Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

20 Ellul 5760 - September 20, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







A Manifesto For Chinuch In Our Times: An Interview With HaRav Noach Orlowek

By Udi Mor

This period is one in which we have to educate ourselves to come closer to Hashem. Though this interview was originally conducted around Pesach time, it is relevant year round, and certainly at this time.

Part One

Our interview took place in the living room of HaRav Orlowek's home, on Yerushalayim's Rechov Sorotzkin. Outside, a panoramic view of the neighborhoods of Ramot and Ramat Shlomo fills the horizon. The view inside is dominated by the two giant pictures that hang on the walls -- the only ones in the room -- of the Chazon Ish zt'l, and HaRav Aharon Kotler zt'l. The walls around the entrance to the apartment are adorned with sayings of Chazal and pictures of other rabbonim, such as HaRav Simcha Wassermann zt'l, whom Rav Orlowek ylct'a reveres as his rebbe muvhak.

Rav Orlowek serves as a mashgiach in Yeshivas Torah Or. However, he specifically requested that if his position were to be mentioned, it be clarified that he is mashgiach only for the yeshiva's American division; the mashgiach of the yeshiva as a whole is HaRav Zeidel Epstein. Rav Orlowek's heavy workload of teaching, counselling and advising, in numerous other institutions besides Torah Or, as well as to the many individuals who turn to him, leave him with virtually no free time. What should have been his midday break was the only slot which he was able to give me for this interview. And what's more, it was done "very gladly," as he put it.

The Key: recognizing Individuality

Q. In the Haggodo shel Pesach, Chazal refer to four types of youth: the wise, the wicked and the simple sons, and the son who does not know how to ask. How do these definitions manifest themselves among today's youth and what is the best approach to adopt for each one? (In this context, we take the wicked son not as wicked per se but rather as referring to either the badly behaved child, or to the estranged, irreligious youth.)

A. Today we lack the wisdom and insight that is needed to label children. Many different elements make up each personality. A child can be wise in one respect and simple in another. The educator's attitude has to be adjusted according to the particular aspect of the child's personality that is being addressed.

The Haggodo's author delineated these four divisions because a key to success with children is the knowledge that each child constitutes a world of his own. It is our duty to recognize the individuality of each child. Although Yaakov Ovinu had various "problems" with some of his children, they all turned out "successes." At the end of his life, he blessed each of them and enumerated their characteristics. Their father thus made it clear to each of them that each child was different from all the others. He showed them that he understood their uniqueness and that he treated each of them as a world of his own. Thus, the posuk (Bereishis 49:28) says, "He blessed each one with his own blessing." "Hear Yisroel, Hashem, who is our G-d . . . " Devorim 6:4). "Ours," meaning that He belongs to all of us, as a group of individuals, each of whom is utterly different from all the others. But at the same time, " . . . Hashem is One." Hakodosh Boruch Hu unites us.

In parshas Vayeitzei the posuk (Bereishis 31:46) says, "Yaakov said to his brothers . . . " Which brothers is the Torah talking about? Yaakov had just one brother, Eisov, who was in Eretz Yisroel at that time. Whom did Yaakov call? He called his children, as Rashi says, "They were his sons, who were comrades who assisted him in troubles and in fighting."

A child grows up; we raise him. He doesn't stay a five year old all his life. Yaakov Ovinu treated his sons according to their age. He let them develop and mature, even to the point of being his "comrades."

Reuvein's blessing was, for example, to remain second in command. He would not be the leader. The Sefas Emes comments that when Reuvein found that Yosef was no longer in the pit and said, "And I where shall I go?" (Bereishis 37:30), this meant, "I need Yosef in order to succeed in life." The blessing which Yaakov gave him was a clarification to Reuvein: You have to be second. Only then will you be a success. You can't be a leader. This is just one of the reasons why the Haggodo speaks about four types of sons.

The Open Channel: Communication

The Brisker Rov zt'l, says that one of the differences between the daily mitzvo of mentioning yetzias Mitzrayim and the yearly mitzvo of recounting the entire story of yetzias Mitzrayim on Pesach is that the latter must be done in a question and answer format. What the author of the Haggodo is telling us in other words is that, "If you want to succeed with your child, you must listen to him and hear what bothers him." A child must know that he has an address that he can turn to with questions.

There is no such thing as a stupid question. There is no such thing as a forbidden question. There is no such thing as a funny question. If something bothers a child or disturbs him, he has to feel that he can ask about it and speak about it. And this brings us to a very important point.

We think that "education" consists of preaching to a child, what he must and must not do. This is incorrect. Words are the least successful channel of communication with a child. The Sheim Mishmuel says that a child can be classed as an adult when he has reached the point where there is a balance between his intellect and his emotions.

A child lacks such balance. Young children are all emotion. As they grow, their intellect starts becoming active. Words are the language of the intellect. Parents say, "I've told you a thousand times already . . ." So you said it! You might as well have said it in Chinese or another foreign language! The child doesn't grasp what you are saying. Words are how the brain expresses itself. He just doesn't understand them. Of course, we must speak to children. However, especially with young ones, talking makes much less of an impression than actions.

A certain wise Jew said that our problem today is that we fight using words: lectures, talks, books etc., while they -- our adversaries -- use pictures.

Well, for a child, pictures versus words is simply an uneven battle. And this is true even for adults. The reason is that pictures touch emotions. The Vilna Gaon points out that Moshe Rabbenu only broke the luchos upon seeing the eigel. Though he knew about it beforehand, he was only moved to smash the luchos when he actually witnessed the scene.

How to Tip the Balance In Our favor

Q. What can we do to combat this?

A. The answer is simple. We, parents and teachers, are the pictures. We also have to fight with pictures, but with one difference -- we ourselves are the pictures. A living picture is worth far more than one pasted on a billboard in the street. Although you won't win in a competition with what the picture offers, and it has an advantage over you there, you still have something it doesn't. You are a father. The picture isn't. One of the rules of combat is that each side fights with his strongest point, not his weakest.

For example, five years ago, a government delegation visited Yeshivas Or Somayach. They heard that the yeshiva had a public relations expert. They called him and asked him, "How shall we `sell' the State of Israel in the world at large?"

He told them, "You'll never find an advertisement that says, `My product is as good as all the others'! What can Israel offer? Scenic views? I can pick up the entire country and put it in some American or African parks and you won't even notice it! What then can Israel offer? Spirituality. That's our strong point." That's what he told them. Nobody can compete with us there.

People say that one of today's problems is chutzpah and they blame it on ikveseh demeshichoh, about which Chazal (Sotah 49) said, "Chutzpah will abound." However, there can be many reasons for a child's disrespectful behavior, one of which might be a lack of domestic harmony. A father who doesn't speak with respect to the members of his household, makes a powerful impact and is the embodiment of a negative role model.

As I said, a child is ruled by his emotions and the images he sees make a far more powerful impression on him than the words he hears. That is the power of visualization. It was the Chazon Ish who said that a teacher's pupils, "learn more from his actions than they do from his lessons." If a child sees that his father doesn't treat other people with respect, he'll behave towards others in the same way. And similarly, if we display a lack of interest in what he says, he won't be interested in hearing what we have to say. His attitude is simply a reflection of our own.

At the seder, a child sees that his father is disciplined. The father conducts the entire seder according to halocho. He eats when he is supposed to eat. He reclines on his left side when it is time to, and so on. A father who obeys every detail of halocho is a role model in this respect as well.

Taking the Time to Listen

Q. Are there any further guidelines for victory in this competition?

A. Yes. Mori verabbi HaRav Simcha Wassermann zt'l, used to say that a child is a charge that has been entrusted to us by Hakodosh Boruch Hu. My child is not my property.

People ask me questions about chinuch all day long. The first thing I want them to tell me is, "What does the child think?" In the best instance, they begin their answer with the words, "I think that . . . "

You think? Haven't you asked him? Don't you have any time to spend with your child and hear how his day went? If an illness is caught early enough, it's usually possible to treat it. If never more than two or three days are allowed to pass without spending time with a child, he'll maintain his emotional well-being.

A case was brought to me of an unruly child who was almost bar mitzvah. I was asked to speak to the child. The first thing I did was call the child's teacher to get an overall picture. When the teacher heard that the child was willing to speak to me, he took the child for a short walk. Within ten minutes the child revealed to him, "My father is sick and there won't be anyone to sit next to me at my bar mitzva." That was what was disturbing him. An adult's solution to the problem might have been, "So, take one of your uncles, or your grandfather . . . " but that would not be the right way to help the child.

As soon as we find out what it is that's bothering him, something can be done. At the very least one can empathize and share the burden of his problem. One can acknowledge that it really is a problem and that it must be very difficult indeed for him. Then, he'll be able to let it go. If he's never given the chance to speak however, everything stays inside.

Another case I saw was that of an eleven year old boy. He was as closed up as Yericho. He wouldn't speak at all. He was born to elderly parents; they were forty years older than he. Well, to such wise elders what could a child like him possibly know? Naturally, he was never consulted and there was therefore never any discussion. The boy's behavior was the result of a very straightforward rule in life: no normal person causes himself pain. Someone who knowingly hurts himself is sick. To speak to those around you when it makes no impression on them is painful, and if that is the case, one simply stops speaking. Why is a child's first word `Ima'? It's simple. A child won't say something that elicits no reaction.

I suggested to the parents that they ask him what special treat he would like them to buy for dessert after the Shabbos meal. He told them, and that was the first step on the road to his opening up. Through questions and answers, a child gets the feeling that an interest is being taken in him, that his parents know what is going on inside him.

Let Him Realize on His Own

The father of HaRav Reuvein Feinstein was HaRav Moshe zt'l, the godol hador, a man who was burdened with an extremely heavy workload. Rav Reuvein confirmed to me that he had once said, "How do I know that my father loved me? I have three proofs of it. Number one: New York winters are very cold; it often snows. My father would come to my room in the morning, put my clothes on the radiator and then dress me in the warm clothes under the blanket. Today," Rav Reuvein says, "I think that besides his straightforward concern for my physical well-being, my father wanted to make sure that I wouldn't have any negative associations with getting up in the morning to go to talmud Torah." In other words, Reb Moshe showed his son that he was concerned with his material welfare.

Reb Moshe taught Reb Pinchos Wiener z'l, the director of Talmud Torah Kamenitz in Yerushalayim, who gave me the chance to be a melamed. Amongst other things, Reb Moshe told Reb Pinchos that he should be concerned with his pupils' material situations. A child understands the language of material well-being very well. If he knows that you are concerned with his physical welfare, he'll believe that you're also truly concerned for his spiritual welfare.

"Proof number two," continued Rav Reuvein Feinstein, "Near New York is a mountain range known as the Catskills. A large proportion of the city's Jews vacation there during the summer. The Feinstein family used to stay in a place where there was little to occupy the children. Once a day however, a truck would leave for the city to purchase supplies. There was straw in the back of the truck, which was enough to make the children want to go along on the trip. The attraction was the truck's bouncing over the many holes in the badly surfaced roads, which the children enjoyed immensely. I remember that my father was learning with me and when he saw that the truck was about to depart, he said to me, `Let's stop now, the truck is leaving. Later we'll learn more' . . ."

What is love? Love is the knowledge that `Whatever is important to you is important to me.' It's not always possible to fulfill all of a child's demands but Reb Moshe showed him that what was important to him -- to ride in the truck -- was also important to him.

"Proof number three. I never `lost' my place at the Shabbos table, even when there were gedolei Yisroel for guests. I always kept my place next to father." It doesn't matter who the visitors might be. Abba remains the same Abba. He doesn't make himself agreeable to all the world at his own son's expense. In this way, the son can be sure of his father's love no matter what.

A child's feeling of being loved is not a factor of the number of times he's told, "I love you." One can and should say this, but it's not the main ammunition in the battle. The important thing is the non verbal message that is relayed to the child. The difference between a verbal and a non verbal message is that with the former, I try to convince you to adopt the viewpoint which I hold to be true.

What is the Jews' favorite word? No. We wouldn't be around today if we wouldn't have gotten used to saying that word. We are a stiff-necked people. A non verbal message is delivered without any words at all. You arrive at your own conclusion. "He loves me. He cares about me. He remembers what I say."

In general, the term `respect' means conveying the message: you register with me. You occupy a place on my hard disk (the computer's `memory'). When you say something, it registers. I remember it. It's important to me. For example, when I ask a child, "Nu, We had a talk three days ago. What's happened since then?" I'm conveying a non verbal message. I haven't told him in words that he's important to me but he realizes it by himself.

This is the explanation which mori verabbi gave of the posuk (Tehillim 1:2), "And he thinks about his Torah day and night": people love their own Torah. The conclusions which people arrive at by themselves have much greater significance and permanence than those which I have imparted to them.

Without a word escaping my lips, a child ought to hear me saying, "I want to know what makes you happy, what pains you. I want to hear from you." Choosing a quiet place where disturbances are unlikely conveys the unspoken message to the child that, "I am important to Abba and Ima. They try to give me time and a quiet setting for speaking just to me. No matter what I tell them, there can't be any negative consequences because the reason they want to hear from me is that they love me." When a child loves his father, he is inclined to follow what he sees is important to him. If learning Torah and doing mitzvos are important to the father, they will be important to the son as well. And the converse is also true.

Theory and Practice

As we were speaking, I was witness to a most instructive example of what exactly Rav Orlowek was talking about. In mid conversation, there was a knock at the door and it was opened a crack. "It's Ima on the telephone." Rav Orlowek immediately reached out and switched off the tape recorder (I noted his concern for others' property, even though it wasn't our current topic), then stood up and went to take the call. When he returned he explained (I hadn't asked), "That's what I do whenever Ima calls. I get up and go to take the call. If I'm in the middle of giving a shiur, the children know not to call me but if I'm having a conversation with another Jew, they know that if Ima calls, I'm right there. Boruch Hashem, my wife doesn't have to contend with problems of chutzpah. I'm sorry if I offended you (Of course not! - U.M.) but that was what I was referring to. I got up straight away. That's the kind of personal example that ensures that there are no problems of chutzpah, beli ayin hora."

And another instructive little incident: when the tape cassette reached the end of its first side and the button jumped up, Rav Orlowek hastened, as though to preempt me, to change sides. When the interview was over and some space was still left on the second side, he again hurried to switch off the machine. Insignificant details? I don't think so, as I've already pointed out his great care with others' property.

Managing a Class

Q. Must cheder rebbeim be trained in managing learning difficulties and dealing with other educational issues? With whom does the obligation rest?

A. I heard from mori verabbi HaRav Simcha Wassermann zt'l, that he once had a talmid whose son-in-law was compelled to find work and who decided to become a teacher. My rebbe asked him, "What made you pick teaching?" and the son-in-law replied, "I want to remain in the Torah world." My rebbe responded, "If that's the case, you must do a teaching course. If you would have wanted to be a teacher solely in order to benefit children, thinking of your ability to arouse a desire for learning within them, you wouldn't need a course. Don't misunderstand me, your reason is a good one. However, so that you will be able to understand a child, you have to undergo training, since you're not entering the field solely with his benefit in mind."

We are living at a very difficult time. There are specific problems that didn't exist in previous generations and a teacher has to have some kind of preparation. The main preparation though is readying one's heart, focusing on the best thing for the child. I asked my son's rebbe, who teaches grades 1 and 2 in Mesorah, "How is it that you don't feel any burnout (becoming bored with teaching the same material every day)? Every year you teach the same material. A rebbe for gemora can switch to a different perek but you teach first and second grades. And with such vitality! You radiate love! How do you do it?"

He replied, "I want to convey to the child the joy of reading."

That teacher is a success. All he's concerned with is the child's benefit. If someone is only thinking of what's best for the child, he'll understand by himself how to deal with his pupils. Either he'll naturally have the right approach for them, or he'll recognize the need for asking for advice. He'll realize that he doesn't understand. If however, he has other motives for what he's doing, he needs a course, for how can we be sure that he'll know what to do?

Q. Is the number of children in the class important? If so, how many should there be?

A. This is an halachic question. The gemora (Bovo Basra 21), says that if there are over twenty-five pupils, the teacher needs a reish duchonoh who, Rashi explains, "Listens to the teacher together with the children and then reviews it with them to achieve fluency." I tell teachers that they ought to call each child by his first name at least once a day, in a warm tone, accompanied by a greeting and a smile. If there are forty children in a class, that can take twenty- five minutes . . . the teacher is virtually unable to control a class that size. He can't get to know what each individual child needs. The size of the class is certainly very important.

Father or Rebbe?

Q. Does a father fulfill his obligation to teach his son Torah by sending him to a talmud Torah and learning with him at Ovos Uvonim every week?

A. Certainly not. A teacher acts on the father's behalf. Learning with one's son is one of the Torah's mitzvos, if the father has patience. There are fathers who are unable to learn with their sons, in which case it's better to let someone else do the job. The most important thing is that the interaction should be positive. I tell parents to stop learning with their children five minutes before the child is going to want to stop. He should be left with the feeling that it was good. If you wait too long, then he'll start drumming his fingers in exasperation . . . "Nu, when is Abba going to stop?" And that's how he'll remember his learning with Abba for the next time.

Q. Should a grandfather also be involved in a child's education?

A. The gemora in Kiddushin (30) says, "Whoever teaches his grandson Torah, is considered as having received the Torah on Har Sinai." Beyond this, one of the tasks of grandparents is to serve as living examples, through the child's own father or mother, of honoring parents. When my father-in-law arrives from chutz lo'oretz, he sits at the head of our table. The first time, he refused to do it. I told him, "It's not for you, it's for the children. They don't see you every day. Where will they learn how to honor parents? When they see parents honoring their own parents, they see how parents should be honored.

Keeping an Open Channel and Being Prepared

Q. How important is it for the parent to maintain contact with the teacher?

A. I myself meet my son's melamed every fortnight for five minutes, in the course of which I give him a heaping dose of gratitude, ask him how my son is doing and then go. It's a maintenance visit. I'm checking up on my assets. Our children are the only real assets that we possess. The father should be in contact with the rebbe, but he shouldn't pressure him. It can be something like a short weekly note thanking the teacher -- but truthfully -- mentioning for example that the child repeated a devar Torah at the Shabbos table that he heard from the rebbe, and that the efforts which the rebbe is investing in the child are noticeable.

An important principle is that most of our problems in life are the result of our failure to put effort into relationships before the problems arose. We only go to the dentist when our tooth hurts. Someone who puts work into maintaining contact will not experience difficulties if a problem later arises. The Sefas Emes comments at the beginning of parshas Mikeitz, that the seven years of plenty which preceded the seven years of famine in Mitzrayim are a lesson for the different periods in everyone's lives. Every person has tranquil periods, during which he can internalize inspiring ideas, emunah and true values and then, when difficulties arise, he is able to confront them. I need to put something into my relationship with the teacher now, when everything is quiet, so that later, when a problem arises, we already know each other. This has consequences for the relationship between parents and children as well.

Before a child arrives home from talmud Torah, his mother should prepare herself to greet him with a smile and with a drink and a snack, so that he'll remember how good it is to come home. This is important because our main weapon against the pull of the street is a good home. I remember one distinguished educator who had a problem with his son, whose interest in learning was not all that strong. "But I'm not going to drop out," this boy told his father, "because I know that you love me." What's the connection? you might ask. There definitely is one.

What is anger? It's the gap between how I would like things to be and how they actually are. Everyone has his own idealized picture of how he would like things to be. When he gets excited about the discrepancy, he can explode in anger. Before entering any new situation, one has to think about it. Before a teacher steps into a classroom, he has to stop for a moment and think about what he is about to do. For parents, it's the same.

The mind needs quiet, whereas the emotions don't. Feelings and emotions change swiftly, whereas logical thought progresses slowly, one step at a time. If there are two things, one of which moves swiftly and the other slowly, and they both need to arrive together at a certain point, the one that moves slowly must start earlier. When you have a moment's calm, use it to prepare yourself for what you can expect to happen, so that you aren't taken by surprise. HaRav Tzodok of Lublin zt'l, says that the yetzer hora's two main pieces of ammunition are laziness and surprise.

I think that one of them operates on the thoughts and the other on the emotions. Laziness is the enemy of thinking and surprise is the enemy of emotion . . . "It happened suddenly, I wasn't prepared . . . " Our emotions are at the ready but our thoughts are way behind.

A Time for Everything

Q. Quantity or quality? Covering ground or learning in- depth? What's more important in a child's education?

A. This is an age old controversy in Klal Yisroel, and I'm not an authority who can resolve it. However, the Vilna Gaon (Mishlei perek 6), writes that a child has the ability to retain material while an adult has the power of analysis. At an age where memory is strong, a lot of material is learned and reviewed. The age when analytical powers have ripened is the time for "grinding the flour."

Q. What age is suitable for starting to learn works of mussar and ideas? (Today there are youth editions of such works as Chovos Halevovos, which have been reworked for younger readers.) What is the best age for working on character traits and improving behavior?

A. Of course this is important, but we have to remember that the mussar work that the child will learn most from is the rebbe, his derech eretz, his forbearance, his patience -- that is a mussar work.

Q. What is correct balance between showing a pupil warmth and maintaining the relationship of "the left hand pushing away and the right one bringing close"?

A. Mori verabbi zt'l, had a wonderful moshol to illustrate this. Take any object in your hands. If you push it away with both hands, you'll distance it. If you pull it with both hands, you'll bring it nearer. However, if you push away with one hand and bring it nearer with the other, you'll be turning it around in its place. That is chinuch.

This is education -- the left hand pushes away and the right brings close. In this way you can influence and change the child. By "the left hand," we mean space or distance, as you said, not punishment or aggression. Simply put, the message should be "We are not equals." This has to come first. Only when there is distance between rebbe and talmid, can he draw him closer. And the child appreciates this, because somebody important is drawing him close. If we are simply two equals then the child can think, "Who is the teacher anyway?"

Q. Is it recommended to encourage talmidim to write down their own novel Torah thoughts?

A. Talmud Torah is not the place for this. In talmud Torah, a child must get the feeling that he has a future in Torah. Review is the main way to engender this feeling. A person who achieves clarity in his learning loves it. So it is important to transmit to the child how to learn, together with the awareness that Torah is sweet and that he has his own portion in it.

End of Part I


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