A Connection to Torah for All

Too many of our contemporary yeshiva high schools are seeking only the Eisavs among the applicants, Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg quotes a prominent rosh yeshiva as saying in his essay in the current issue of Klal Perspectives on High School Boys Chinuch. The rosh yeshiva meant that the high school yeshivos are seeking only those who are fully formed – asui, like Eisav – in both their intellectual abilities and their dedication to Gemara learning.

Rabbi Goldberg suggests that the source of that attitude may lie in a distortion of the widely quoted rabbinic dictum “a thousand enter and one goes out to hora’a.” Yeshivos vie to produce “the one who goes out to hora’a, and the status of a yeshiva is determined by the quality of its most accomplished graduates in Gemara learning. Parents go along by seeking entrance to the “best” yeshivos for their sons. The race to produce “the one,” and the competition to be the yeshiva for “only the best boys” yeshiva it leads to, can have several adverse consequences.

(I should emphasize that I am speaking theoretically. Rabbi Goldberg was writing in the American context, and I am in no position to evaluate how widespread these particular problems are. I do know that there are now a wide-range of yeshiva high schools for different types of boys. And one knowledgeable educator told me that much of the edge was taken off the competition about fifteen years ago, when several distinguished talmidei chachamim, who could definitely have attracted the young “geniuses,” opened up new institutions and consciously decided not seek only the “best” boys.)

The first potential danger is that parents eager for their sons to be in the Harvard of yeshivos will push them into learning frameworks not suited to them. In the same issue of Klal Perspectives, Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky, Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, relates an incident in which he brought a group of high school students to Eretz Yisrael to visit Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zt”l. The gabbai requested a berachah for them that they should be accepted into “the best yeshiva.” But Rav Eliyashiv pointedly changed the berachah to one that they should be accepted “into the best yeshiva for you.

Even exceptionally talented young boys may not benefit from being thrown in with only those on their level in a hyper-competitive environment. Rabbi Lopiansky quotes Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach,zt”l, to the effect that Chazal’s injunction “better to be the tail of the lion than the head of a fox,” does not apply to younger students, and generally a student will gain more from being the strongest of a comparatively weak class.

A second potential distortion is that the pursuit of “the one” can lead to “baal kishron” becoming the highest term of approbation for heads of institutions seeking elite status. That is an inversion of Torah values, which stress not natural endowments but rather what a person does with them. Anyone with experience in chinuch will testify that natural abilities are often a poor predictor of future success and indeed can be an impediment to future development.

Third, too great a focus on producing “the one” may lead to an exclusive emphasis on Gemara study to the exclusion of various forms of personal development that will be crucial to all talmidim as husbands and fathers, even if they also become roshei yeshiva. There also tends to be a trickle down effect. Let’s say a group of superb bochurim stop eschew all secular studies, or even all non-Gemara subjects, then doing so becomes a status symbol that will be widely imitated, even by bochurim who will never be maggidei shiur and who may find themselves hindered later in life by what they missed in high school.

Today the ranks of the yeshiva high school rebbes include many fine talmidei chachamim. Such talmidei chachamim will naturally desire to give shiurim filled with their insights based on the deepest lomdus. And if the goal is to produce “the one,” it becomes easier to justify such a shiur and define success as a mechanech in terms of how many Reb Chaims and Reb Boruch Bers one gives over.

But the true measure of a mechanech is not what he gives over, but how much his talmidim develop under his tutelage. The Alter of Kelm explained the requirement to give tochachah “even a thousand times” to mean that there are a thousand steps to the development of atalmid. If so, the measure of a mechanech is how many steps he inspires talmidim to take. By that standard, the rebbeim in the Mesivta of Eatonville, described in these pages two weeks ago, may be the greatest mechanchim of all. It is, after all, no great kuntz to take already formed bochurim and turn out excellent products.

RABBI GOLDBERG LOCATES the source of these potential distortions in an incorrect reading of the Chazal with which we began. The actual Midrash details various levels of Torah learning from Mikra to Mishnah to Talmud to Hora’a, with mastery at each level increasingly rare. But the emphasis of the Midrash is on all thousand who enter finding a level of Torah learning suited to them, not just on the one who becomes a great posek. Rashi on Shir Hashirim (7:12-13) comments that Hashem rests His Shechinah on batei kenesios and batei midrashios when they are filled with ba’alei mikra, ba’alei mishnah, and ba’alei Talmud – all together.

THE TASK OF A TRUE MECHANECH is to convey Torah to his students according to their ability to receive it. And that is no less true for the rest of us in our role as parents. (What follows is based on a brilliant pamphlet on relating to wayward children by Rabbi Uri Zohar, which will soon appear in English.)

What is the source of the lesson that our sole task is to transmit the Torah in a manner that it can be received? Moshe Rabbeinu himself. Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu to descend from the mountain and go down to the people, as they sinned with the Golden Calf. After the bnei Yisrael lost the elevated stature they achieved at Mattan Torah, Moshe too had to descend with them to fulfill his role as leader.

Prior to shattering the luchos rishonos, Moshe Rabbeinu, realized that he was confronted with a choice: Either he could retain the luchos and the people would be destroyed, for they were no longer at the level to receive the luchos. Or he could break the luchos and save the people (Shemos Rabbah 46:1). He chose the latter, for which choice Hashem commended him.

The second luchos that Moshe himself had to fashion were at a much lower level than the first. Chazal enumerate the qualitative differences. And yet, only the luchos shenios are described by the Torah as tov. Why? Because, as the Maharal explains (Tiferes Yisrael 35), they were perfectly suited to level of the bnei Yisrael after the sin of the Golden Calf. The essence of tov is being suited to the level of the recipient so that the Torah can enter him.

Similarly, when Moshe Rabbeinu criticized the bnei Yisrael for their terror at hearing the Torah directly from Hashem, Hashem answered Moshe, “They did well [heitivu from the root tov] to speak as they did.” In other words, the bnei Yisrael chose to receive the Torah at the level most suited for them – i.e., with such an overwhelming fear that Moshe had to act as an intermediary repeating the Word of Hashem. And Hashem confirmed that their choice of the degree of intensity best suited to them was tov.

To give more than the recipient can absorb is the opposite of tov. That is the lesson every true mechanech must know and most of us parents learn at some point, if we are fortunate.

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2 Responses

  1. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Also, isn’t the one getting to Hora’a (teaching) that they’re trying to train supposed to teach everybody, rather than just the best students? If so, early exposure to different levels of intellectual ability seems extremely useful.

  2. DF says:

    This article applies only to a very narrow slice of orthodox life, ie, Lakewood and its imitators. To all other streams, talk about “best” boys is recognized as meaningless. Colleges and grad schools (“Affirmative action” and other such inanities aside)use the objective criteria of SATs, LSATs, MCATs, GMATs, etc. For Lakewood-style yeshivas though, its about family background, wealth, and dress/political identification. Of five 12th grade boys of complete equal intelligence, three might go to yeshivahs like YU, Ner Israel, Brisk (any Brisk) and scores of smaller yeshivas in between, and two might not go to yeshivah at all. So who got the “best” boy?

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