In Part One, we discussed how many people can “slip through the cracks,” and not fulfill their potential in Torah. Unless someone is personally, intellectually engaged, whether he is a Yeshiva bochur, Baal Teshuvah, or anyone else, he will not achieve the closeness to Torah that he is capable of. The Torah originally foresaw the solution to this and created fathers to guide their sons along their individual paths to satisfaction in Torah. But in the absence of fathers to help, we, as educators, have to try to fill the vacuum. But that job is so much more than just imparting information clearly. It involves creating an atmosphere of peace and support in which the student can quietly discover his personal intellectual path to connection. And then, using some subtle technical teaching skills, help a person forward on his path.
As I often heard HaRav Avigdor Miller, zt’l, paraphrase the Chovos Halevavos (Shar Habitachon), the tool a person needs most in avodas Hashem is his mind, and what the mind needs most is peace of mind. We are all made in the image of Hashem, and just like Hashem made the creation for His kavod, we all have an intrinsic need for kavod. We all know that we aren’t the Gadol Hador, but each student needs to feel appreciated and liked enough to open himself up to share what he is thinking, which is crucial to starting an effective teaching process. Ain habayshan lomed, a person who is embarrassed to show what he is missing cannot learn, but in our days of fragile people, we often can’t rely on the student to fight through his natural feelings to strive for Torah. That is where our “fathering” skills are needed. Just as a child always feels that his father likes him totally and is delighted with every step in his growth, we have to show how we really appreciate every step that the student makes towards understanding a subject.
It is a well-understood principle in psychology that people usually grow into something new with what is called “successive approximations.” There are usually a number of steps to “connect the dots” to get to a new concept (or understand an old concept that we might not have fully understood), and we have to show appreciation for each step the student makes in that direction, even long before he has the complete concept. That is so important that it bears repeating: the student really needs support and appreciation even if he is only a little bit on the way to understanding the subject, then he will have encouragement to continue! If the student feels we are impatient, or at all disappointed in his rate of connecting the dots, he will probably shut down, and just say “Ok, I get it, let’s go on” when he really doesn’t get it. This also happens in a shiur when the quicker students are able to grasp all the steps, while an average student may be stuck on an intermediate “dot,” causing him to feel disengaged. But “fathering” the student will give him the support and peace of mind he needs to think out as many steps as he can and then wait for us to help him along to the next step. Which brings us to step two, applying our teaching skills in a subtle, constructive way.
Helping a person develop his analytical skills is a little like helping a child learn to ride a bike. First, we take off the training wheels and let him start to get his own balance, but we stay close enough that he doesn’t get hurt. Ask yourself, what is the path from the most basic concepts of logic (for instance, can you explain the difference between a kal v’chomer and a chomer v’kal), through the background facts (perhaps you need to know the process of redeeming ma’aser sheni), to the final construction of the question or answer in the Gemara, and then see where your “son” is along that path. Ask him to describe the Gemara or Mephorish the way he sees it right now, and, if you have done your preparation in understanding the whole pathway, you can offer him the next step in logic or facts that he needs to move forward. Watch his face as you describe what you are teaching to see where his expression makes a subtle change from comprehension to apprehension, and you will see where he needs for you to go back and re-explain – this time giving him that information that he needs so badly to connect all the dots. After you finish an explanation, ask him if he can summarize what you just said. Don’t be bashful and think that might embarrass him, as long as you have been very supportive, know that he wants to understand also, and if he knows you want to help in a supportive way, he should open up and give it a try. Will some students prefer to give up? Yes, but I have found that most of the “990” are willing to put in the effort to get the joy of understanding, given a supportive and pleasant environment.
Just like a father gives up so much of his own interests to help his son, we have to give up our own thinking process to fully immerse ourselves in how the student is experiencing the subject. Our yardstick of success should be “how much can I see the sugya from his perspective?” The Chovos Halevavos (Shar Avodas Elokim) explains that Hashem has given fathers a huge wellspring of love and care to give to their children, and in the pasuk “v’shinantum l’vanecha,” Hashem has revealed to us that we, as teachers, can draw from those deep waters as well to help each student reach his potential in learning!
As a chaver Kollel in Telz, Rabbi Burham was often asked by the Roshei Yeshiva to learn with bachurim who didn’t quite fit in the “system.” After receiving smicha, he started the Jewish Learning Connection, a community outreach program in Cleveland. After making Aliya, he went on to teach Gemara, Rashi, and Tosofos in Ohr Somayach Yeshiva for close to thirty years. He can be reached from his website: www.learntalmud.online.