The Child Comes First
By Rabbi Yeshaya Weber

Melamdim are shluchim with a goal and a holy mission, overflowing with great responsibility: the education of Jewish children and the preservation and perpetuation of our tradition. * To accomplish our goal we must be prepared to sacrifice ourselves, sometimes ignoring limitations and rules, overcoming challenges and adjusting to our environment, all for the sake of the child.

In the previous article we examined a childís place within the educational system. We saw that the system is flawed and doesnít always meet our expectations, since it cannot possibly be the ideal system we wish for. The system is compelled to address the needs of the group, maintain the administrators. We analyzed the givens, which until now have been accepted as undisputed facts without anybody daring to challenge them. After all, pure chinuch is kodesh kadashim for all of us, and who would dare argue with traditional Jewish education?

Some of these are basic premises, the very foundation of the entire system Ė not sourced in educational practices of yesteryear, but in the exigencies of our time.

The question is: can we change? We know that our generation is different than those that preceded it, which is why a different approach developed. Now after all the flaws have surfaced Ė and we must admit that in many areas our system has failed Ė is it possible to look elsewhere? Is there anything else? And who can guarantee that another educational approach will be more successful?

The questions demonstrate a fear: fear of innovation and fear of creativity.

For a suitable educational framework to produce satisfactory results and achieve the maximum potential of every child, we must discuss the difference between working within the educational framework and being an educator.

Working within the educational framework means the curriculum is arranged and prepared in advance. Thereís a beginning, a middle, an end, and another beginning. Each unit is timed and the clock keeps ticking. Not keeping to the schedule leads to later pressure, which hardly contributes to a calm classroom environment. Yet a tranquil atmosphere is vital for it enables the students to learn and internalize their lessons.

Not so for the educator. Here too, there is an ongoing process and long-range goals, but at the same time they are not rigid and unyielding; the curriculum is not closed and sealed. If yesterdayís carefully prepared lesson is unsuitable for today, the educator can be flexible. He can adjust the plan to todayís circumstances. He doesnít force it at all costs. Yes, the clock is ticking and there is material to cover, yet the rule is: The child and whatís best for him comes first!

In a sicha on Parshas VaYigash we find a deep message which all teachers ought to internalize as a directive and mission statement in their holy work. When Yehuda approached Yosef, the second to the king, with mesirus nefesh for the sake of his brother Binyamin, he did so because, "Your servant is a guarantor responsible for the boy."

In such a situation, there are no consideration and calculations, and all plans go out the window. We had a plan to return home to our father Yaakov? Too bad, weíre not going, because we are responsible for the child.

The Rebbe mentions another story that supports this point. Emissaries of the Chafetz Chaim, ztíl, returned to him in great disappointment after they failed to carry out an important communal matter.

"We tried everything," they declared, describing their efforts and toil. They explained that they had done all they could; there was nothing else they could have done. "But it was all for naught," they concluded helplessly and apologetically.

The Chafetz Chaim listened and one could see the great pain on his face over their failure to carry out their mission. "And fainting? Did any of you faint?" he asked in a tremulous voice.

The men looked at each other in consternation. They had planned their activities in advance, down to the tiniest detail, yet fainting hadnít been included...

We should not learn from this to act in a disorderly way, and to approach our tasks unprepared and just go with the flow spontaneously. On the contrary, the Tzemach Tzedek said that order is the first rule in avodas Hashem. There should always be a well thought-out lesson plan, but flexibility is crucial. There must always be room for changes and for doing things that were not originally included.

As the Rebbeim taught us, a Jew must be above the world and also act in ways that arenít generally accepted Ė to be in the world yet beyond it. Educators have to rise above order and logic, yet at the same time they must approach chinuch in a manner that is orderly and rooted in a strong foundation.

The Rebbe MH"M is a great believer in the power of proper chinuch administered with great personal sacrifice to accomplish great things. The Rebbe not only spoke about this, but actually did it himself. He wrought a tremendous educational revolution in the world. [Ed. President George W. Bush signed a proclamation declaring April 4, 2001 Education and Sharing Day, in honor of the Rebbe.]

This revolution is thanks to the mesirus nefesh of the shluchim who donít take the rules of the world into account. They have a goal and they do not reckon with the world around them when they work to realize this goal.

We too, the educators and teachers, are shluchim with a lofty goal. We have the holy task of educating Jewish children and preserving our tradition. For the sake of this goal we must act with total self-sacrifice while ignoring limitations and rules. We must overcome the barriers and challenges and use the environment we are in to help us achieve our goal. We must not, chív, do the opposite, limiting ourselves and the achievement of our goal due to external pressure.

If we truly feel ourselves to be Chassidim of the Rebbe, we have the obligation to follow his path and his approach. Chinuch demands mesirus nefesh and actions, which seem extraordinary, but this is how the Rebbe does it. If we act as he does, we will also be able to use the power of education as a tool to change our generation.

* * *

Question: My bar mitzva-age son spends quite a bit of time on his appearance. He selects his suit carefully and his shoes must be a recognizable brand name. Heís even particular about his belt. He says that his friends dress like this and he doesnít want to be different. My dilemma is whether I should be concerned or whether I should ignore it, hoping it will be a passing phase.

Answer: At this age it is common for boys to fuss over their appearance. As the child matures he is more aware of the world around him, as well as of himself. This fact has numerous ramifications, one of which is concern with oneís appearance. Concern with appearance is an expression of mixed emotions. The child is on the verge of adulthood, yet hasnít parted with childhood.

This phenomenon is more or less dependent on his friends. One of the characteristics of this age is the importance the child attributes to belonging to the group. Itís important to him to be like everybody else. If the group he is in views fashion and superficiality as very important, it is very likely that the child will be influenced and follow the crowd.

We must listen to the child and feel the struggle he experiences, and try to understand what heís going through. Itís important to let him know that we definitely understand him. At the same time, you should check to see how important externalities are to him. When itís not extreme, thereís no reason to go to war over it. You can readily compromise after an open discussion.

The energy is better put to use in positive ways. Focus on the childís positive strengths where you both see eye to eye and are both satisfied, and draw on this to support the child. This support strengthens the childís self-confidence and gives him acknowledgement and belief in his own strengths. It will lessen feelings of isolation within the system at those times when he has to pull away from the dictates of the group if they arenít doing what he thinks is right.


One could see the pain on his face over their failure to carry out their mission: "And fainting? Did any of you faint?"



Not going to school is a way of trying
to run away from responsibilities.


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