That’s One Giant Step for Children, One Subtle (yet crucial) Increment for Adult-Kind

Transcribed translated and adapted for Beyond BT by Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

Rav Mordechai Gifter Z’L gave this Shmuess to open the 1969 Fall/ Winter Z’man (yeshiva Semester) for the students of the Telshe Yeshiva in Wickliffe, Ohio.

The Kozhnitzer Magid felt that he was stagnating spiritually, that he had simply stopped growing. One night the Ba’al Shem Tov appeared to him in a dream. When he complained of his disappointment over his lack of growth the Ba’al Shem Tov told him: “Your problem is that you are trying to measure the growth of Gadlus (maturity) using the yardsticks of Katnus (immaturity). When a baby is born, each developmental change is pronounced and dramatic. Going from nursing to eating solids to table food to crawling to toddling to walking to toilet training to, most striking of all, talking are all eye-catching, easily discernible stages of growth. Once a child reaches adolescence, the changes are slower and more incremental. The parent loves the child no less during those 4-6 years than during the first 5-6 years of the child’s life. But the progress is so slow that it doesn’t impress the parent or other observers nearly as much. Yet when they stop to think about it they realize that it is precisely these unspectacular changes that, slowly but surely, transform their beloved baby into an independent adult”

Yeshiva Bochurim often wax first nostalgic, then depressed when remembering their first heady years in Yeshiva. They think that it was then that they made their most significant strides. Like newborns learning to talk they progressed in a few short month or years from a rudimentary gemora vocabulary to being able to make a laining (independent reading) on Gemora, rashi and Tosafos and even being able to grasp a Lomdishe S’vora (Talmudic theoretics). What they fail to realize is that they too are trying to measure the growth of Gadlus (maturity) using the yardsticks of Katnus (immaturity). The progress that they make as they continue to learn requires greater discernment to be measured at all. This progress is finer and subtler than the early kind but ultimately it is the progress of the never-ending and ever-subtler spiritual maturation process. This truth ought to end the advanced students’ depression and fill them with the courage and ambition to carry on.

Although addressed to FFB Yeshiva Bochurim and Kollel-leit, the pertinence of this message for BTs is self-evident.

13 comments on “That’s One Giant Step for Children, One Subtle (yet crucial) Increment for Adult-Kind

  1. Jaded-

    The human condition is dynamic not static. This is why humans are called mehalchim (go-ers, movers), Vis a Vis angels who are called omdim (static standers). Since the first humans ingested from the Tree of attachment of Good and Evil, we became what they ate, conflicted and mixed up between good and evil. Hence to some extent we are all bipolar. The question is one of degree and not of kind. Sanity demands keeping the pendulations to a minimum both in terms of frequency and in terms of volume. Remember that Chazal defined all Khait/sin as a form of insanity. But by virtue (or deficiency) of being human neither the days of love or hate endure forever.

    Thanks for appreciating my writing. All I can say is Aw Shucks, cut it out and if only the publishers at Artscroll, Feldheim or Jason Aronson shared your opinion!

  2. Very good, thought provoking article. When all of us start our journey in towards Torah observance it is all so clear the “milestones” we hit……
    As time passes it’s helpful to re-examine our accomplishments on the whole.

  3. Rabbi Schwartz, so i’m thinking you should definitely do a book or something.The jewish bookstore shelves are in dire need and practically begging for your kind of writing and are standing by patiently waiting for your collection of thoughts on the profundity of profound word threadings and conceptual concept connectings directly related to the powerful depths of mainstream judaism.(And the using exciting imagery and brilliant wording parts too ).So i’ve added Sefer Hayoshor and Alei Shure to my Elul beach reading list.Let me know if you plan on translating or transcribing and reformatting any parts of them.Powerpoint presentations are also cool (preferably in a blackberry friendly format so my boss doesnt have to keep track of my spiritual lunch activities).He has enough insight into the wonderful life of JT’s many shortcomings for arguing purposes.

    I guess my points were influenced by the fact that I dont have any of the huge step memories you refer to in your Elul point of “Use the memories of those early steps to keep raising the bar and empowering yourself with the knowledge of your innate strength”.My huge steps were mostly in the other direction, but i get your point and yes its profound , thought provoking,& also a little disconcerting for the “exceptions to the rule ” that dont have large steps for positive imagery recall for raising the bar purposes .

    One quick point on Alei Shure quote “we all have days of love and days of hate” sounds a little like the author is describing a mood disorder of some sort , maybe adhd bordering on bipolar or something. This love/hate given in the equation would definitely not keep your graph on an overall upwards slant and would probally keep the lines flat after a while ,especially considering the fact that “days of hate” usually breed days of hate. What makes the author secure in his belief that his reasons for days of hate will become obsolete enough to switch into days of love.Definitely sounds mood swing oriented. And love/ hate extreme would be more bipolar than just adhd so spiritual stimulants would probally just make things worse .Unless love and hate are not as extreme as portrayed or maybe spiritual stimulants work not only for spiritual adhd but other spiritual mood disorders also . Or maybe i’m just giving a simplistic diagnosis based on one quote of an entire book I havent ever looked at .I guess now would be a good time to actually read Alei Shure to see how the author recommends not “totally” losing it and letting the graph lines go flat. The rungs in my metaphor were the individuals that are either tripping the sinner thats falling or are sinning as a direct result of the falling sinner which would in both cases be tarnishing the rung’s reputations.Either way ,multitasking is always a good thing on any sinning resume.Thanks for the brilliant and erudite insights and especially the presentation.

  4. Keith-

    Great hearing from you. I hope that some of the people who recieved the forward will draw encouragement from it. Regards to the Mrs. and the kids.

  5. Rabbi,

    Your article is very thought provoking, while being wonderfully accessable, simple, and straightforward.

    I forwarded the article to some non-observant family members because I think the message can be applied to all people, Jewish or not, Observant or not, as far as growing as a person – in a marriage, business ethics, honesty, healthier lifestyle, ect…

  6. Jaded:

    You don’t need tools normally reserved for brain mapping and navigating in complicated cortex surgeries to discern spiritual progress. I think that the main thing the Ba’al Shem was saying is that we need to stop beating ourselves up and being hypercritical of ourselves, the patience and subtlety to understand that the later stages of growth are less overt than the earlier stages and/or a good friend /mentor who, having a little distance, can see the growth that we ourselves might have missed. (Remember this wasn’t the Kozhnitzer Magid having an epiphany of self-awareness this was his grand-Rebbe appearing to him and revealing a truth that he’d failed to perceive himself.)

    As far as “freezing” is concerned: According to Rabenu Tam in Sefer Hayoshor
    We all have “days of love and days of hate” (see the beginning of Alei Shur by Rav Volbe z”l.) More simply put; we all have our spiritual ups and downs. The trick is not to TOTALLY “lose it” during the down days and then the basic direction of the line on the graph will be upward.

    Don’t understand your rung sullying metaphor. Thanks for the evocative word-threading and linear thinking/prose.

  7. JR-
    Perhaps your observation is cynical. Not in the sense of healthy skepticism but in the sense of a lack of faith in people and their ability to grow. The Ba’al Shem Tov’s point was that unlike early childhood development, later development lacks many of the “objective” markers (test scores, progress reports) that you seek.

    As Jaded implied in her comment (If I read it right) spirituality does not always equal Torah. Amassing/recovering a breadth of Torah knowledge is a tried and true method to stimulate spiritual growth and prevent spiritual regression but it is not IDENTICAL with spiritual growth. As such, I think that the analogy to academics is fundamentally flawed. But for the sake of argument lets talk about Masters and Doctoral candidates (the most mature/developed students in Academia). These students must work with mentors, advisors and committees while developing their thesis or dissertations. Earning their higher degrees isn’t a question of pass/fail or a high score. It is recognition by more advanced and developed scholars that something original and insightful has been researched and said cogently. It takes an established PhD “maven” to recognize another’s crossing of the PhD threshold. One thing is certain, it is often a VERY subjective judgment call and the new PhD candidate is sometimes the poorest judge of the progress or stagnation of his or her own dissertation. Rav Gifter was addressing his comments to an academy in which he felt that underestimating ones progress and the attendant sense of frustration and despair posed much greater dangers than overestimating ones progress and the attendant sense of smugness, coasting and complacency.

    In any event I translated this shmuess for a blogsite addressing BTs and I think some of the “nimshal” may have gotten lost in the transcription.

    There are many among us whose full-time immersion in learning was limited or non-existent and whose opportunities for such learning are few, far between undesired or undesirable, or will probably be postponed until retirement. I was referring to the sense of loss and self-deprecation that comes when comparing whatever we are doing “today” to keep growing as Jews to e.g. our first Shabbos observed, the day that we koshered our kitchen, the confrontation when we broke it off with the (non-Jewish or unwilling to commit to Judaism) “love of our lives”, our actual time spent in Israel, Yeshiva or Seminary or when we first began learning and davening with fire and ardor.

    The Ba’al Shem Tov’s message of hope, as communicated by the Telsher Rosh HaYeshiva Z”l, is that today’s growth, although externally less pronounced and dramatic does A) exist, despite being “objectively” incalculable and B) Is, in the long run, and from the riper and more mature vantage point, qualitatively MORE significant than the early steps that we took.

    The Elul Chizuk that I had in mind when posting this was: Use the memories of those early steps to keep raising the bar and empowering yourself with the knowledge of your innate strength. But never fall into the melancholy, nostalgic trap of “those were the good old days which I can never recapture” because unlike our careers and bodies, when it comes to spiritual growth there are no glass ceilings and no end to the growth and maturation process.

  8. Using the metric system as a point of reference for spiritual climbing or tripping/falling assessing, doesnt jive very well with that whole Yaakov and the ladder thing- (w/ angels goin up and down). Aside from the whole why r the angels goin up first if they originate from heaven question, the ladder imagery was supposed to symbolize the zero “in limbo state” spiritual tolerance policy and that your either going up or down on that spiritual ladder.

    If the ability to discern subtle nuances of spiritual growth consistently requires tools normally reserved for brain mapping and navigating in complicated cortex surgeries, that would be ok if A) – you have access to said tools on a daily basis or at least for the high holidays or B) youre actually getting spiritual, so empty and no- where would not be concerns . On the flip side though , if youre not heading towards good or dont feel any spiritual wing soaring then by default either you have bad vision/printed the wrong mapquest destination or youre in fact not growing and (according to the ladder lesson) – falling.

    Technically, there is that point where you can just hit a rung/rut and freeze in limbo on the fall down but the loophole in that argument is that the freezing is usually done on the bottom rung when there is no -where lower to continue falling.So at any given point your either being uplifted by embracing hugs of spirituality or downlifted and sullying your soul .And in the process tarnishing the ladder rungs in the name of multitasking on your tripping downwards.There is no in limbo resting period for the spiritual growth weary traveler any which you measure it.So aside from using the wrong tools for measuring growth, the fact that if your not growing youre by default falling should be cause for concern in and of itself, cuz how can one always be growing spiritually .

  9. Worldwide, Mifal Hashas, started by the Klausenburger Rebbe ZT”L, offers testing, and stipends keyed to results:

    I found this on a web site for donors:

    Mifal Hashas provides stipends to dedicated Torah scholars based on learning achievement. They participate in a fixed schedule of study. They get paid if they pass their monthly exams. They are paid when they show up for the next monthly exam. Mifal Hashas supports 2100 scholars. Each of these scholars learns 30 blatt (folios) a month. Mifal Hashas currently provide a total of $119,000 per month in stipends. Because a lot of their scholars are heads of households, their stipends support a total of about 9800 people. 100 of their scholars are Yeshiva graduates who have entered other fields but continue their intensive studies nonetheless.
    There is info on the web as to how to contact this organization in Israel and in the US. I’m sure Agudath Israel of America in NYC has details.

  10. Interesting thought. I wonder about this:

    “The progress that they make as they continue to learn requires greater discernment to be measured at all.”

    How is this measured? Do we just take it on faith that there was progress? Is there an objective way to tell?

    Is it being cynical to ask whether, if no progress is discernible, perhaps there was no progress, or not enough to be satisfactory?

    It has been suggested that bochurim in beis medrash as well as those learning in kollel be required to take tests, just as (l’havdil) college students and graduate and doctoral students are required to do. Otherwise, even if one is there at seder, it is very hard to avoid coasting. One day of learning is like another. There are no particular goals and although Torah is learned and that in itself is a tremendous thing and impacts on the individual and the world, progress is lacking.

  11. That is a tremendous insight, thanks for translating R. Schwartz!

    This insight can also help one shake the depression that often creeps in Elul. We sometimes look back on our year and get depressed at our lack of growth. Of course, in order to properly do teshuva, we need to scrutinize our deeds. But, IMHO, we also need to look to our advances so as not to get bogged down in depression and so that we internalize the fact that we CAN change and that we have. Using the Kozhnitzer’s model, we can discern growth that may have otherwise been overlooked.

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