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Teaching Students, Not Subjects

If a teacher thinks his task is merely “to teach” – that it is no great thing to teach, that “anybody can do that” -- he must immediately be set straight.

Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman

Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman
Photo Credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90

Walking into Bnos Yisroel in Baltimore, one sees a sign that reads, “Teaching Students, Not Subjects.”

There are those who might argue that such a “soft” sentiment is fine for a girls’ yeshiva, but for boys? For boys, one needs a stronger hand.

I would argue that in this regard there should be no difference between a girls’ and a boys’ yeshiva. Caring for students is the only way to educate all our young people. Fortunately, despite the disturbing trend to hew an ever harder line with any student who does not strictly conform to a yeshiva’s academic and behavior standards, I am not alone in my belief that we do greater harm by harsh rigidity than by treating each of our students as a precious treasure.

Every Jewish educator knows that what we teach is vital. Fewer seem to appreciate that who we teach is at least as much of a gift.

It would be understandable for the most preeminent gadol to emphasize what we teach when he meets with mechanchim and rebbeim at the beginning of the new school year. He undoubtedly wants to emphasize the educational issues and concerns that will confront his teachers – the core curriculum that is to be taught, the pace at which classes must proceed, what is to be accomplished during a z’man, etc.

But that was not the focus of the gaon Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman’s recent talk with educators of yeshivot ketanot as the school year began.

According to the Chadrei Chareidim website, the rav pleaded with the educators to keep in mind two thoughts. One, to continually relate to each and every student as a neshamah, a pure and precious soul. Two, to stop expelling students from yeshivas.

Rav Shteinman referred to Bava Kamma 62a, as he does in his recently published volume Leading With Love. The Talmudic passage is concerned with a man giving a woman a gold coin to hold but telling her, “Be careful with it for it is silver.”

Rava rules that should she damage the coin, she would have to reimburse the man the full worth of the gold because the owner will rightly claim that, regardless of its actual worth, she should not have damaged it. However, if the woman was merely negligent with the coin, she would be responsible only for the value of the silver, correctly claiming that she had only agreed to be responsible for a silver coin (netirusa d’dahava lo kabilsi alai), not a gold one.

How are we to understand this passage? To put it in more contemporary terms, suppose a man gave his friend a locked box to safeguard, telling him it contained $10,000. Such a sum is not to be taken lightly. The friend would certainly guard it with great vigilance. But what if the locked box did not contain $10,000 but rather $100,000?

What if the friend negligently left the box on the back seat of a taxi? What would he say when he learned he was responsible not for $10,000 but for $100,000? He would surely protest that he had never agreed to be responsible for such a princely sum. He would admit that $10,000 is a sum worthy of vigilance. But $100,000? That is another matter entirely.

“Had I known that there was $100,000 in the box, I’d have been even more vigilant!”

The rav would find his claim that he is not liable for the additional $90,000 to be more than legitimate. But what does all this have to do with our discussion of teachers and students? Rav Shteinman suggests that, in a similar way, every teacher, rebbi and principal must fully understand exactly what is being entrusted to his safekeeping.

If a teacher thinks his task is merely “to teach” – that it is no great thing to teach, that “anybody can do that” — he must immediately be set straight. Children are neshamos; they are netirusa d’dahava. They are more precious than gold. Do not for a minute think they are merely silver. They are the most valuable possession of all Klal Yisrael.

If a teacher is not able to take on the responsibility of safeguarding such treasure, he shouldn’t. Before setting foot in a classroom, every teacher must be clear about the responsibility he is taking on and the treasure being placed in his safekeeping. He must know that to treat any child with less than netirusa d’dahava is negligence.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at e1948s@aol.com.


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