From Flashy Lights to Eternal Flames

When I was a kollel yungerman, I conducted a “Beginners’ Service” on Shabbos. One Shabbos Chanukah, a newly observant, thoughtful attendee related how his co-workers were discussing the various seasonal festivities in which they would be partaking that evening. One of them turned to him and asked, “What will you be doing tonight, Allan?” Allan related to us that he thought for a moment and replied, “I am going home and lighting a candle.”

אל תאמר מה היה שהימים הראשונים היו  טובים מאלה כי לא מחכמה שאלת על זה (קהלת ז:י), Do not say “How was it that former times were better than these”? For that question is not prompted by wisdom.
Regarding this pasuk, Rav Shimon Schwab, zt”l, quotes his Rebbi, Reb Yosef Leib Bloch, zt”l, who explained that while it is axiomatic that people of earlier times were greater than today’s people, that does not make them better than us. Just as the generations of Jews are in constant descent, so too are the generations of other nations. Present-day non-Jews certainly fall short of the moral standards and sense of decency of their predecessors. In view of the deterioration of the general environment, a Torah Jew must try much harder to rise above his surroundings than did his parents. This gives him far more credit for his achievements than his parents deserved for theirs. They may be greater than him in terms of spiritual achievement, but they were not “better”.

Maintaining the spiritual purity of our children, and ourselves, has never been a greater challenge. The moral deterioration Rav Schwab cites has become a sad understatement. No longer is our main challenge to shield them from the seasonal lure of bright lights and rabid marketing. Today, we are faced with a relentless barrage of lurid messages and attractions that surround us and invade our homes and minds including an ever-growing army of technological messengers.

Can we insulate or isolate our children from these influences? On the other hand, should we try to compete with their allure? Should we adapt modern marketing to sell Torah? Do we need bells and whistles, packaging and prizes, raffles and rewards to motivate children to learn daven and do mitzvos?

Reb Moshe Chaim Luzattto famously quotes the Midrash:וגם הנפש לא תמלא, משל למה הדבר דומה, לעירוני שנשא בת מלך, אם יביא לה כל מה שבעולם, אינם חשובים לה כלום, שהיא בת מלך.  This Midrash compares one trying to find fulfillment with material objects to a peasant who married a princess. Just as he can find no gift to offer a princess who has everything, so too will the nefesh not find contentment with that which is beneath it.

For a child with a pantry-full of nosh and a closet stocked with all the latest toys, the small incentives we can give out in the classroom pale by comparison. Moreover, the long-range benefits of extrinsic rewards and motivational techniques are questionable.

Creative and innovative programs and activities designed to make learning appealing and “fun” are admirable but are they sufficient? Will they equip our children to understand and withstand the moral morass of our society?

In speaking about Shimon and Levi, Yaakov Avinu declares, כלי חמס מכרתיהם , Stolen tools are their weapons. Rashi explains: אומנות זו של רציחה, חמס הוא בידכם, מברכת עשו היא, זו אומנת שלו היא, ואתם חמסתם אותה הימנו (ב”ר צ”ט:ו). This craft of murder is from the blessing of Esav, it is his craft and you robbed him of it.

Reb Yerucham Levovits expands on this Rashi. He explains that extrinsic factors can and do become absorbed into a person’s character, but they are still not a part of the person’s metzius. We must distinguish between the essence of a person and that which has been incorporated from the outside.  To get our children to persevere on their own – to achieve the גם כי יזקין – by which they will maintain the derech h’Torah into their old age when we are no longer there to guide them, we must turn our attention away from the extrinsic motivations and speak to their metzius.

As educators, we possess what our students really need and what will truly motivate them. We can reach their neshamos, their metzius. It is not a secret or magic; we simply need to connect with what is already there.

What is intrinsic to children? Children are born with an internal natural motivation and drive to learn and achieve. They naturally take satisfaction in the challenges provided by learning and they revel in the feeling of mastery and the joy of achievement.

If we focus on tapping into their natural drive, and learn to avoid the pitfalls that squelch it, our chinuch can reach their essence rather than attaching to some extrinsic desire for goodies and rewards. To instill into our students lessons that will last a lifetime, we need to focus on the building blocks of effective instruction: encouraging inquiry and exploration; establishing challenging but reachable goals; demonstrating that it is learning that matters, that mistakes are part of learning, that it is not brains and talent, but rather perseverance and hard work that make you successful.

We need to ensure that each child feels safe, welcome and at home in our classrooms. They must be free of the fear of bullying and ostracism by classmates, and feel valued by their teachers regardless of their background, “ability” or circumstances. The communication skills that build the students’ sense of self-worth, their confidence and willingness to put in their best effort are among the teachers’ most vital “marketing tools.”

When Hashem gives the instructions for lighting the menorah, the symbol of Torah learning, He commands the kohein to kindle the flame until it rises up on its own, as Rashi quotes from the Gemara: עד שתהא השלהבת עולה מאליה – until the flame rises of its own. This is a striking and apt metaphor for teaching. It’s not enough to touch off a spark; we must stay with the job, keep kindling the flame until it rises up from within the child who will become a responsible, committed adult. Then we know that it has become a part of his essence.

None of this means that we should discount the value of educational research and new methods of inspiring and helping our students. We can and should use whatever tools are appropriate and available. However, no matter what methods we use, we can only make a long-lasting impact by connecting with the child’s internal motivation and drive.

Most of all, we must keep in mind the inherent beauty and appeal of what we are teaching. A number of years ago, I along with a number of chaveirim from the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva, were involved in a kiruv program that was initiated in an affluent Long Island suburb. The kollel yungerleit were compensated to learn b’chavrusa with accomplished Jewish professionals. These men were all at the top of their fields, educated and successful. We asked our Rebbe, Rav Henoch Liebowitz zt’l, what to learn with them. “Chumash mit Rashi,” he responded. Teaching a Jew Torah is the most effective “kiruv” tool ever devised.

This prescription is not limited to those secular Jewish professionals who had little or no understanding of Torah’s eternal truth. The solution is already here. We just have to light a candle, the candle that lies within every student. By tapping into their desire, surrounding them with warmth and acceptance and guiding them toward the life-giving wellsprings of Torah, we will be zoche to reach their essence, kindle the flame and watch it ignite the neshama of each and every child.