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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Did you ever catch yourself saying something to someone that you should not say, and you stop yourself and say something else instead? That is exactly what seems to happen to Yaakov when he blessed his children in Parshat Vayechi, just before he died. Yaakov told his children to gather around him so he can reveal to them the secrets of what will occur in the future (49:1). Then, suddenly, he does not reveal anything prophetic and instead offers the blessings. Rashi suggested that the divine prophetic inspiration suddenly departed from him and he, therefore, switched to another conversation. It is possible, however, that this was a conscious decision or had a divine purpose.

What exactly was this prophecy that he was going to share? Most assume that it relates to the time of the arrival of Moshiach. However, there is another possibility. At some point before their deaths, each of the forefathers revealed the future of which of their sons would carry on their legacies. Avraham chose Yitzchak, and Yitzchak chose Yaakov. Perhaps the revelation that Yaakov was going to share was who would be the chosen one to carry on his legacy. Which of his competing sons would be chosen? Perhaps Yaakov was about to reveal this but chose to think twice and decided it would do more harm than good. Instead he chose all of them and to validate the importance of each. He showed that he valued the qualities of each and offered advice to help them all reach their potentials.

The midrash credits Yaakov as the only one of the forefathers to merit the achievement of having all of his children follow his path. Avraham failed because of Yishmael and Yitzchak failed because of Eisav. The midrash (Shir Hashirim Raba 4) reads the verse “my beloved is completely beautiful and unblemished” (4:7) to refer to the progeny of Yaakov. Similarly, the midrash suggests that the redemption from Egypt and the messianic redemptions will be in the merit of Yaakov in the merit of this achievement. It is possible that the cause for his success was because of the fact that he never dismissed any of his children, and ultimately blessed them all, and charging them all with a unique mission that he genuinely valued and respected.

Just about two weeks ago, Rabbi Moshe Gottesman, zt”l, passed away. He was principal and head of school at HANC, where I attended for all of elementary and high school, and where he served in the administration for 42 years. At his funeral, his son Shlomo shared a story, that, as he correctly said, is “all you have to know about my father in order to understand him.”

When Shlomo Gottesman was 16 years old, he was in Sabra Kosher Pizza with a friend. They were sitting at a table and they heard two people speaking at another table. One said to the other: “HANC, the worst school in the world. Anyone who would send their kids to HANC is out of their minds. And this guy, Gottesman, is the worst! What is he doing in education? Do you know what he just did? Do you know that kid who was thrown out of yeshiva A, then thrown out of yeshiva B, then out of yeshiva C and D, and then was in public school? He took him out of public school and into HANC. Who would send a kid to a place like that?” Then they used a curse word to describe this child.

Shlomo, of course, was extremely upset to hear this. He called his father to tell him. His father, Rabbi Moshe Gottesman, said, “Thank you. That is the best story I can ever hear. Because there is no such thing as a bad kid. Maybe he has bad parents or bad teachers or bad experiences. But there is no such thing as a bad kid.”

Rabbi Gottesman saw himself in that kid because he was not such a “good kid” as a child and had a challenging childhood. And he believed that you give every single child a chance.

That is the lesson of Yaakov Avinu. There is no need to reveal the secrets of who is a good kid and who is not. Just have faith in all of them. Know them. Accept them. And educate them.

Rabbi Gottesman took unpopular positions. To build up a school you want a good reputation, with good, successful students who are religious, menschlich, ethical and successful. But he did allow himself to judge his work by the quality of the children who entered his school. His success was determined by what came out at the end. And there was a price. People did not always hold the school in high regard. But it was avodat hakodesh and I cannot tell you how many people were truly uplifted. It is a credit to his memory, and it is a legacy that many of us can learn from in the fields of parenthood and education.

The Rambam tells us that the belief in the coming of the Moshiach is fundamental to Judaism. He argues that it is explicit in the Torah and it is one of his cardinal beliefs (Laws of Melachim 11:1). Nevertheless, the Rambam also tells us (Hilchot Teshuva 7:5) that the Moshiach will only come once the Jewish people do teshuva. The question, therefore, is how can we be so sure that Moshiach will come, if we may not come through! Rav Soloveitchik, pointed out that it is evident in the Rambam that we have a responsibility to believe in the religious potential of the entire Jewish people, as the Rambam himself wrote that the Torah guarantees that the Jewish people will ultimately do teshuva.

The confident belief in the inner goodness and the potential for teshuva is a prerequisite for someone to be an authentic Torah educator. The environment that we live in with the exclusivity of schools and the constant questioning of who is worthy of learning in particular schools is truly hard to stomach. Rabbi Gottesman should be remembered for this contribution, and I believe that our communities would be enriched if we would try to live up to it.

This is a critical lesson for educators, but no less important for parents. A primary source for the suffering of children is the feeling that their parents do not believe in them and do not accept them. It is critical to love every child, but even unconditional love is not enough. We need to accept and respect every child for who he or she is. We need to show our respect and acceptance. We need to believe in every one of them as they are, and we need to communicate our acceptance of them.

This core belief of Judaism was demonstrated by Yaakov Avinu and personified in Rav Moshe Gottesman, zt”l. Rabbi Gottesman taught me by his example and impacted thousands. May we all remember him and learn from him.

By Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz


Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz is rabbi at Teaneck’s Congregation Shaare Tefillah and president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County.