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Some candid talk is in order - from myself; a forty-something parent and mechanech, to you, my dear yeshiva bachurim, Klal Yisroel's greatest treasure. After all, you and your fellow bachurim are our future: the husbands of our daughters, the fathers of our grandchildren, the Roshei Yeshiva, rebbeim, and lay leaders who will teach and lead the coming generation. You are now entering a very exciting and challenging period of your lives. Over these coming years, you will, with the help of Hashem, crystallize your value systems and search for life partners. You will begin building your own homes, creating a legacy for your children and grandchildren.
Our generation, children of pre-war European parents and/or Holocaust survivors, grew up in a dramatically different environment than yours. Our parents came to this great country and built new lives for themselves and their children. But, as well as they have done, and some have done remarkably well, they never truly felt in-sync with American culture. All of them have seen hunger and poverty - real hunger and real poverty. We were, therefore, raised by a generation who grew up without the safety net of social security and the utopia of 'The Great Society' and its social programs. When my parents got married, poor people starved; they didn't just drive old, rundown cars and take inexpensive Chol HaMoed trips.
I think it is important that you understand one of the most fundamental differences between your generation and mine. You see, by mid-adolescence we had to have A PLAN. We were asked by our parents, usually in grade 10 or 11, how we planned to support ourselves and our families and what our dreams and goals were. Our parents had rock-solid bitachon that survived unspeakable tragedy and spiritual trials and believed with every fiber of their being that "Der Aibeshter vet helfin" (G-d will help). They believed that G-d would help them, meaning that Hashem Yisborach would support their endeavors and bring them to successful fruition. G-d's help, they believed, needed their own attempts to help themselves. From us they wanted to know what our hishtadlus (contributory effort) would look like. What complicated the equation for thousands of us yeshiva bachurim in the 60's and 70's was that virtually all our parents had an almost reverent respect for higher education (read: college). Having been robbed of the opportunity to compete for well-paying white-collar jobs due to the language barrier and the childhood that was cruelly stolen from them, many of them had no choice but to work very hard at manual, blue-collar jobs in order to provide for their families. In their day, the "ticket of admission" to a financially secure vocation, career or profession was often a college education. Perhaps many of them overvalued a college education. Perhaps the downsides of attending college were less real or less evident than they are today. But that mindset was the reality among the vast majority of our parents.
And so, as my friends and I passed through our late teens, there was almost no home that was not filled with long, passionate sessions with our parents about TACHLIS, as in - "Vus vet zayn a tachlis mit deer"? (Loosely translated as, "What will become of you?"). Tears were shed on both sides. Mamorei chazal were quoted (mostly on our side) as we pleaded our case to allow just one more year of uninterrupted yeshiva study. And then another year. But at no time during the many discussions was there any thought of presenting no plan at all.
The trial of fire that we had to endure to pursue full-time learning made us stronger b'nei Torah. We searched our souls, consulted with our Roshei HaYeshiva, and discussed with our parents. We embraced each block of hard-fought-for time as the treasure that it was.
A Different World
Things have changed considerably in the past generation. In virtually all 'black-hat' yeshivos, it is certainly the norm, Baruch Hashem, for boys like you to learn full time until their wedding and perhaps a year or two beyond that. But at the same time that we rejoice in this monumental accomplishment, this should not discourage you from developing your master plan while you are still in your late teens. Search your soul, discuss this with your parents, and seek the counsel of your Rosh Hayeshiva. Call it a cheshbon hanefesh or call it strategic planning, but regardless of what you call it, just do it! Go into this process with the understanding that your plan will, in all likelihood, change - not once, but perhaps several times over the next decade. Just remember, that an amended plan is a lot better than no plan at all.
A good place to start is to set clear, practical goals for your limudim. Read the biography of my great rebbi, Rav Avrohom Pam z'tl. While in his late teens, he decided to dedicate a two-year period of his life to master all of Shulchan Aruch. Then, he single-mindedly pursued this colossal goal until it was accomplished.
A plan is a dream with a deadline. It is the embodiment of "sof ma'aseh b'machshava techilah" - beginning with the end in mind. Living your life with a plan is like walking one mile to catch a bus, knowing that it will leave in 20 minutes. You stride with purpose and clarity. Living without a plan is taking that same walk with 2 hours on your hands. In this case, you are much more likely to meander, or worse yet, get distracted to the point that you miss the bus altogether.
Mastering a mesichta of gemorah needs a plan. Reflect upon your goals and targets for the misechta, and ask some questions of yourself: Are you striving for mastery of bekius or iyun - or both? Are you looking to retain the yediyos ba'al peh? Which Rishonim will you be looking to learn? How many dafim would you like to learn - by which target date?
Ask your Rebbi or Rosh Yeshiva to help you develop your personalized learning plan that will enhance your strong points and strengthen your areas of weakness. You may wish to add focus and self-evaluation to your own limudim by writing a summary of each perek of gemorah you have learned or by taking some of the excellent bechinos created by Mifal HaShas or the Dirshu Kollel.
Planning for Your Life
The next step is to start developing a plan for your future life. Going into chinuch is a plan. Going into rabbonus is a plan. Striving to become a Rosh Yeshiva is a plan. Becoming a carpenter, an accountant, or a businessman is a plan. But having no plan at all will dramatically increase the likelihood of you leading a floundering and unfulfilled life both in ruchniyus and in gashmiyus.
Once you decide what you want to do, think long and hard about what tools you will need to succeed at this vocation, and get started on developing and honing those skills - today!
Every one of these vocations needs a detailed, multi-year plan to master your profession. Take chinuch, for example. If at age 17 or 19, you feel that you have a future in chinuch, by all means pursue it. Create your plan - and get started on implementing it ASAP! Give a shiur in your summer camp or tutor a weaker talmid in your yeshiva. (I decided to enter chinuch after teaching a learning group in a summer camp at age 17.)
But don't stop there. Think of the other skills you will need to succeed in chinuch: public speaking, writing skills, lashon hakodesh, and computer graphics. All of these skills will be enormously helpful to you in your quest for chinuch excellence and will impede your success if you don't master them. As one who interviews dozens of potential mechanchim each year to fill positions in my yeshiva, I can tell you firsthand how important proficiency is in these areas.
So, get to work. Volunteer to write and edit your yeshiva's newsletter. Deliver a d'var Torah in public whenever you can. Volunteer to spend a summer in Torah Umesorah's Seed Program. Prepare well for your chaburah, and, b'ezras Hashem, it will be the first link in the glorious chain of your own harbotzas haTorah. (One of my rebbeim was fond of saying the there are two bodies of water in Eretz Yisroel: the Yam Kinneret and the Yam Hamelach. The Kinneret has water coming in and water going out. Therefore, its water is sweet. The Yam Hamelach (Dead Sea) only has water coming in. Thus, its water is salty and undrinkable. My rebbi would tell us to see to it that we continue to share our Torah and talent with others and produce sweet water in the yam shel Torah.)
"Er hot zich yetzt genumen tzum lernen" (Lit. "He just started learning")
Allow me to share with you an observation of mine - one that has, in my opinion, great ramifications for you. Very often, a couple will consult with me regarding a decision that they need to make regarding their son who is currently in shana beis or gimmel (The second or third post-high school year). They and their son agreed that he would learn full-time for a predetermined time after high school. It is now 6 or 12 months after the 'deadline'. Their son, begging for more time, pleads, "But Ma, I just started really getting into learning." His Rosh Yeshiva echoes the sentiment during discussions with the boy's parents. Coincidence? Of course not! Surely the maturity that comes with the passage of time and an acquired appreciation for the virtual Gan Eden of learning Torah lishma makes the third year generally more productive than the first.
There is, however, another factor that makes the last year most productive - the simple fact that it is the last year. Any arbitrary deadline gets your adrenaline running and forces you to crank up your productivity several notches. There are 105 days between January 1st and April 15th. With all those days to choose from, more than 25% of Americans file their taxes on one of those days…the deadline, April 15th.
Please don't wait for the last year or two to fully appreciate the historically unprecedented opportunity that members of your generation have to devote yourselves completely to learning mitoch harchovas hada'as. Spending some time in your mid-to-late teens doing some serious planning for your future life will help you get more focused and productive long before the final year or months arrive.
Getting a Rav
Another thing that has dramatically changed over that past generation or two is the size, b'lei ayin harah, of the largest post-High School Yeshivos and Kollelim. While walking into a Beis Midrosh that has thousands of bachurim and kollel yungerleit learning Torah is an awe-inspiring experience, it is of utmost importance that you find a personal rebbi within that yeshiva to nurture a long-lasting relationship. Asey l'cha rav is an obligation on you, the talmid. You will have so many critical, highly personal decisions to make over the next few years - and beyond. Please see to it that you afford yourself the important opportunity to discuss these matters with your rebbi, and be able to seek his guidance.
I write these thoughts on an airplane as I return to America from a trip to Eretz Yisroel. While I was in Yerushalayim, I spent some time meeting with families who lost sons and brothers in terror attacks. There are few experiences in my 45 years that have moved me more than the hours that I spent with these bereaved family members. There were many messages that I personally took from the incredibly powerful effect of those meetings. Most relate to things that we in Chutz La'Aretz can do to stand up, be counted, and assist our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisroel. But, as I looked at the framed pictures of the teenage victims, who, due to these horrific attacks, will forever remain young, I kept thinking that we, who are fortunate to be alive, should make every moment count.
My dear chaverim, at this stage, your lives are virtually a blank page. You need to believe that with the help of Hashem, you can achieve your dreams and aspirations. So many of the underachieving kids I deal with honestly don't appreciate the gift of life and subsequently squander the precious days, months and even years of their youth. Embrace life! Unwrap every day as the gift that it is and live life to the fullest.
May Hashem grant your wishes, and may you be zoche to plan for - and realize - all of your dreams.
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