For the week ending 3 December 2011 / 6 Kislev 5772

Selective Education

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Bernard

Dear Rabbi,

I am a believer in the importance of supporting Torah study in order to educate our youth and pass Torah education to the next generation. For that reason, I am a supporter of Torah institutions. Recently I found out that one of the programs I donate to is geared for students of only less-than-average or average abilities. I feel I was misled as to the nature of the program, and question whether it’s the best application of my resources since the students don’t seem to have much promise as future educators. What is your opinion?

Dear Bernard,

It’s a wonderful thing that in this day and age people as such as you understand the centrality of Jewish education in the preservation and perpetuation of the Jewish People and are willing to generously support those who dedicate themselves, their talents and institutions to the Jewish needs of our youth.

Someone as yourself, who certainly appreciates education for education’s sake, also realizes that this is a need not only of the brightest and talented of youth, but of every single Jew who wants to learn Torah.

In fact, it’s arguably no less important, and perhaps even more urgent, to make sure that the Jewish youth of only average abilities receive the education they need to find meaning and joy in Judaism, as they are the most likely to seek fulfillment in less desirable alternatives. Consider how many Jews and corresponding resources would be lost to the Jewish People if the youth you are referring to were abandoned.

I get the impression that you donate to several institutions or programs. Since you are an investor, a spiritual financier investing in the future of the Jewish people, it actually makes sense that you diversify your “portfolio”. Just as an investor would not want too homogeneous a portfolio but would rather seek to maximize yields by investing in several sectors simultaneously, so too should you view your investment in the future of our youth. And the success of the Jewish People depends on every individual.

Whose opinion, more than that of our educators, the Talmudic Sages, should we consult on questions of Jewish education? And several of their teachings indicate what we’ve been saying.

The Talmud (Nedarim 81a) declares, “Take heed of the children of the poor, for from them will issue Torah scholars”. There’s something about the upbringing of the poor that instills the sense of sacrifice and fortitude necessary to succeed in Torah study. It’s quite possible that among the “average” students in the program you’re asking about, there are those who are there because they are from families of average means, but not necessarily because they are of average ability. If so, it is precisely these that will be the future Torah leaders.

Furthermore, our Sages taught (Temurah 16a) that if a person approaches a Rabbi asking him to teach him and the Rabbi agrees, they will both be wise. But if he refuses, G-d will make the Rabbi a fool and make the student wise. This implies that the reason the Rabbi doesn’t want to teach the student is because he views this particular student as a “fool” and not worth it to teach him. Yet the Sages note that since the student wants to learn, there’s nothing more antithetical to Jewish education than rejecting him. A Rabbi so selective in his teaching is being foolish, and a “fool” so eager to learn will become wise. Seemingly, the Sages would consider the rabbis who run the program in question to be wise; discontinuing your support of them might be considered by the wisdom of our Sages to be foolish.

Finally, perhaps most instructive for our purposes is the following teaching: Rabbi Pereida had a student who needed to have a lesson repeated 400 times in order for him to learn it properly. Once, even after 400 times the student still didn’t understand. Concerned for the student’s learning, the Rabbi lovingly asked why this time was different than others. The student explained that he had heard someone saying that he needed the services of the Rabbi for a particular Mitzvah and was distracted from learning by the thought that the Rabbi would have to leave. Rabbi Pereida then sat and taught him the lesson 400 more times. A Divine Voice emerged offering Rabbi Pereida the choice of either 400 years added to his life, or merit for the next world for his generation. Rabbi Pereida took the latter, and so G-d gave him both (Eruvin 54b).

Clearly, the student was not the most gifted learner, and seemingly, the Rabbi’s time and effort could have been more favorably invested elsewhere. Yet the Rabbi did not forsake him even after hundreds of attempts to teach him, as long as the student was there to learn. We see that the reward that was initially offered him either compensated him for his personal sacrifice with long life; or granted merit to his entire generation, all because of his dedication to one less-than-average student (from which we see the above-mentioned idea that the Jewish education of every individual benefits the entire generation). By the Rabbi’s characteristic choice of self-sacrifice for the benefit of the Jewish People he was rewarded both personally, as well as was the Jewish People collectively.

The choice is also yours.

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