Chazal tell us (Medrash Rabah Vayikra 2:1) that of the thousand students who enter to learn Mikra, 100 enter to learn Mishnah, and of those 100, only 10 enter to learn Gemara, and of those only one becomes the outstanding scholar. But the Rambam teaches that Talmud is the crown of Jewish learning. Does that mean that only 1% of Jewish people can experience the greatness of that crown?
Chazal also tell us (Baba Basra 21a) “remember R. Yehoshua ben Gamla le’tov,” because he established schools for young children in every city. But why didn’t the Torah establish this from the start?
But the answer to both of these questions is that ideally “v’shinatem l’vanecha,” nothing compares to a father teaching his child, and giving him just enough of Torah that that particular child can handle, and in the way that that son can understand. As I heard a number of times from Rav Moshe Shapiro, zt’l, that when Chazal tell us that when a child is in his mother’s womb he learns “kol HaTorah kula,” that means all the Torah that he is destined to learn, not everyone is destined to become “baki b’kol HaTorah kula.” But most everyone can have a taste of Gemara, but it is not “one size fits all,” and certainly not one intellectual pathway fits all. Being in a class may be the best solution if one doesn’t have a “father” to teach him, but being “fathered” is really the best solution. A father’s love, patience, understanding and burning desire to see his son succeed provides the best environment for a child’s growth in Torah. And this is so important for us as teachers to try to recreate for our students – “and you shall teach them thoroughly to your children” these are the students! To really cater to each student takes a lot of insight into exactly what that person is thinking. But for some (if not a lot of) people the light doesn’t really go on.
“I really got the shiur”
During my three years tutoring in Ohr Somayach, before I starting giving shiur, actually over half of the students I was teaching were students who went up through the various shiurim and understood them, but still felt like they were missing in their personal skills. I.e., just because someone can understand a “chakira” between two Rishonim, doesn’t mean that he understood the whole thinking process that each Rishon went through from the words of the Gemara right through to his conclusion. Meaning, for an intellectually honest person, the Rishonim are actually “hanging in the air,” which is not satisfying if you are a person who is looking for truth, not just to “do well in shiur.”
“But we gave him the best learners as tutors”
Yes, that is exactly the problem. Good learners can “jump from rooftop to rooftop.” With just a few words they can grasp a whole structure of ideas at once. But can he intuit the different steps that the person he is teaching needs to go through to get to the same place. That is not his expertise; he is trained to build mountains of ideas as quickly as possible, that is what keeps him at the top of the shiur.
“From the top of the mountain to the lowest pit”
One summer my son was leading a group of college students on a trip to Israel for learning and travelling. I saw the class he had prepared for a group of boys, it was magnificent. He proposed a very interesting contemporary halachic problem and solved it with dazzling, stunning profundity from original sources. That night the boys were out partying in Tel Aviv. And my son commented with exasperation, “from the top of the mountain to the lowest pit.” Well, when a person is presented with a lot of great ideas of someone else’s, it can sound nice, but his thinking has not changed.
“But everything is going just like it should? Yes!”
The irony is that everything is going right. The Rambam writes in Hilchos Talmud Torah that a teacher is supposed to gear the class to the best students, and Yeshivos are supposed to produce top talmidei chachamim, and they are! It’s just that the rest of the 990 often need extra “fathering,” and as teachers, parents, and mekarvim, that’s where we have to fill in. In Part 2 of this essay, let’s discuss some of the teaching tools that we can use to help our students become more personally involved and some support techniques that they might need to rise up to the challenge. Meanwhile, I would love to hear your feedback, thoughts and experience with the “other 990!”
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.