A few years ago, I read a story about a CEO who wanted to motivate his employees, so he hung up a sign over the sink in the office bathroom which simply said, “THINK!” He came in the next day to find that someone had hung up a sign just above the soap dispenser which read “THOAP!”
During my preadolescent years I was a member of the Tzlil V’zemer Boys Choir, directed by Mr. Avrohom Rosenberg. The choir was popular for some time, releasing a number of music albums and performing in concerts both nationally and internationally. We would meet every Thursday night and practice for our performances, reviewing our songs and harmonies, and ensuring perfect choreography. We were taught to stand with rapt attention, hands behind our backs, facing Mr. Rosenberg as we sang.
If there is one lesson I remember most from that wonderful experience, it can be summed up in one word. It was one word that Mr. Rosenberg would repeat constantly: “Improvise! Improvise! Improvise!” When I joined the choir, I didn’t even know what that word meant, but I quickly learned. There would be unexpected situations, he would tell us, things that we could not have foreseen or prepared for. But performing before large crowds we may not always have a chance to plan our best course of action. Improvise! Think about what the best idea is to follow given the circumstances and do your best!
Indeed, there were times when we had to employ that wisdom. The band was playing off beat; the stage was too small for all of us; some of the stage costumes didn’t arrive, etc. Improvise!
What a great lesson to convey to our society, especially our children.
One of the criticisms of our society’s child-rearing is that we aren’t sufficiently training children to think for themselves. Children quickly learn how to spit back the information we want them to say, record it on tests, and tell us what we want to hear them say. Then they promptly expel that knowledge from their minds, so they are able to focus on the more important things of life – i.e., their iPhone or PlayStation.
The greatest tragedy is when this occurs in Torah study. It is truly incredible that constantly new seforim are printed containing new ideas and novel approaches and explanations in all facets of Torah. But many of our children cannot think for themselves and would rather “get through it” in a cursory fashion than exert any efforts at innovation. How boring; but more tragically, how disastrous!
One of my teachers would often remind us that common sense isn’t too common. Mesillas Yeshorim reminds us of this truth in his opening words that he isn’t coming to relate novel ideas, but rather to remind us of things that we all know but tend to overlook.
The truth is that it’s not just a problem that our youth faces; it’s a general societal malaise – why should I think when a machine can think for me?
My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, notes that the fourth son mentioned at the Seder – the son who doesn’t ask – is generally depicted as an ignorant infant. However, it may very well be that the son who doesn’t ask is physically mature and past youth. He doesn’t ask because he is not interested! He sits at the Seder surrounded by age-old laws, customs, symbols and traditions, yet his curiosity isn’t even piqued. His mind is lost in a movie or electronic game on some distant galaxy, far more exciting to him than the story of our exodus from Egypt. The curse of apathy is far more perilous than the curse of blissful ignorance.
Before we can convey to our children the richness of our traditions, and how lucky they are to be part of the eternal people, we need to teach them – and ourselves – how to think!