Teaching Responsibility

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Oscar Hammerstein applied the words differently in South Pacific in 1949, but they ring true today. “You’ve got to be carefully taught,” for the most part, to take responsibility for the general community. Reflecting back on a wonderful month of experiences, I am left with one bitter realization. We are not doing enough to teach our children about the need to work for the klal, to move in to a problem and take the initiative to find solutions.

Some people are somehow disposed towards it, and will take leadership roles without much prodding. They are born with – or develop – personalities that demand of themselves that they devote themselves to a cause. Most people need to experience the joys of contributing to the general good before they can become contributors.

I lost little time after graduating college to apply, successfully, to PhD programs. My rebbi and Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Henoch Leibowitz zt”l, had different ideas. He pushed everyone in his yeshiva to devote themselves to harbotzas haTorah – to disseminating Torah as far as it would reach. I had escaped the message. He said nothing. One day, however, I asked permission to leave the yeshiva for a few days. (The yeshiva was extremely regulated, and its students tended to obey the complex rules and regulations.) I had become close with Joel Paul, who today heads the most important Jewish executive search company. Back then, he worked in Youth Bureau of Yeshiva University. We would spar in shul about his programs. Coming from a more yeshivish background, I insisted that too much of what he was doing was halachically dicey. He invited me to see for myself by joining a week-long kiruv event as an advisor. I told him I would, if I could get permission to leave yeshiva. I never expected that it would be granted.

The Rosh Yeshiva readily agreed, offering no reason. It started me on many years working with YU Youth Bureau (as about the only non-YU staff member) and NCSY. Those years put me firmly on a path of teaching and communal involvement. Years later, the Rosh Yeshiva told me that he allowed my furlough because he figured that if I would experience first-hand the exhilaration of making a meaningful contribution to others by teaching Torah, I would be hooked for life.

He was right. The other twists and turns of my life all flow from there.

Looking back at the Kids of Courage event in Orlando , I cannot help feel frustrated that this kind of experience is closed off to so many of the best and brightest of our young people. Yeshiva life has become more restrictive than it was in my day – for reasons I fully understand. It was certainly not the rule in my day that yeshiva bochrim who were serious about their learning would take off willy-nilly for different chesed opportunities. But it was not so uncommon to find many exceptions. At one point, an entire region of NCSY was colloquially called “Ner Israel Region.” I remember one talented NCSY advisor – now a Rosh Kollel – who regularly commuted to events from Lakewood. I hope I am wrong, but I simply don’t run into bochrim from the best yeshivos who have any opportunity to try their hand at a variety of experiences (with perhaps the exception of summer SEED programs) which can teach them about taking responsibility for the general community through hands-on participation. (Chabad, of course, is the exception. While still in yeshiva, bochrim are encouraged to participate in diverse forms of serving the general community. We are all aware of how this pays off later.)

I spent last Shabbos at Young Israel of Pittsburgh, as the scholar-in-residence focusing on Maharal. (I do not recall another SIR position in which I was told to forego all the usual lighter/political/entertainment/relationship topics and stick to pure content. It is a real credit to the shul and its moreh d’asra, Rav Shimon Silver, that they broke the rules and opted for undiluted Torah.) As always, I met delightful people, including in this case the two Roshei Kollel. One of them is a grandson of Rav Moshe Sherer z”l, and his legacy became a topic of discussion – but not before I asked whether this was permissible on Shabbos.

“Why not?” he asked. I responded that thinking back to his grandfather was downright painful for me, because the world in which he resided seems today incapable of producing anyone with anything approaching the same skill set. Again, I hope readers will prove me wrong, but I haven’t met those who can appreciate people from diverse backgrounds – Jewish and non-Jewish – and maintain caring relationships with them. I explained that, from where I sit, the job of shtadlanus has become far more complex – and far more necessary – than it was twenty years ago. To operate effectively on behalf of Jewish interests today, you need to be establish your credentials not only in the halls of local government, but with international leaders, with media, and with opinion makers. We need a small army of Moshe Sherers, and I haven’t seen many in the making.

Here is a small example of how Rav Moshe Sherer warmed up to people operating away from his home court. I found this at home, in my files. In a letter to Senator Joe Lieberman in 1995, he urged him whimsically not to commit all his campaign funds to a Senate race, but to keep in mind a bid to become the country’s first Jewish Vice President. This was five years before his actual candidacy for the position. He goes on to write:

My heart is filled with pride at the statements you have been making in recent days concerning Bosnia, and the manner in which you are portraying genuine Jewish mercy. Although the Bosnian Muslims have a sad record as to how they behaved towards the Jews in their communities during the Holocaust years, we nevertheless have to let the rest of the world see how one of the basic tenets of our faith is compassion, a commodity in very short supply in the world.

Moshe Sherer was not born with this vision, with this nuance and sensitivity, with this command of word choice and diction. He received guidance from rabbeim, especially Rav Ruderman zt”l. Who can guide young people today to think, react, and write like this?

We have no shortage of people in our ranks who “take up the burden of their fellow.” We have many more who would be willing, had it become part of their lives at an earlier stage. I don’t know how to strike a balance between the requirements of hasmodoh and the requirement to become a fuller person. (Navaradok was not for slouches. Didn’t bochrim there nonetheless spend time every week on practical chesed and self-effacement projects?) I do know that in community life, we are not reaping all the riches we possess. Rav Simcha Zisel of Kelm wrote: “If a person wishes to merit [a favorable] judgment, it is incumbent upon him to become associated with the klal. The many should become dependent upon him, whether he concerns himself for their spiritual or their physical needs. He should not live life for himself.”

May we all merit a favorable judgment in the coming Days of Judgment.

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9 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    LR: You have to be either very well-connected and have family who help you get into serious chesed organizations, or have a lot of initiative and persistence, that most teenage girls don’t really have or know how to use properly.

    Ori: Why? If you went to the local Beit Yaakov as a representative of an safe organization that needs help, will they encourage their students to help?

  2. Ori says:

    How did the Rosh Yeshiva expect the flood to ever be over if the people who are most touched by G-d’s teaching are hiding in an ark?

    Working alongside people is a good way to influence them. Another is to help them. Waiting for them to come to Yeshiva is expounding Halacha to the Levites (= preaching to the choir, in Jewish terms).

  3. Shalom Rosenfeld says:

    Ori asked:

    What is the purpose of Yeshiva? Is it primarily academic (teach as much Torah as possible), or primarily character building (make the best Jews possible)?

    –See the Sforno on “eikev asher shama Avraham b’koli” — he criticizes Isaac for not doing the outreach of his father Abraham; “but Jacob was in the yeshiva, which was certainly there not just to study, but to teach all those who came seeking …”

    My own rosh yeshiva (with whom I didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye about college) quoted from R’ Chaim Volozhiner that of the two wooden structures in the Chumash, Noah’s Ark is designed to shelter its inhabitants from the dangers outside; the Mishkan is designed to radiate spirituality TO the outside. “And our yeshiva is a teiva, ’cause it’s a mabul out there!”, added the contemporary r”y.

  4. DG says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,
    I would like to draw your attention to one bright spot on the yeshiva landscape you did not mention, though I have been in painful agreement with your post for a long time – and I will add a comment on that as well.
    The community kollel movement – specifically those kollelim associated with Torah UMesorah – is made up of both roshei kollel and avreichim who carry the spirit you describe. I spent eight years in one such kollel and have had the opportunity to work closely with more than a dozen (maybe even two dozen) others.
    From the motivation to move out of town, to embracing a degree of achrayus they could never EVER have anticipated, to an ongoing commitment to raise the ramah of Torah throughout all corners of their communities one individual, one family at a time, these chalutzim exemplify the value you write about.
    The question is: Where did they get this from and is that source still available? In my own case, I got it from R’ Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l – and here is the most important point: I don’t really recall him getting up in yeshiva and routinely teaching about how central the midah of achrayus is [I did hear him once on a recording identify achrayus as absolutely THE core, ikar midah of the adam hashalem (though these are my own words) but this was much later].
    I learned this midah from him because he so obviously lived it and that came through in everything he did. My comment, therefore, is that the only way to teach achrayus is to exemplify it and I imagine most of those who moved out to a community kollel were similarly inspired.
    The yehivos used to openly lead the future of klal yisrael, even as in your experience where they’d rely on the serendipity provided by the Hashgacha HaElyona to bring out the best in their talmidim outside of seder. Today, yeshivos seem to be overwhelmed with keeping their yeshivos and talmidim going and, if I may wonder, the same seems to be true about the leadership in klal yisrael.
    There is less leading into the future than there used to be, apparently due to the enormous burden of maintaining a klal yisrael with so many immediate and urgent needs. This is all reminiscent of the atzas hayetzer described in Biur HaZehirus in Mesilas Yesharim: Tichbad HaAvoda so there is no opportunity for the kind of higher-level thinking needed to rise up and make a difference.
    There is more to say but this comment has already drifted far enough.
    Rak Chazak VeEmatz!

  5. Myron Chaitovsky says:

    Rav Mordechai kamenetsky has told this story about Rabbi Moshe Sherer:

    Rabbi Shimshon Zelig Fortman was the Rav of Congregation Knesseth Israel in Far Rockaway during the 1940s. During that period, the naysayers had all but discounted any chance of a rebirth of Orthodox Jewry. They had hardly a voice in Washington, they were disorganized and fragmented, and the destruction of European Jewry was almost the last nail in the alleged coffin of traditional Torah Yiddishkeit. Rabbi Fortman had a young son-in-law, Moshe, who had studied in Yeshiva Ner Israel in Baltimore. He would tell his father in-law how he saw a future for Orthodox Jewry that was filled with honor and power. Their representatives would have direct access to Congress, the Senate, and even the President of the United States. They would influence legislation with their values and fill stadiums and coliseums with Torah assemblies and prayer gatherings!

    Rabbi Fortman was very concerned about his young son-in-law’s ivory-towered dreams. He felt that he the dreams distracted him and he would never accomplish anything. Rabbi Yosef Kahanamen, the Ponovezer Rav had recently come to America to raise funds for his Yeshiva in Israel and was staying by Rabbi Fortman in Far Rockaway. Surely, Rabbi Fortman thought, Rabbi Kahanamen would terminate Moshe’s fantasies and teach him about the realities of accomplishment.

    Moshe and Rabbi Kahanamen met for nearly an hour. The Rav listened intently and then told young Moshe, “Dream my son. Continue to dream. In fact you can continue to dream as long as you live. But remember one thing. Never fall asleep.”

  6. LR says:

    Torah, avodah, gemilus chasadim. You need a combination or the world cannot stand. I have no idea where the line is, of what ratio is best, but maybe that should be decided on an individual level anyway.

    I don’t know what exists in yeshivos, but I can speak from the girls’ perspective on chesed programming- I’ve found chesed to be encouraged in speeches, but very little practical framework exists to help girls find meaningful volunteer work. Babysitting for a family is fine, but it’s not for everyone.

    You have to be either very well-connected and have family who help you get into serious chesed organizations, or have a lot of initiative and persistence, that most teenage girls don’t really have or know how to use properly. As a result they end up in positions they don’t enjoy and don’t continue looking to do chesed outside of school. More of an effort needs to be made to teach students how to find worthwhile things to do, rather than just talking about the importance of chesed in a general way. Some kind of volunteer organizing group?

  7. tzippi says:

    To answer Ori, this is all theoretical.
    Ideally the learning should be done at home, from parent to child. As that is not practical, the school, in partnership with the parents, takes over.

    It is presumed that the foundation for character building can and should still come from the family, and is a prerequisite for learning, as the mishna in Avot states, im ain derech eretz ain Torah. (Yes, derech eretz is a loaded term, but let’s understand it as simple good character.)

    It is understood in a yeshiva or day school that part of the partnership is character building. We don’t do situational ethics. Incidentally, as far as ethics goes, the 613 mitzvos, which can be categorized in many ways, contain mitzvos between man and G-d, and between man and his fellow man. This has to be taught. And – here’s yet another fundamental principle – mitzvos are made to be done, not just learned in a sterile academic way.

    So you can see why it is difficult to say that an institute of Jewish learning is one or the other. Even at the post high school yeshiva level, one of the most important faculty members is the mashgiach, who supervises ethics and morale (maybe not the best way to present the job description, but accurate, I think).

    Don’t know if this answers your question. I don’t know how much it answers the issues addressed in the article.

  8. Ori says:

    What is the purpose of Yeshiva? Is it primarily academic (teach as much Torah as possible), or primarily character building (make the best Jews possible)?

  9. dr. bill says:

    My observation, and it is meant as mussar primarily to me (and blogging), is that it is rarely taking time from studying / learning as much as not wasting time. As the Rav ztl once jokingly said, “ehr battelt vie a rosh yeshiva.” It is more a question of reducing the batalle not allocating between worthy demands on our time. i would also argue that broader exposure is intellectually beneficial; without it we produce weaker leaders and weaker RY.