By Rabbi Dani Staum
In a commencement address to the Eagle Hill School Class of 2013, noted educator Rick Lavoie spoke about the importance of education. Towards the end of his lecture, he related the following:
“I don’t happen to be Jewish; it’s not my faith. However, my teaching philosophy matches closely with the Jewish philosophy, and 20 percent of my speeches are delivered in front of Jewish organizations. Many times, I am the first non-Jew asked to speak at their organizations. I have fallen under the spell of these rabbis; they are just so brilliant and scholarly. One time I lectured to a group of 400 rabbis. Do you know what it’s like to be in a room with 400 people and know you’re the dumbest person in the room?
“One time I asked a rabbi why the Jewish people are so focused on education? He replied that it’s because education is portable; you take it with you wherever you go. As a people, the Jews have been driven out of their land numerous times. They have been stripped of their money, homes, and wealth. But no one could take away their knowledge and education.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks related: “Imagine you are the leader of a people that has suffered exile for more than two centuries and has been enslaved and oppressed. Now, after a series of miracles, it is about to go free. You assemble them and rise to address them. They are waiting expectantly for your words. This is a defining moment they will never forget. What will you speak about?
“Most people answer: freedom. That was Abraham Lincoln’s decision in the Gettysburg Address when he invoked the memory of ‘a new nation, conceived in liberty,’ and looked forward to ‘a new birth of freedom.’
“Some suggest that they would inspire the people by talking about the destination that lay ahead, the ‘land flowing with milk and honey.’ Yet others say they would warn the people of the dangers and challenges that they would encounter on what Nelson Mandela called ‘the long walk to freedom.’
“Any of these would have been the great speech of a great leader. Guided by G-d, Moses did none of these things. That is what made him a unique leader. If you examine the text in Parshas Bo, you will see that, three times, he reverted to the same theme: children, education, and the distant future…
“Jews became the only people in history to predicate their very survival on education. The most sacred duty of parents was to teach their children. Pesach itself became an ongoing seminar in the handing on of memory. Judaism became the religion whose heroes were teachers and whose passion was study and the life of the mind. The Mesopotamians built ziggurats. The Egyptians built pyramids. The Greeks built the Parthenon. The Romans built the Coliseum. Jews built schools. That is why they alone, of all the civilizations of the ancient world, are still alive and strong, still continuing their ancestors’ vocation, their heritage intact and undiminished.
“Moses’ insight was profound. He knew that you cannot change the world by externalities alone, by monumental architecture, or armies and empires, or the use of force and power. How many empires have come and gone while the human condition remains untransformed and unredeemed?
“There is only one way to change the world, and that is by education. You have to teach children the importance of justice, righteousness, kindness, and compassion. You have to teach them that freedom can only be sustained by the laws and habits of self-restraint.”
The late Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, had a warm relationship with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The first time they met, Thatcher had been recently appointed as Minister of Education. Rabbi Jakobovits greeted her and said, “It is a pleasure to meet you, Minister of Defense.” She replied that he was mistaken, because she was the minister of education, not defense.
Rabbi Jakobovits replied, “In our tradition, the security of a country and the defense of its values and ways of life lie in the hands of those who educate our children. There is nothing more important than education!”
An administrator in an Israeli yeshivah recounted his experience as a child living in a dormitory yeshivah many decades ago.
The food served in the institution was fairly meager, and the young boy was always hungry. One day, the institution served chocolate pudding, and the boy took his portion and wolfed it down, and then got back in line and asked for another portion. The server refused his request with a nasty remark. Frustrated and angered, the boy turned over the entire chocolate pudding pot and spilled its contents on the ground. The boy was beaten for the act and the head of the institution publicly reprimanded and humiliated the child. The following day, Rabbi Aryeh Levin was coming to visit the yeshivah. The child was told that his eventual fate as to whether he would be expelled from the institution would be decided by Rabbi Aryeh. The next morning, he met Rabbi
Aryeh who asked him to sit next to him and then asked him if he really spilled out the entire pot. When the boy admitted his guilt, Rabbi Aryeh asked him if he would do such a thing again. The boy shamefacedly said that he would never do such a thing again. Rabbi Aryeh then asked him, “Do you really like chocolate pudding?” When the boy answered that he did, Rabbi Aryeh told the boy that he, too, loves chocolate pudding. He then took out two containers of chocolate pudding and told the boy they would enjoy eating it together. At that moment, the educator said, I realized what it means to be a Torah Jew.
In a similar vein, Rabbi Chanina Herzberg, the late beloved menahel of the Yeshiva of South Shore for over 40 years, was a devoted student of the legendary m’chaneich, Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld. Rabbi Herzberg related that on one occasion when he was a high school student in Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, he was thrown out of class. Rabbi Freifeld, the menahel of the Yeshiva, saw him in the hall and asked him, “Chanina, do you want to go for a cup of coffee and a Danish?” They went together to a bakery near the Yeshiva and schmoozed.
Rabbi Herzberg would muse that Rabbi Freifeld became his lifelong and foremost rebbe with a coffee and a Danish.
I have the great fortune to have a close relationship with Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman, the Mashgiach of Yeshivas Ohr HaChaim in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, and a beloved m’chaneich, from the years he spent in Camp Dora Golding. Anyone who came to speak with him in his camp office cannot forget the poignant words on the sign hanging behind his desk: “Children need our love most when they least deserve it.”
As Torah-observant Jews, we invest incredible amounts of money, resources, and effort upon the education of our children. We prioritize it almost above all else. That has been the secret of our continuity and remains the source of our eternity. But Torah education can never be fully accomplished institutionally. It must be individualized and tailored to the unique personality and soul of every child. Sometimes a bowl of chocolate pudding or a visit to a bakery can accomplish more than hours of lectures. True chinuch requires patience, love, and a vision beyond the behaviors being displayed in the moment. We were liberated from Egyptian tyranny so we can be free to educate and guide our children to follow the path of Torah. Such freedom is challenging and demanding. But the returns are eternal.
Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW, a rebbe at Heichal HaTorah in Teaneck, New Jersey, is a parenting consultant and maintains a private practice for adolescents and adults.