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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

There is an arcane yet wonderfully entertaining late-night TV sketch in which comic legend Bob Newhart plays a therapist who is meeting a patient suffering from a debilitating phobia of being buried alive in a box. (Yes, it’s available on YouTube.) In his classic deadpan, Newhart the therapist relates to the nervous patient that he is going to share with her two words that are going to help cure her: “Stop it!” In other words, he tells her, just don’t have that fear anymore!

The scene is humorous because it is silly. We all know that a therapist cannot simply direct someone to stop experiencing a feeling or emotion. We instinctively appreciate that helping others address issues of mental health requires support, empathy and a long-term commitment to helping the patient help themselves.

Yet, beyond the realm of mental health, if I am going to be completely honest and vulnerable, I must acknowledge that, when trying to educate and guide my own students or my own children, I may have occasionally tried to apply the “Stop it!” prescriptive method. Somehow, it is hard to internalize that the “Just study harder!” or “You just need to wake up on time!” approach doesn’t work so well.

But why? I care deeply about kids. Why would I keep falling into this trap? I would suggest that it has to do with time. Taking a different approach requires significant amounts of time and focus, both of which are hard to come by in our always-on, hyper overscheduled lives, whether you are an educator or a parent. And yet, when I think about the awesome responsibility that has been handed to us in educating and developing the next generation, I know that we have no choice.

This year in MTA, we have spent time focusing on our school culture, which can be defined as “the norms, values, beliefs, traditions and rituals built up over time” (Deal and Peterson, 1998). These powerful faculty conversations reinforced the reality that every single adult in the building is a leader, and in that capacity has an outsize role in reinforcing the values of our yeshiva day in and day out. Those values are many, but at the top is our role as rebbeim, teachers, mentors and guides for our talmidim. In his book “Culturize,” educational thought leader Jimmy Casas refers to this aspect of positive school culture as an expectation for “all staff to champion for all students.”

How does one do this?

In a drasha on Parshat Yitro, Rav Moshe Weinberger wonders why Hashem elected not to give the Torah to the Jewish people immediately upon leaving Egypt. Chazal’s answer is found in Kohelet Rabbah. The Midrash presents a parable of a king whose son survived a serious illness and is urged by his advisers to return him to school. The king responds that the son is still weak and recovering and needs some additional time to convalesce. Similarly, “Hashem said, ‘The radiant health of My Children has not yet returned from the slavery, mortar and bricks from which they just left. Shall I give them the Torah? Instead, let them take it easy for two or three months with the manna, the well, and quail, and afterward I will give them the Torah. When? In the third month (Sivan).”

As Rav Weinberger explains, we learn a tremendous lesson in chinuch from this midrash. In order for a talmid to properly absorb the Torah and its values, we need to first ensure they are ready, primarily by cultivating in them a sense of dignity and self-respect. Only then do they become a kli, a vessel, where the Torah can reside.

Put in the context of a school, after ensuring that the most basic physical and psychological needs of each student are met, our avodah is to help each boy develop themselves to be ready to receive the Torah. I believe that, at its core, this work centers around relationships.

Casas notes that strong relationships with students have three vital components:

1) Knowing our students: Getting to know them “on a more personal level, such as their interests, fears and talents, is vital to creating a classroom culture where every child feels valued and understood.”

2) Letting them know us: This involves not just Shabbat meal invitations or learning about where we grew up, but beyond: “What drives us to do what we do? What gets us up in the morning and pushes us to want to teach? From what do we draw on to make our decisions?” Giving them a window into this aspect of ourselves allows them to see how our day-to-day actions serve as an outgrowth of our deeply held beliefs.

3) Knowing each other: Providing students with intentional opportunities to interact with each other will allow for a classroom atmosphere where they “understand, appreciate, respect and empathize with one another.”

In strengthening these aspects of the relationships in our classrooms, schools and homes, we create a culture of respect, confidence, support and empathy, all of which prime the group for learning and growth. More importantly, we help create young people that feel cared for and whole. In other words, they become receptacles for the Torah values we are charged with teaching them.

During the recent Siyum Hashas season, the famous story of the Satmar Rebbe’s “Daf Aleph” was recounted. In the very small Satmar enclave in Williamsburg after the war, the Rebbe began teaching Gemara to a handful of individuals. For the first several days, all he did was schmooze. He told stories, he asked how the attendees were doing, and so on. When pressed to start the Gemara, the Rebbe replied that he was learning “Daf Aleph.” For the Satmar Rebbe, the learning of Daf Aleph was checking in on these broken Jews who had survived the terrors of the Holocaust. Daf Aleph was helping his flock feel whole again.

Over 70 years later, our world is quite different. Daf Yomi shiurim are bursting at the seams. Our entire Jewish infrastructure is orders of magnitude stronger. And yet, the connection, love and relationships contained on Daf Aleph are more vitally needed than ever before.


Rabbi Dov Emerson is the director of teaching and learning at the Yeshiva University High School for Boys (MTA). He can be reached via email at [email protected], and on Twitter @dovemerson.