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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Vayera 5775 "Education for Life"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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This week’s Stam Torah is lovingly dedicated in memory of my Savta (Father’s Mother), Shprintza bas Avrohom Yitzchok, Mrs. Minnie Staum a’h, whose yahrtzeit is 17 Cheshvan. May her neshama have an aliyah.

My Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman[1], had a personal relationship with the beloved Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaas[2], Rav Avrohom Pam zt’l. Periodically, Rabbi Finkelman would visit Rav Pam in his home to speak with him and to solicit his blessings, especially prior to a holiday.

On one such occasion, Rabbi Finkelman brought one of his sons, who was then a toddler, to receive a blessing. As Rabbi Finkelman was conversing with Rav Pam, his son was playing on the floor with some blocks that the Pams had in their house for their own grandchildren. In the corner of his eye Rabbi Finkelman noticed that the tower his son was building was beginning to wobble. Concerned that it would fall and cause a loud noise, Rabbi Finkelman causally leaned over to straighten the blocks.

As he was about to push the blocks, Rebbitzin Pam, who was standing on the side watching and listening, suddenly called out, “Excuse me, what are you doing?!” Rabbi Finkelman explained that he wanted to make sure the blocks wouldn’t fall. Rebbitzin Pam emphatically responded, “No, No! You must not touch those blocks! When a child plays it is his way of expressing himself and developing his imagination. You must not interfere with what he is doing.”[3]

When G-d was about to destroy the evil cities of Sodom and Amorrah, He felt compelled to reveal His intentions to Avrohom. “G-d said, ‘Shall I conceal from Avrohom what I am doing. Now that Avrohom is surely to become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him? For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of G-d, doing charity and justice, in order that G-d might bring upon Avrohom that which He had spoken of him’.”[4]

Rashi relates an astounding insight about the manner in which Avrohom educated his children: “Thus did he (Avrohom) instruct his children: Keep the way of G-d so that G-d will bring upon Avrohom that which He had spoken of him[5].

The Mishna states: “Antignos of Socho would say: Do not be like a servant who serves his master solely for the sake of receiving his wages. But be like the servant who serves his master not for the sake of receiving reward, and the Fear of Heaven will be upon you.”[6]

It is inconceivable that our patriarch Avrohom did not fulfill this dictum! If so, how could Avrohom, the paragon of kindness and righteousness, and the bulwark of faith, instruct his children to follow the commandments of G-d so that they merit reward and personal gain?

The Nikolsberger Rebbe[7] explains that this was indeed the manner in which Avrohom instructed and educated his children. Avrohom was modeling for his progeny the proper mode of educating children. Avrohom demonstrated that one must relate to every child according to his/her level and capacity. Young children are too callow to appreciate the intrinsic benefit of Service to G-d. They have not yet developed the maturity and depth to comprehend the concept of developing a relationship with an intangible yet omnipotent G-d. Therefore, in order to train a child to act properly, one must help the child feel excited and see the benefit in doing the right thing, on the child’s level.

This idea is expressed by the legendary words of Shlomo Hamelech: “Educate each child according to his way; even when he becomes old he will not deviate from it.”[8] The message is that if one wants to instill values in a child that will remain with the child throughout life, he must seek to convey those values in a manner which speaks to the child’s soul on a personal level.

Thus, when Avrohom wanted to guide his young children to adhere to G-d’s Commandments, he spoke to them about the personal benefit they would enjoy if they did so.

The Nikolsberger Rebbe continues by quoting the timeless words of the Rambam[9]: “Give heart to hear my words about this topic. A young child enters to learn Torah from an educator. This is the ultimate good for the child because (through its study) he can reach perfection. However, because of his young age and lack of wisdom, he does not understand its great value, nor (does he comprehend the greatness of attaining) perfection. Behold, the educator is compelled to awaken him to study by (offering him) things that are dear to him in his young age. He should say to him, ‘Learn and I will give you walnuts and almonds’, or, ‘I will give you a little bit of honey’. At that point he will learn – not because of the (internal benefit of) study, for he does not understand its value – but for the treats which to him are valuable. He sees his studying and toiling as a means to receive a walnut or a bit of honey.

“Then, as he grows older and matures, the things which he used to think were valuable now lose their value. At that point the educator must tell him, ‘learn and I will buy you nice shoes or a nice article of clothing….”

The Rambam continues by explaining that at every stage of the youngster’s life the educator must “up the ante”. He must continue to offer incentives that the child deems valuable so that the child will want to continue learning.

Eventually, when the child matures enough, he will begin to realize and appreciate the internal value of Torah study. Because of all the incentives and rewards he received he will have become conditioned and trained to spend his time studying and will begin to appreciate its greatness. At that point, he will begin to serve G-d and study Torah out of love and sheer devotion; external incentives will no longer be necessary.

At the Torah Umesorah convention in May 2008, along with a few other Rabbeim, I had the pleasure of accompanying Rabbi Reuven Feinstein[10] for a walk early Shabbos morning. As we walked someone posed the following question to the Rosh Yeshiva: The Medrash[11] notes that although one’s Yetzer Hara (“Evil Inclination”) joins him at birth, a child does not merit his Yetzer Tov (“Good Inclination”) until his Bar Mitzvah. If that is the case, why do we bother trying to educate our children throughout their formative years? If they lack the capacity to do good anyway, why don’t we commence the religious education process at the child’s Bar Mitzvah?

Rabbi Feinstein replied that our understanding of the Medrash is flawed. The Medrash does not mean to imply that before his Bar Mitzvah a child lacks the capacity to perform good deeds and to act appropriately.[12] The purpose of the Good Inclination is that it grants a person the ability to act out of genuine altruism. Because a child lacks a Good Inclination he cannot be expected to do anything solely because it is the right thing to do. A child requires incentive; he must see the personal benefit and enjoyment that he will have when he does what is expected of him.

[It is worthy to note that I subsequently mentioned to Rabbi Feinstein that it has now become in vogue to try to encourage children to perform – not for external incentive – but in order to build their own sense of self-worth and self-esteem. We want our children to realize and appreciate the sense of inner fulfillment that one enjoys when he feels accomplished. I asked if that too is beyond the purview of a child?

Rabbi Feinstein replied that a child can indeed be motivated because he wants to feel satisfied and fulfilled. That sensation is itself an incentive (perhaps a far more valuable incentive). One who acts in order to feel that inner fulfillment, worthy as that is, is not acting completely altruistically.

In truth, even as adults the overwhelming majority of most people’s actions contain ulterior motives, including the desire for appreciation, accolades, and even an inner feeling of self-worth. However, unlike children, we intrinsically possess the ability to act out of pure unadulterated goodness and kindness, if we seek to develop that ability. To act out of sheer altruism requires a very high level of piety and selflessness. In fact it borders on the Divine, for all that G-d does is out of complete love and a desire to give, for He lacks nothing. An adult has the capacity to reach that extreme level as well.]

Although a child is born with innate characteristics and temperament, he/she essentially enters the world with a blank slate. It is incumbent upon the educators in his life (i.e. his parents and teachers) to educate him in a manner which the child can relate to. In our fast-paced, rapidly changing society, our children are so often robbed of their ability to enjoy the greatest gift of all, the gift of youth. Proper Torah-based chinuch includes deep sensitivity for a child’s development and all that such development entails.

It is tragic that it has become rare to see children exploring the outdoors in an unstructured manner. Too much involvement with computer games, toys that light up, and dolls that speak, robs children of their vital need to utilize their imaginations and develop their sense of wonder. The bliss of natural pleasure is the greatest gift we can give, such as encouraging a child to jump in a pile of leaves, play in the snow, and run around and explore the wonders of G-d’s Creation.

A child also cannot be taught in the same manner as one teaches an adult. He must be trained to act appropriately by realizing the sweetness and inherent good that one enjoys when fulfilling the Will of G-d and studying His Torah.

It is appropriate to conclude with an anecdote involving Rabbi Reuven Feinstein’s own childhood. When he was a child he would study with his saintly father, the foremost Torah leader and halachic authority of the previous generation, Harav Moshe Feinstein zt’l. During the summer, when the Feinstein family would travel up to the Catskill Mountains, young Reuven would learn with his father outside. There was a tractor that would drive through the bungalow and offer hayrides to the young children. When the tractor would appear in the distance, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein would gently close his son’s sefer and send him off to enjoy the ride.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein knew the value of every word of Torah study more than anyone else in the world. There was nary a free moment during his day when he wasn’t studying from a text or reviewing passages of Torah by heart. But his son was only a child!

“Because he commands his children… in order that G-d might bring…”

“Even when he becomes old he will not deviate from it.”

Please keep in mind:Elimelech ben Basya in all of your tefillos.

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[1] Rabbi Finkelman is the Mashgiach (student guide and advisor) at Yeshivas Ohr HaChaim in Queens, NY. I was privileged to spend many summers with him in Camp Dora Golding. He continues to be one of my primary Rebbes in life.

[2] In Brooklyn, NY

[3] When recounting the story Rabbi Finkelman added that the Finkelman and Pam families share a warm friendship and, therefore, the Rebbitzin felt comfortable offering him ‘friendly rebuke’.

[4] Bereishis 18:17-19

[5] i.e. all the blessings of prosperity and posterity

[6] Avos 1:3

[7] Rabbi Yosef Yechiel Michel Lebovits, (Kuntrus V’zos Hamitzva)

[8] Mishlei 22:6

[9] Peirush Mishnayos, Sanhedrin, Chapter 10 (Note: The quote is my own loose translation of the words of the Rambam. I have not done them justice.)

[10] Rosh Yeshiva, Mesifta Tiferes Yerushalayim, Staten Island

[11] Koheles Rabba 4:13

[12] If that was the case, then our efforts to educate a child prior to his reaching the age of Bar Mitzvah would truly be futile.

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