Midrashim from this week’s parsha with insights into Chinuch:

1) The Midrash (Netzavim 3) when discussing “Lo BaShamayim Hiy”, that learning Torah and growth are within everyones reach, many commentators discuss the apparent discrepancy, how learning Torah and growth is really quite difficult. While many have their own approach in explaining the apparent contradiction, the Midrash explains how something the pasuk describes as easy and attainable becomes difficult and overwhelming:

“A simple student enters the Bais HaMidrash, inquiring how he can begin learning Torah. He is answered to begin with the Aleph Bais, move on to Chumash and Nach, and once completed begin Gemara. After that, begin learning Halacha LeMaaseh (practical applications) and Agados (life lessons). The student says to himself, “when will I have the time to finish all this?” and leaves the Bais HaMidrash. Rav Yanai Compares this to a Prize suspended high up. The simple person looks at it and laments that he will never reach it, while the wise student says If it was placed there by someone then it must be attainable. So too, a person must learn a small portion every day until he finished the entire Torah.”

Let us analyze what happened here. A student entered the Bais HaMidrash motivated to learn and asking for advice how to take the first steps. Perhaps in excitement and awe of what they learn, the he is answered with a long (though specific and simple) outline of where to begin, the ultimate goal, and how to bridge the two. The student, overwhelmed by the “big picture” feels inadequate and gives up. Thus it is not the students inability but his personality that withholds him from success. Perhaps it is laziness. Perhaps he is scared to commit to something for so long a period. Perhaps he genuinely feels incapable. Either way, Chazal’s advice in dealing with such a student is clear:

1. Show them it is attainable by example (others have reached it).

2. Chip away at it slowly.

Kids need role models not only to model behavior but to see that their goals are attainable. Rav Jacoubowitz once told me that one of the most successful programs he led in Kiruv incorporated weekly lectures from normal Baalebatim talking about their lives and experiences, just showing that the goal is attainable. Kids also can get overwhelmed easily. Parents and Mechanchim must be sensitive to this and frame things in a way that they can digest. Sometimes the actual chomer can be overwhelming, sometimes the expectations. Small attainable goals make for small steps, and pretty quickly fosters feelings of accomplishment, bolsters self-esteem and boosts motivation.

2) Another Midrash records how “close” and easy it is to put learning Torah and growth into action:

“They say to the Lazy one, “Your Rebbe is in the city, go to him and learn”. He answers, “There are lions in the city, it is dangerous”. They say to him “Your Rebbe is in the settled area, go and learn”. He answers, “They are on the streets”. They say to him “He is not on the street, go learn”. He answers, “There are lions outside”. They say to him “Your Rebbe is in a house not outside, go and learn”. He answers, “What if I go all the way there and the door is locked, then I have to come all the way back”. They say to him “The door is open”. With nothing left to answer, the Lazy one says “either way, I am now tired and need to rest a little, then I will go”. He sleeps until the next morning. Upon awakening, they place food before him, but he is too lazy even to eat it. Rav Shimon Bar Yochai says “this is the person who didn’t learn when he was young, and when he gets older will be unable to”.

Many of us have experienced this Midrash in various situations. Perhaps trying to get a child to the bus or shul on time, perhaps a Rebbe trying to get his talmid to shiur. Clearly the issue is that the main issue, the child’s laziness, is not being addressed directly. Rather the child is manipulating the conversation so that the real issue will never be dealt with. Thus, when the child finally runs out of excuses, he still doesn’t go and there is nothing they can do to motivate him, because the initial obstacle is still there. Of course, in our day and age, if we broke the conversation to point out the child’s laziness, we would be accused of not understanding the child or being where he is holding, not listening etc. Children need to have moment made available to them when they have the freedom to speak and lead the conversation. But not when it comes to basic boundaries and functioning, there has to be clear expectations. There are indeed some students with anxieties who “fear lions” and have very real reasons why it’s difficult for them to do what they need to do, like going to school. However, a great many teens manipulate the adults in their life, especially in this generation. We know it, and so do they. What surprising is that deep down you’ll find they resent it when we give them this ability. In the above situation, the Midrash concludes that eventually his laziness (or whatever his issue is) will continue to spread to other areas of his life, even basic things like eating, even when the work is done for him. Eventually the child will grow up and desire to change but will find that he lacks the tools to do so. A frightening image! Let’s remember that what we call in this generation “tough love” was once understood simply as love. I have many times asked talmidim how they feel when a parent or Rebbe “loses” interactions like the above Midrash, basically giving up. Their answer is that even though they fight it, when adults give in they are lowering their expectations of them, and that lowers their self-esteem and makes them feel worse. When we stand our ground, we show we care. They know it, even when they storm off angry and resentful, though it doesn’t hurt to explain that too, that we love them enough to be the bad guy and make the hard decisions. That too is something a teen once pointed out to me, that when adults give in they are often choosing themselves over the child, choosing their own comfortability over the difficulties of being a mechanech.

Shabbat Shalom, Good Shabbos

Rabbi Ari Deutscher MSW