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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.

If every teacher is to safeguard his students with such care, how much more negligent is it to expel a student from yeshiva? How much more negligent is it to treat such a soul in such a way that he or she will then remove himself or herself from our community?

That teacher should not think for even a moment that he will not be asked in the world to come, “Why did this young man leave the community? Why is this young woman no longer frum? Why is that young person on drugs?”

What will that teacher answer? What can he answer?

And in the gaping silence, he will be asked, “If this were your own son, would you have thrown him out? For that is what you should have thought at the time. This is like your son – your son!”

* * * * *

It is not enough to presume that because a child is attending yeshiva his home is filled with Yiddishkeit or that she is treated with love and respect. That is why each talmid must we watched closely and with care. The rebbi must be mindful of his charges; he must be mindful of everything. More important, he must teach with love and compassion, with a pleasant and joyous countenance. The way to treat students is with compassion and mercy, not rigidity and anger.

When I met with the faculties I had the privilege to lead, I always shared with them a simple truth: We all make mistakes. To err is human. And in almost every profession and circumstance, it is possible to make a mistake and then correct it. Except when it comes to a child or student we turned off by our negligence, inattention, or abuse.

When we extinguish the flame of learning in a young soul, it is not easily – if ever – relit. There very well may be no second chance.

There is no more important message a faculty can receive than to nurture that flame in every single student. And yet even when Rav Shteinman addressed his audience of hundreds of educators I can imagine there were those who listened impassively, all the while thinking to themselves, “It’s easy to talk about all that in the abstract. What about those of us in the classroom? What about us, the ones who have to deal with students who misbehave or act out?”

“What about the student who is immersed in the Internet?” a rebbi asked Rav Shteinman.

Such questions have merit, but it is astonishing to me how much of the ills of society are now blamed on the Internet. Of course the Internet poses many dangers and challenges. But were there no problems before the Internet?

So would Rav Shteinman have responded, “Of course throw out the student immersed in Internet! Of course throw out the student who acts out!” Or would he have asked, like Rav Ovadia Yosef, z”tl, “Whom are you throwing out? A rock? Some accumulated trash?”

Rav Ovadia knew the challenge of teaching in a classroom. When he confronted a rowdy, disruptive or uncooperative student he did not view that student as “the enemy” but rather as the unique being God intended. Rav Yosef was passionate in his defense of such students:

“Don’t throw them out. We are dealing with nefashos! This is dinei nefashos. Our rabbonim only addressed dinei nefashos when there was a Sanhedrin, 23 chachamim…. You throw him out and what will be with him then? You know what will be? Do you accept responsibility for what he will become?

“Therefore, you must love him and smother him with love – bnei Yisrael whose future is to become gedolei Yisrael. To bring them closer with sweet words…this is how we bring them into the Torah fold.”

Rav Shteinman responded similarly to the Internet question. Each student is to be considered on an individual basis; each situation demands discussion and analysis with a chacham.

The most important thing, he emphasized, was to not demean or demoralize (not to be me’zalzel ) any talmid, to never to dismiss any talmid as hopeless.

In his response, Rav Shteinman showed why he is a true gadol – a visionary who can see clearly and respond to the demands of the times.

Anyone can treat a difficult or misbehaving student as garbage. Anyone can just throw him out. But it takes a teacher to transform him into the gedolim and nashim tzidkanios that Rav Shteinman envisions.

If a mechanech does not realize what treasures sit directly before him, chas v’shalom, he may claim he only agreed to watch “silver coins.” But in fact he has before him the purest gold. He has before him neshamos kedoshos.

Rav Shteinman was determined that his listeners truly understand the importance of never dismissing, ignoring, or overlooking any student.

“Let me give you another example,” he told them. “You know that Rav Chaim Volozhin established the yeshiva in Volozhin, which existed for exactly seventy years. The yeshiva had roshei yeshiva – Rav Chaim Volozhiner, and then his son Rav Yitzchak, and then a son-in-law of Rav Chaim, and another son-in-law, and then the Netziv.”

He sighed. The Netziv led the yeshiva for fifty of its seventy years. “Yes, the Netziv, who had not been particularly well thought of [mi’techilah chashvu alav she’hu lo kol kach], turned out to be very special. Because of the Netziv, for fifty years all of Volozhin existed and thrived.”

Give heed. Teach with your heart. Love your students. You never know, the next Netziv may very well be sitting in your classroom.

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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