Prioritization – A Second Look at Fundamentals

Every educational system makes assumptions about those it is meant to educate. An incoming Grade 9 student is assumed to be literate in his native language. This may be a generally safe assumption, but there can be exceptions. Some students will require extensive remediation to bring them to grade level. As educators, we make these assumptions at our own peril; in fact, many “failures” can be avoided by taking less for granted.

Over the last fifty years, the student populations of many Yeshiva Day Schools have become more homogeneous. It was once common for children of observant families and non-observant families to share a classroom, teacher and curriculum. Today, except in the smallest communities, this is rare. The analysis of whether this is to be lamented or celebrated is for another time, but I would note one important consequence of this change: In the earlier time, it was understood that the mission of a mechanech entailed imparting fundamental values – belief and trust in Hashem, the importance of Torah, the beauty of Shabbos, and so on – to a much greater extent. In the homogeneous classroom, the mechanech may assume that he can take these ideas for granted and proceed to the technical details of Halachic practice.

But, is this a safe assumption? Experience shows that many fine institutions – whose curriculum standards may be comparatively advanced – still find themselves grappling with problems of student apathy, lack of commitment, and absence of basic Torah values. I suggest that that one root cause of this phenomenon is the false presumption that the children of observant homes have absorbed the essence of Yiddishkeit through osmosis and that our schools are free to take this for granted.

Taking Advantage of Opportunities

These fundamental principles are too important to be taken for granted; whenever an opportunity presents itself for their elucidation, it must be utilized. To illustrate, the Rambam (Pirush Hamishnaoyos, Berachos, Perek 9) digresses from his main subject to clarify certain issues of reward and punishment and in closing writes:

“This is not the proper place to bring up this matter except that my intent is – whenever there is an allusion to a matter of belief – to expound a bit, for teaching a fundamental of religion and belief is more precious to me than any other subject that I teach.”

This may be the ultimate lesson of a well-known passage:
“If your son asks you tomorrow, saying, ‘What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the ordinances, which the Lord our God has commanded you?’” (Devarim 6:20)
According to Chazal, this is the question of the Chochom, and his wisdom is quite evident from the phrasing of the question. This child clearly understands the classification of mitzvos into distinct categories and that the various regulations of the Korban Pesach fall into these categories. (See Maharal, Gevuros Hashem, Ch. 53.)

Thus, the Pesach Hagaddah recommends an answer that should satisfy this child’s curiosity:
“Also, you shall instruct him in the laws of Pesach, (concluding with the final rule that) one is not to eat any dessert after the Pesach.”

Yet, surprisingly, the source-text in Devarim prescribes a different answer:
“You shall say to your son, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and Hashem took us out of Egypt with a strong hand. And Hashem gave signs and wonders, great and terrible, upon Egypt, upon Pharaoh, and upon his entire household, before our eyes. And He brought us out of there, in order that He might bring us and give us the land which He swore to our fathers. And Hashem commanded us to perform all these statutes, to fear Hashem for our good all the days, to keep us alive, as of this day. And it will be for our merit that we observe all these commandments before Hashem, as He has commanded us.’” (Devarim 6: 21-25)

A careful re-reading of the Haggadah text clearly indicates that the author actually had this alternative answer in mind; by beginning his response with “Also”, he acknowledges that the Torah’s formulation is necessary. The Haggadah is only coming to supplement the Torah’s advice with the actual instruction in the laws.
How is this to be understood?

It would appear that the Torah is not coming to answer the Chochom’s question at all. Think about it: If the son’s desire is simply to know the laws, would we need the Torah to tell us to teach him the laws? Rather, the Torah is revealing to us that when the Chochom asks his technical question and his interest is piqued, this is a golden opportunity for laying foundations before answering the question, and that the father must take advantage of this. Accordingly, the father instructs the child in the historical background of our nation (We were slaves), the objective of the Mitzrayim experience (In order that He might bring us and give us the land), the Divine origin of the mitzvos (And Hashem commanded us to perform all these statutes), and their benefits (And it will be for our merit that we observe all these commandments).

In other words, fundamentals are not to be taken for granted and opportunities are not to be missed. The Haggadah merely supplements this by warning the father not to forget the original question and ultimately teach his son the laws of the Korban Pesach.

Torah without Foundations

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 106b) discusses two figures from Tanach, who were outstanding scholars and yet are counted among those who have lost their share in the World-to-Come:
R. Ami said: Doeg and Achitophel put forward four hundred problems with respect to Migdal Haporeach B’avir (a tower flying in the air), and not one was solved. Rava observed: Is there any greatness in putting forward problems…The Holy One, blessed be He, requires the heart, as it is written, “But Hashem looks on the heart.”

What is the meaning of Migdal Haporeach B’avir? Rashi offers three possibilities: It may relate to the vertical part of the letter “Lamed”, the law of ritual defilement when one leaves the borders of Eretz Yisrael, or to the death-penalty liability for performing sorcery. (Rashi also suggests a fourth interpretation based on a possible change in the wording of the text.)
Perhaps there is an alternative interpretation.

The Baal HaTanya (Introduction to Sha’ar HaYichud V’haEmunah) writes that all avodas Hashem is based on two pillars: Observance of positive commandments stands on the foundation of love of Hashem; observance of negative commandments stands on the foundation of fear of Hashem. (This concept is also discussed by Ramban, Shemos 20:8 at length.) In turn, love of Hashem and fear of Hashem rest on the single foundation of emunah. These foundations are meant to be laid in the early stages of one’s training and education. If this has been successfully achieved, even if a person experiences setbacks in his subsequent spiritual development, he will not fall completely, for the earliest foundations are still intact. If, however, these foundations were never successfully laid, a later setback places the individual’s entire religious orientation at risk.

Chazal refer to the Torah of Doeg and Achitofel as Migdal Haporeach B’avir. Perhaps the intended point is that their Torah lacked firm foundations – it was essentially a tower flying in the air. When they encountered spiritual crises – and virtually no life is spared from such challenges – all was lost, including their share in Olam Haba.

A Suggestion

I do not believe that the issues raised here call for a wholesale revamping of our entire educational system, simply an enhanced sensitivity to the problem. In our classrooms, after all is said and done, we will still be teaching Chumash, Halacha, and Gemara and we will still be trying to impart learning skills, vocabulary, and so on. However, even spare moments lend themselves to addressing fundamental values.

For example, any lesson on Hilchos Tefillah could begin with the most basic questions: Why do we daven? Does Hashem need our tefilos? Do we believe that our tefilos can manipulate Hashem’s decisions? Raising these issues may seem like a waste of time to the mechanech whose lesson plan calls for teaching the correct procedure for rectifying an omitted Mashiv HaRuach U’morid HaGeshem, but taking the student’s real needs into consideration may lead to a different prioritization.

Hilchos Pesach can become bogged down in a wealth of detail – kashering vessels, use of various products, etc. etc. – but if the Torah itself declares Yetzias Mitzrayim to be the basis of our emunah, how can our Pesach curricula be oblivious to this fact?

In our high-performing schools, our mechanchim are given quotas of pesukim, Mishnayos, and dafim, but sometimes less is more, if forgoing the relentless onward advance can provide opportunities to lay the foundations for a student’s life-long spiritual sensitivities.

But here is the problem: It is often easier for the mechanech to prepare a text-based lesson, even a quite ambitious one, than to create lessons from scratch that deal with issues of belief, Hashkafah, and values – areas in which even experienced mechanchim may feel unqualified.

It would be a great service to the chinuch community if capable individuals would undertake to produce materials that could be used for imparting fundamental Torah values in our classrooms by the students’ own teachers. Obviously, these would have to be developed to accommodate a wide range of ages, schools, and philosophical orientations, but we cannot reasonably expect each teacher to reinvent the wheel for his own classroom. Such a project could utilize the experiences, knowledge, and techniques of the worldwide kiruv movement, among others, and translate their practices into elementary-level and secondary-level resources for the children of the already-observant who so desperately need the tools with which to face the challenges to Yiddishkeit in the twenty-first century.
Some will ask: Can we afford the time, energy, and money needed for such a project? I would respond: Can we afford not to make this investment?