also employ two psychotherapists who give group and private therapy sessions.”

“And does it help them?” I ask.

“Sure. You can ask the boys themselves.”

I didn’t ask them, of course. I didn’t think they would appreciate someone who could be their grandfather probing their sore spots.

“We take them on a lot of tiyulim, too,” Rabbi Tendler continued. “The rabbanim of the yeshivah go with the boys on these trips — it’s an opportunity to bond informally with the boys, and that closer bond spills over into their relationship in the beis medrash... because yes, we do also have a beis medrash with regular shiurim, only we don’t compel a boy to come in if he doesn’t want to. But I organized a shiur for the boys who don’t want to learn Gemara. Maybe bitter memories from yeshivah are blocking them from tasting the geshmak of Gemara, so I give them a shiur in the Ramchal’s Derech Hashem.”

“The Ramchal, davka?”

“Yes, davka the Ramchal. One of the problems with the chinuch they were getting before was that it was only about the chitzoniyus of performing the mitzvos. Do this, and do that, without any of the depth. So, I learn Derech Hashem with them, to show them some of the connections between themselves and the world of Torah and mitzvos.”

The rabbis taught: Anyone who teaches Torah in public and does not make the words as pleasant to those listening as honey and milk mixed together – it was better that he not teach the words at all (Shir Hashirim Rabba 4:11) If this is the case for teachers, how much more so should it for parents?

The Kotzker once asked, “Where is the Mishkan of G-d?” He promptly responded: “Wherever He will be let in.”  G-d feels welcome wherever His attributes of kindness, benevolence, forgiveness, and tolerance are part of the daily routine and atmosphere.  God refuses to be part of an abusive home environment and an intolerant, insensitive classroom setting.

Producing the Mikdash as Hashem instructed required enormous efforts. The Avot D’Rebi Natan teaches that G-d instilled His Shechina upon Israel only when He was assured of their willingness to work hard and invest maximum melacha.  How much more effort, devotion, imagination and creativity are required to produce a single student just as G-d expects?  Those building the Mikdash benefited from Moshe’s loving guiding hand and spirit, which eased their burden, pressure and anxiety.

For a teacher – or parent – to succeed at his or her task in a way that honors G-d means that we must honor our children and students.  We must respect them where they are, not where we think they “should be.”

When we can respect who our children are we begin the process of bringing them home.  

We are the ones who have the key.  We are the ones who stand before the door.

Let us take the example of Lev Tzion.  

Let us open the door.