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Educated Quests

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Educative Quests

When Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneerson, the fifth rebbe and leader of Chabad-Lubavitch, was a child of four or five, he came to his grandfather, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, to receive his blessing on the occasion of his birthday. It was Shabbat Va’yeira, the Shabbat on which the Torah section of Va’yeira (Genesis 18-22) is read.[1]

The young Sholom DovBer entered his grandfather’s room and burst into tears.  His teacher in cheder had taught the opening verse of the week’s Torah reading, “And G-d revealed himself to him (Abraham)…”; “Why,” wept the child, “doesn’t G-d show Himself to me?!”

Relative and Absolute

A hallmark of Chabad-Chassidic teaching is that everything a person learns and is made aware of is to be regarded as a lesson to apply to his own life. A story is never told merely to entertain or to laud the greatness of a righteous individual, but to provide a model that each and every one to whom the story is directed can emulate, each on his own level.

The above story was related by Rabbi Sholom DovBer’s son and successor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson of Lubavitch, who also instructed that it be printed and publicized. Obviously, he felt that there is something in this story that every child and educator can relate to and apply.

The young Sholom DovBer was no ordinary five year old. He was blessed with the special soul of one who is destined to be a leader of his people. Snippets of insight and sensitivity[2] already told of the mighty mind which would conceive of and author his famed hemshechim.[3] And he was reared in a saintly environment by the most accomplished and devoted of educators. How, then, can we assume that a parallel to his yearning for G-d’s presence in his life can be evoked in every child by every educator?

Indeed, education, on the whole, is extremely subjective in its approach and execution. “Educate the youngster in accordance with his manner,” says the wisest of men “[so that] also when he ages he shall not depart from it.”[4] The educator must speak to the child in his, the child’s, own terms, and convey his lesson on a level specific to the child’s ability to comprehend and assimilate. If generalizations almost always mislead and distort, they are anathema to education.

Nevertheless, the Torah sets certain educational milestones which it applies across the board to all. For example, at the age of bar/bat-mitzvah (12 for a girl and 13 for a boy) a Jew becomes individually accountable for his or her actions. A ten-year-old might surpass his 15-year-old fellow mentally and emotionally, yet the former’s observance of the mitzvot has the status only of an act of chinuch (“education” or “training”) while the latter’s is as mandatory and full-fledged as any adult’s. Another educational benchmark is the age of six, which Torah law establishes as the “age of chinuch”: although the molding of a child’s values and character begins at birth and even before (a chassidic master once told a parent who asked his advice on how to educate his twelve-year-old, “Your question comes twelve years and nine months too late”), it is only at age six that formal education is to commence and the child is to be subjected to a daily schedule, a structured curriculum, study goals and the like. In the words of the Talmud, “Below age six, accept no pupil; from age six, accept him and stuff him (with Torah knowledge) as an ox.”[5]

Why this generalistic element in our approach to education? Because human growth entails more than the natural progression from child to adult whose course and pace differ from individual to individual. There is also another aspect to our maturing, a process that unfolds equally in every one of us. The Torah is G-d’s wisdom and the mitzvot are His will. Had He not commanded and empowered us to fulfill the mitzvot, we could not achieve the connection with Him they facilitate—no matter how responsible and “adult” our behavior may be. Had He not given us His Torah, we could not comprehend it, no matter how advanced our intellectual skills may be. So if G-d commands the observance of the mitzvot to every Jewess above the age of twelve and every Jew above the age of thirteen, they are all equally capable of implementing the divine desire—something the pre-bar mitzvah child cannot achieve, regardless of his spiritual maturity. And if the divine law sets the age of six as the time when Torah study is to commence, the ability to comprehend G-d’s wisdom through the vehicle of formal study is granted only from that age upward, regardless of the extent of a younger child’s intellectual capacity.

So there are two aspects to education. On the one hand, we all share the divine potentials granted to us at certain points in our lives. The Torah’s laws of chinuch reflect these divinely ordained life-stages, which is why many of these laws apply equally to all. On the other hand, the manner in which we realize these potentials is specific to each individual and subject to his mental, emotional, spiritual and environmental conditions. So the educator most also develop an approach that is sensitive to the pupil’s individual strengths and weaknesses.

In light of this, the fact that Rabbi Sholom DovBer was “four or five years old” at the time of the above-related incident is significant in that it underscores the universal applicability of his example. According to Torah law, he was a child in the most preliminary stage of his educational development, a state he shared with every other five-year-old. So his distress over the fact that G-d did not reveal Himself to him cannot be ascribed only to a spiritual maturity far beyond his years; the fact that he was capable of such feeling means that every five year-old shares this capacity in one form and another.

The Translator

How is the contemporary educator to apply Rabbi Sholom DovBer’s example to the daily practice of his craft?

If there is one sentence that encapsulates the essence of education, it is the above-quoted verse from Proverbs:

“Educate the youngster in accordance with his manner, [so that] also when he ages he shall not depart from it.”

Education is the endeavor to deal with the paradox of youth. On the one hand, the child lacks the ability to truly discern right from wrong, much less the maturity to desire good for its own sake and reject evil because it is evil, regardless of perceived personal loss or gain. On the other hand, these are his/her formative years, years in which what is learned is grafted into his psyche and character; lessons gained in his more mature years are often mere appendages to an already set self, and far more easily challenged and undone by the vacillations of life.

The educator must therefore “smuggle” the values he wishes to impart into child’s value system. The child may be incapable of regarding the sharing of his toys with a friend or the memorizing of his alef-bet as “good”; “good,” to his mind, is something that causes him pleasure, such as a sweet or a toy. “Bad” is something painful and detrimental to himself, a category which does not necessarily include playing with fire or stealing. So the educator rewards an hour’s study with a sweet; negative behavior is reciprocated with something that is negative also in the child’s perception.

On the surface, the educator seems to be doing little more than bribing and threatening the child to proper behavior. On a deeper level, he is translating from one “language” into another. To the child, the more altruistic concepts of “good” and “bad” are foreign terms; the educator translates these into the child’s moral language, creating an environment in which altruistic good becomes synonymous with the child’s subjective good. As child matures, his own concept of “good” grows closer to the altruistic ideal, and the educator now couches his message in terms appropriate to his new moral state—he might now speak of spiritual fulfillment rather than candies. But he is still translating—equating objective good with subjective good.

Education, then, is a life-long process in which a person and his teachers seek to develop his personal moral vision–his perceptions of right, wrong, truth and falsehood–toward increasing degrees of synonymity with the ultimately objective moral vision: life as envisioned by its Creator.

Goal and Process

But do we ever attain an absolutely objective vision of “good”? Do we ever graduate to see reality from G-d’s perspective? Finite man seems capable only of a subjective analogue of objective good and truth, education being the constant progression towards increasingly more mature and selfless analogues. Does this mean that the goal of the educational process is never realized?

Not so, says the Talmud:

“A person should always occupy himself with the Torah and the mitzvot, even if he is doing it not for its own sake; since from (mitoch) doing it not for its own sake he will come to do it for its own sake.”[6]

Chassidic teaching explains the deeper significance of this statement. The Hebrew word mitoch means “from within”; so a literal translation of the saying would read, “… since from within his doing it not for its own sake he will come to do it for its own sake.” Thus, the Talmud is not only saying that doing the right thing for the wrong reasons will ultimately lead to doing it for the right reasons, but that even now, before attaining this higher state, a person is doing it for the right reasons: consciously, he may be motivated by the physical and spiritual good he associates with leading a righteous life; but the deeper, inner content of his motivations is the altruistic good they analogize.

For the ultimate and exclusive source of all good, including the ability to conceptualize and experience something as good, is G-d, who imparted of His intrinsic goodness to His creation. Thus, the subjective good that education equates with true good is, in essence, an extension—albeit a superficial or even a distorted extension–of true good. So whenever a person achieves goodness and truth in his own life, even if only by his own subjective standards of goodness and truth, these “contain” the absolute goodness and truth of G-d. The only condition is that they be of the highest degree of objectivity and selflessness he is capable of. If they are not absolutely true and good even by the standards of his own potential, then he has not touched the divine truth and goodness his potential reflects.[7]

So “Educate the youngster in accordance with his manner” is not a compromise. Indeed, if such were the case, why would we desire that “also when he ages he shall not depart from it”? On the contrary, we would hope that he does depart from his childish motivations and do what is right for the “right” reasons! But “his manner” is the ultimate, as expressed on his level; as long as he does not depart from it, as long as he continues to pursue goodness and truth as defined by the most altruistic terms he is capable of, his life will fully exemplify the ideals of his education.

Furthermore, the subjective nature of his “good” is never completely opaque: glimmers of the true good it “contains” occasionally rise to surface of his life. Thus, a person can experience moments of altruistic comprehension, desire and deed that far surpass his present maturity. These are not “other-worldly experiences”; they are manifestations of the deeper significance of his everyday self.

A Child’s Tears

In other words, while education is basically the means to an end, the end is not confined to the end of the process. Not only does it saturate the means from the very start, but manifest moments of the ultimate goal of education can be evoked, even in the most preliminary stages of the educational process.

This is the universal lesson of Rabbi Sholom DovBer’s five-year-old tears. Here is a child who wept for the presence of G-d in his life as a five-year-old weeps for a desired toy. Here is a child, defined by Torah law as “under the age of chinuch,” who achieved a moment in which the many layers of analogy and projection with which we cloak the true objective of life peeled away to reveal the essence within. Here was a child who, while still in the earliest stages of the educational process, manifestly realized its ultimate objective.

We were told the story of this child not because we are or can be this child, but because we can achieve, each of us on his or her own level, what he achieved. At whatever stage we might be in our intellectual, moral and spiritual development, we have it in our ability to access, and even experience, the goals and ideals that are the objective of our efforts.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks, Shabbat Vayeira, Cheshvan 20, 5736 (October 25, 1975), Shavuot 5745 (1985) and on other occasions

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1] Rabbi Sholom DovBer was born on Cheshvan 20, 5621 (1860). Rabbi Menachem Mendel passed away on Nissan 13, 5626. So the incident related here occurred on Shabbat Va’yeira of 5625 (Rabbi Sholom DovBer’s 4th birthday) or Shabbat Va’yeira of 5626 (five days before his 5th birthday).

[2] See A Telling Story, WIR vol. III no. 27, and A Tailor in a Stitch, WIR vol. IV no. 6.

[3]  “Series” of discourses which provide a lengthy examination and analysis of the central concepts of kabbalah and chassidism. Two of Rabbi Sholom DovBer’s hemshechim, Yom Tov Shel Rosh Hashanah 5666 (547 pp) and B’sha’ah Shehikdimu 5672 (1477 pp), are among the most profound works of chassidic thought.

[4] King Solomon, Proverbs 22:6.

[5] Talmud, Ketuvot 50a (a child of a weaker physical constitution begins one year later at age seven; but no child, however healthy or mature, is to be subjected to the demands of formal study before the age of six). Contrast with the completely subjective approach that tries mentally mature 11-year-old criminals as adults and subjects gifted 3-year-olds to an academic regimen.

[6] Talmud, Psachim, 50b.

[7] See Absolute Relativity, Synopsis WIR vol. III no. 30, and Can We Speak Intelligibly about G-d?, WIR vol. V no. 42.

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