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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Vayigash - Asarah Be'Teves 5773 "What About Me?"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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A photographer was once describing to his friend the extreme poverty of a poor Native-American hamlet. “The women were pregnant, the children were sick and malnourished, and the men had no work. So they sat around and drank themselves into a stupor. The village was in ruins the squalid living conditions were deplorable and the poverty was unimaginable.”

The friend listened wide-eyed and asked, “So what did you do?” The photographer nonchalantly responded, “I shot them in color.”

The epic confrontation between Yosef and Yehuda reaches its crescendo. Yosef can no longer bear the pain of his brother’s degradation. He dismisses everyone from the room and emphatically declares, “I am Yosef!” The brothers reel in shock as they try to digest the words they heard. But then Yosef adds, “Is my father still alive?”

The commentators are puzzled by Yosef’s inquiry. Did he not know that Yaakov was alive in Canaan? Was that not one of the main points of discussion from when the brothers first appeared before Yosef? Did Yehuda not, moments before, warn Yosef of the dire consequences Binyamin’s failure to return would have on Yaakov?

In the beginning of his magnum opus, Chovas Hatalmidim[1] explains that education is not about conveying dry facts and instruction during the child’s youth and to subdue his behavior so that he can be socially appropriate. Rather, it is to inculcate within a child an appreciation and deep connection to what he is being taught, so that he can appreciate its value and how it enriches him as an individual. Dogmatic instruction is only a tool but it must be coupled with emotional connection. Shlomo Hamelech wrote[2] “Educate each child according to his way; even in his old age he will not forsake it.” True education speaks to the child so deeply that it remains a part of him throughout his life.

The word chinuch connotes a new beginning. In reference to children it refers to our efforts to open the heart of a child in order to reveal his inner beauty. The only way to accomplish such an approach towards education is through loving the child and seeing his uniqueness and then helping him recognize it and ultimately foster it as well.

Rabbi Yissochor Frand related the painful story about a yeshiva student whose father had abandoned his family. The student was completely ‘turned off’ and showed no interest in anything that the Rebbe taught. The Rebbe tried his best to engage the child with incentives and individualized attention, even inviting him to his home for a Shabbos meal. But all his efforts were to no avail. The frustrated Rebbe allowed the troubled student to sit in the back of the class in his own world. The Rebbe hoped that the student would absorb some of the lesson.

A few months passed and the Rebbe was teaching his class Parshas Vayigash and the ordeal of Yosef revealing his identity to his brothers. He asked his class the obvious question - why did Yosef ask if Yaakov was alive if he knew he was?

The class sat silently as they pondered the question. Then, a hand shot up from the back of the room. The Rebbe was surprised to see that it was his ‘lost student’. When he immediately called on him the student explained: “Yosef was telling the brothers a message. I know YOUR father is still alive and I know YOUR father is still involved in your lives; but what about MY father? Has MY father given up on me? It’s been twenty two years since I last saw him. Does he still care about ME? Is MY father still alive?”

We live in a narcissistic, impatient world that looks for the quick-fix. We do not like solutions that require patience, methodology, or selflessness. The tragic product of such a world is a society which has lost the art of human communication and empathy. The depth of that narcissism constantly shocks us. The egregious shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut this past week is a painful case in point.

But Chinuch requires tremendous patience and love. It is far more than academia and scholarship; it requires soul-connection, which results from passionate teaching, not dogma. It entails reaching into the soul of each student and drawing out the inherent beauty that resides within.

“Even in his old age he will not forsake it”

“Is MY father still alive?”

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[1] Duties of the Student authored by the Piaseczno Rav, Rav Klonimus Kalman Shpiro zt’l hy’d. He was a trendbnous Torah leader murdered by the Nazis.

[2] Mishlei (22:6) "חנוך לנער על פי דרכו גם כי יזקין לא יסור ממנו"

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