The Rosh Yeshivah on Chinuch

By Rabbi Tuvia Freund

Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, zt”l, serving as the sandyk at a bris in Bnei Brak in 5777. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

In the winter of 2015, ahead of Chanukah, Hamodia’s Rabbi Tuvia Freund merited to have a conversation on chinuch with the Rosh Yeshivah, Harav Gershon Edelstein, zt”l. Following are excerpts of that exclusive conversation. These gems of wisdom from the Rosh Yeshivah leave an everlasting mark on all those who gain chizuk from it.

Avoid Insulting at All Costs

Sometimes parents or other adults criticize a child in an insulting manner, making the child feel unfairly hurt. This often spurs the child to rebel against the adult authority who insulted him. We must realize that an insulting word can be far more painful than a slap. An insult can scar a child permanently, much as a compliment or words of encouragement can make a lasting positive impression.

Some children are especially sensitive. Even if the parents do not insult them at all, they feel like failures if they do not live up to what they believe are the parents’ expectations. Such feelings might bring a child to give up altogether. We must do our best to make each child feel good about himself, to give him self-confidence and the belief that he can succeed. This will spur him to work hard, and then he will succeed. We must give the child the feeling that we consider him important, that he has great potential and that his character traits are to be envied. If he sees this, he will do everything he can to be as good as possible.

The important thing is to avoid pressuring the child to accomplish more than he actually can. The Vilna Gaon writes (Igeres HaGra) that we must train our children gently and calmly, making them feel good about themselves. He emphasizes that we must make children feel at ease with their studies, for anyone who feels pressured cannot learn properly, and this applies even more to children.

Without Anger

Walking with his talmidim in 5776. (Yaakov Cohen/Flash90)

The Chazon Ish (Emunah Uvitachon 4:16) writes that if a teacher rebukes a student harshly, displaying fury over the student’s behavior or misdeeds, he might succeed in convincing the student that he acted wrongly and that he should not repeat that behavior. At the same time, however, the teacher is giving the student the impression that it is all right to display fury and to yell at others. He will make sure to emulate his teacher’s method of dealing with frustration. Besides, when a teacher blows up at a student it is generally a result of his own flawed character traits. The students are likely to adopt the same flaws for themselves.

This applies to parents as well. We must be very careful to avoid training our children to react with anger when things do not go their way. Even when parents must discipline their children, they must first make sure that they are not acting or speaking out of anger. Training a child through anger is not at all beneficial; all it accomplishes is that it instills flawed middos in the child.

My Rebbi, Harav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zt”l, related that he once misbehaved as a child. His father did not react at all when he first learned of it, but later on reminded him of his misdeed and administered some punishment. He postponed reacting on purpose so that his son would understand that his father was not punishing him as a result of anger but because he wanted to teach him to behave properly. My father, zt”l, never spoke when he felt it was necessary to rebuke one of the children. Instead, he would gaze intently at the child who misbehaved. That was enough to make the child understand that he had done something wrong.

Be Encouraging

(Tsemach Glenn/Holy Shots)

I know of a child who never behaved as his parents wanted, always doing the opposite of what his parents expected of him. But when he began attending yeshivah ketanah, he changed completely. He started helping his mother at home and encouraging his siblings to do likewise. His parents suddenly realized that he was really a good boy, but that conditions at home had coerced him to be undisciplined. At home, he felt that no one appreciated him, so he began to believe that he really was not worth anything and could never be good enough. Once he left home and its pressures and entered yeshivah, the Rosh Yeshivah and Rebbeim acted positively toward him and made him realize that he was worth something after all. Then he was able to develop the inherently good character that was inside him all along.

In another case, there was a student in yeshivah gedolah who was a nice boy but was incapable of learning anything. The Rosh Yeshivah understood his limitations and always called on this student to run his errands and help in other ways. Later, the Rosh Yeshivah discovered that this boy’s parents always demanded that he do better than he was really capable of, even if he applied himself as much as possible in his learning. Since his parents made him feel like an underachiever, he eventually lost his desire to learn. At this point, he was simply incapable of it.

If his parents had emphasized his good points, if they had shown him that they were proud of his accomplishments, no matter at what level, he would have wanted to try harder and be even better. The Mesillas Yesharim (ch. 3) teaches that when someone is happy he acts quickly and energetically, but when someone is depressed he is likely to become lazy. This boy knew that it was important to learn, and he wanted to learn. If his parents had concentrated on making him feel happy about himself, he would have had the energy to learn. Since he felt that no one thought he was worth anything, he lost any positive attitude he once had about learning.

Setting an Example

Learning at his home in Bnei Brak, on 12 Shvat, 5783. (David Cohen/Flash90)

I know of a couple who raised a large family, and each of the children was well disciplined and had exceptionally good middos. I asked the parents what their secret was, but they had no idea what special thing they had done in bringing up their children. The truth is that they did not do anything extraordinary. The secret of their success was that they set excellent personal examples of the kind of people that they wished their children to become. The children saw that the parents ran their household with mutual respect and without anger. They were cordial toward all others, displaying brotherhood and friendship. This made an enormous impression on their children. It was a matter of course that their children would absorb these fine traits.

When parents possess middos tovos, the children are born with a hereditary tendency to develop the same middos tovos. Nevertheless, in many homes the parents have middos tovos and still the children do not. This is because, as we mentioned above, it is not enough for the parents to be good people. The parents must also make the children feel good about themselves and provide encouragement to succeed. The family I described here excelled in both areas. The parents set excellent examples of how a Jew should behave, and they made sure to give their children positive feelings about themselves, whenever possible.

Yiras Shamayim

(Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Based on these principles, if parents wish to raise their children to have yiras Shamayim, they must first set a good example. The parents must demonstrate that they are constantly on guard not to succumb to any sort of sin. They must demonstrate that they are literally afraid of doing something that is forbidden. Children who grow up in a home that is run like this are sure to continue on the same path.

In earlier generations, it was possible to sense, even while walking in the streets, that people had yiras Shamayim. Harav Yisrael Salanter (Or Yisrael #14) writes that people would almost faint from fear when they heard the gabbai of the shul announce that Elul had arrived. As time passed, he says, this intense recognition of Hashem’s dominion diminished. He explains that in earlier times there were many more genuine tzaddikim, who by their example raised the level of yiras Shamayim among their entire communities. Since such tzaddikim have become fewer in number, fewer people have such wonderful examples from whom to learn.

My Rebbi, Harav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, explained that in earlier generations, people’s yiras Shamayim was in plain sight. People’s speech and even the way they strode down the street displayed their deep yiras Shamayim. Greatness in Torah, however, was hard to identify. Some of the generation’s greatest scholars were located in tiny shtetlach where they quietly composed their important Torah works. Nowadays, however, it is the opposite. The generation’s Gedolei Torah are all famous, whereas yiras Shamayim is all but invisible.

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