A Roadmap for Torah Chinuch

By: Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan

A parent in our community, who had consulted with me over the past several years concerning the chinuch of his children, recently informed me that he pulled his children out of our local schools and chose to “home-school” them instead. When I expressed my shock over his decision, a story of woe followed. He told me that the midos of insensitivity, rigid conformity and skewed values displayed by the schools in our community were the direct cause for this decision. Though I am not in a position to confirm or disprove the assertions that were made, I felt compelled by these unfortunate circumstances to address the matter of chinuch in my drasha on Shabbos.

A Road Map for Chinuch.

The first Rashi in Chumash poses the following rhetorical question: why does the Torah begin with the narrative of creation instead of beginning with the first mitzvah of “hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodoshim” (this month is for you the first of months). Rashi’s answer concerning HaShem’s right to give Eretz Yisroel to the Jewish people explains why the first parsha (or parshios) of Beraishis appear at the beginning, but it doesn’t fully address the need to have the entire narrative of the Avos precede that first mitzvah.

One possible explanation might be that by using this particular order (the story of creation followed by the narratives of the Avos, yetzias Mitzrayim and the giving of the Torah), the Torah intends to teach us the general structure of Avodas Hashem and most importantly the paradigm of Torah Chinuch for all time.

The Baal HaTanya in the first Igreres HaKodesh (holy letters) describes the structure of the body and how it relates to Avodas HaShem. The first part of the structure is the mosnayim, the thighs, which represent emunas HaShem – belief in HaShem as Creator of the world. This is the foundation of everything, as the Gemara states (Makos 24a): “bo Habakuk v’he’emidon al achas, tzadik b’emunoso yichyeh” (Habakuk came and set it on one thing: the tzadik (righteous person) lives with his emunah). The next part of the structure is the body and the extremities. The body is the means for observance of mitzvos and the extremities (right, left and center) represent the emotions of love, awe and mercy which provide the energy that drives actions and are therefore all integrated with the body.

This structure reflects the course that the Torah follows as well. First we find the narrative of creation, which is the basis of our emunah that Hashem is the creator of the universe and controller of everything. This emunah represents the “thighs” of the Torah, upon which all else is built. The Torah structure is laid out in the first two parshios of the Torah. This foundation is followed by the narrative of the Avos (patriarchs). The Avos are well known to represent the three primary emotions: Avraham, love; Yitzchok, awe/severity; Yaakov, mercy/praise. So once the foundation of emunah has been established, the next step is to develop the emotions of love, awe and mercy/praise of Hashem. In this way, we learn to experience the love that Hashem has for each one of us. This represents the body and the extremities. Finally, we come to story of Matan Torah, the receiving of the Torah which represents the head – the study and knowledge of Torah.

This system also describes the process of Torah Chinuch.

The first step in chinuch is to inculcate emunas HaShem into the child – the pure, simple belief that Hakadosh Boruch Hu created the entire universe and everything that is in it. Furthermore, we teach the child that each and every one of us was personally created by HaShem and chosen, individually, to be one of His people. This foundation (the sturdy “thighs”) must occupy the most important place in the chinuch of a child and must constantly be reinforced, as Dovid Hamelech tells us in Tehillim “ure’eh emunah,” feed (pasture) the emunah because it requires continuous nurturing. This is the first priority of the chinuch process.

The second step is the development of the emotions of love, awe, and mercy (praise) of HaShem. Since it is these emotions that drive action, the success of this facet of avodas HaShem determines the way an individual actually lives his daily life. This, therefore, must be the second priority of the chinuch process.

The third step is the acquisition of knowledge and the skills to engage in the lifelong affair of Torah learning. When this order of priority is properly developed, the learning (driven by love and awe of HaShem) is a joy and a pleasure, rather than an anxiety-producing experience that is avoided as soon as one is able to do so.

Unfortunately, it seems that the chinuch system we now have in place has these priorities inverted! Knowledge and skill-sets have become the supreme priority, if not the sole measure of successful chinuch. The magnitude of the problem (which is growing at an alarming rate) that we observe today with drop-outs from the system and the general disinterest of so many of our children, can be directly attributed to this distortion of the true Torah chinuch process.

Let me take this a step further.

The Gemara in Pesachim explains the posuk in Lech Lecha where HaShem promises Avrohom that ואעתך לגוי גדול ואברכך ואגדלה שמך והיה ברכה I will make you into a great nation (this is why we say in the Shemoneh Esrei “the G-d of Avrohom”); and I will bless you (this is why we say “the G-d of Yitzchok”); and I will make your name great (this is why we say “the G-d of Yaakov”). I might think that we should also conclude the blessing with all three names, but the posuk states and you shall be a blessing (with you, Avrohom, it [the blessing] is sealed and not with them). Therefore, we conclude the blessing with “[the] shield of Avrohom.”

As mentioned earlier, the three Avos represent the three primary emotions: love, awe/severity and mercy/praise. These three are also in their appropriate order for the proper chinuch process. The first approach to chinuch by parents or teachers must be love. The child must truly feel that he/she is loved by the teacher/parent, and they must emphatically communicate the love that HaShem has for the child just as he/she is.

Next in sequence comes discipline. Love without discipline is destructive. However, discipline can only come after love has been well established. Otherwise, discipline can produce negative consequences. As the posuk states: “(only) the one whom He loves does HaShem rebuke;” first love, then rebuke.

Next in sequence is praise. Praise is a critical factor for a child’s development. However, praise should only be given when the child has some real achievement and success. A child must feel that he/she is succeeding and deserving of the praise that is being given. Only then is the praise genuine and meaningful. In order for this to happen, achievable goals must be set for the individual child. The posuk in Mishle states חנוך לנער על פי דרכו. The posuk uses the Hebrew singular, “the child,” not “the children,” and “according to his way,” also in the singular. Unrealistic and non-specific goals are perhaps the single most destructive force in chinuch.

Here again, our current system is often programmed for failure by establishing scholastic goals and values that are unattainable for many of our children.

Finally we are told “with you (Avrohom) it (the blessing) is sealed and not with them (“the shield of Avrohom.”) Other emotions are necessary and important, but in the final analysis, love is the bond that holds everything together. A child who is convinced that his/her parent/teacher truly loves them is the child who will put in the effort to succeed, provided, of course, that the goal is attainable.

Let me share with you what the parent at the beginning of this article told me.

“Rabbi you know how much effort I have put in to my Yiddishkeit. I wasn’t brought up this way but came to it later in life. It was a real struggle to change my entire life around and make Torah the focus of everything I do. Rabbi, of what value will all of this effort be if I will not have ‘frum’ grandchildren?”

I don’t know about you but I tears came to my eyes when I heard this.

Can we, as a community, justify telling this father: “Sorry your children just don’t have the skill sets we are looking for in our school”? Can we bear the thought, as we stand before HaShem, that we are telling Him: “Sorry, they just weren’t a good fit, so we abandoned them”?

It is essential for us to demonstrate that the Torah way of life places its highest value on simple emunas HaShem, sincere commitment and love of HaShem with genuine, passionate fulfillment of mitzvos. In fact, the Torah teaches us that the ultimate quality that HaShem values above all others is “You found his heart faithful before You” (Nechemia, 9:8). These are also the qualities to which everyone can aspire and which they can indeed attain. We also must stress the value of Torah learning, but that is a goal that has to be tailored for each person individually.

When this becomes the ideological orientation of our chinuch system, we will succeed in bringing up a full generation of Torah-committed Jews.

7 comments on “A Roadmap for Torah Chinuch

  1. There are many people who were overpraised as kids and now can’t cope in the real world where they have to deliver the goods.

  2. Just wanted to point out re: Shoshana’s comment that Praise is not, and should not be, synonymous with Love and Acceptance.

    Love and Acceptance should be heaped on children, period.

    Praise (for accomplishment) should be moderated to reflect true accomplishments, the definition of which depends on the child in question.

    One is about inherent *being*, the other is about effort exerted and/or accomplishments achieved.

    For example: I love you, or You are a great kid is completely different from You did a great job at Y, or I am impressed with the effort you put into Z.

  3. I would like to make several points:

    1)In terms of the Avos representing the sefiros, it would be more accurate to describe them as Avraham = Chesed, Yitzchak = Gevurah, Yaakov = Tiferes. Respectively those would represent loving-kindness, severity, and balance. These are certainly excellent parameters for guiding a child’s education. I would add that they are much more likely implemented with success in a home learning environment as opposed to a large school. Not to say that the latter is impossible, but much less likely for myriad reasons.

    2) I fail to see how any of the points made by this author address his opening lament that one of his mekuravim has decided to homeschool his children. In fact, the concluding sentences in no way reflect the original statement of said parent that the schools were so rife with “midos of insensitivity, rigid conformity and skewed values.” The parent did not pull his children out of school because they lacked the necessary skill set (presumably as children of baalei teshuvh) required to succeed as R. Kaplan concludes in is piece.

    3) I must strongly object to the statement that, “praise should only be given when the child has some real achievement and success.” Praise is a very faulty tool in terms of educating children. Especially when that praise is tied to some subjectively determined set of behaviors or learning results. Love and acceptance of children should be heaped on them simply because every child (Jewish or otherwise) is precious in the eyes of Hashem and to their parents. There are no conditions to be met. When that message is conveyed consistently and genuinely the learning process is easier for all involved.

    Finally, I reject R. Kaplan’s assertion (perhaps unintentional?) that a family’s decision to home school, for whatever reason, is to be viewed as deviant or a departure from the legitimate Jewish learning system. If Rabbi Kaplan had any first hand, long term experience with Jewish homeschooling families he would not be able to deny that these children are learning and thriving in ways that many professional educators can only dream of. In fact, these results are predicated on exactly the learning path the Rabbi Kaplan himself outlined as ideal in the above article.

    I and my husband our proud to include ourselves among the rapidly growing number of parents who recognize that we can raise and educate our children in the context of a home based environment. And I am very thankful that we never had to burn out of a school in order to make this wonderful discovery.

    As always, anyone who is interested in finding out more about the rich option of Jewish homeschooling may feel free to send me an email at shozo (at) earthlink (dot) net.

  4. Try chinuch.org for educational materials and there are some e-mail groups for frum homeschoolers. I did this (involuntarily) briefly on 2 occasions, but couldn’t really provide the social environment so the kids went back to yeshiva.

  5. Now that this has happened, it is my very humble opinion that you show the correct side of Torah through helping guide their family through finding and fulfilling goals for their family (not for Yenem) in their homeschooling, both halachically and hashkafically. You could offer a friendly ear to listen about goal-making and perhaps help find tutors (if needed) and let them know about the myriad (ok, a small myriad) of resources for frum home education. Hatzlacha in doing the right thing!

  6. 1. The same priority-related issues discussed above in the school chinuch context are also pertinent to the student’s home, where the basis of his chinuch is formed.

    2. Are parents and schools pushing each other to adopt skewed priorities?

    3. Are our schools really community schools or are they essentially private businesses operating in the community with no particular community guidance?

Comments are closed.