Even Weak Students Deserve Fair Attention

“This time you brought me a package deal”, the morning Rebbe
told the Rosh Yeshiva in an air marked with cynicism and haughtiness, as he
summarized the “virtues” of the new student who had arrived only few days
earlier to the Yeshiva. The Rosh Yeshiva held himself back, realizing that a
quick, defensive reaction would have no value and would probably only exacerbate
the semi-hostile feelings this Rebbe was expressing!

“Are you talking about Shimon?” asked the Rosh Yeshiva. “I
tend to think that he is blessed with many fine virtues. He is courteous, seems
to do his work, comes to the Yeshiva on time and follows most of the Yeshiva

“Do his work?” chuckled the Rebbe, “In my class he was busy
making gestures back and forth with his former classmate from the school in
Netanya, who himself is no bargain.”

“Reb Baruch”, called the Rosh Yeshiva to his disgruntled
Rebbe, “why have you so quickly concluded that Shimon is totally useless? Does
he not possess even one good midah? Is his eagerness to be on time,
pleasant manner and the effort he makes to learn have no value?”

“You know”, continued the Rebbe, “if we keep taking students
like him, our Yeshiva will never build up a good reputation.”

Let’s analyze the Rebbe’s approach to this new student. His
first overlook is that whatever he expects from his students he should expect
from himself. His comments to the Rosh Yeshiva were said in a haughty,
self-righteous tone, unbefitting of a ben Torah. He, himself, displayed
middos which he would have derided if he had seen them expressed by a
student of his. This, in itself, invalidates his overriding opinion of Shimon’s

Secondly, he did not show an interest to help Shimon improve,
whether in middos, concentration or otherwise. Rather, the Rebbe showed
that he expected to receive perfect students and have them sit as angels and
faithfully accept his lesson as though it was given by Moshe Rabeinu.

This is not chinuch (education)! A teacher or Rebbe’s job is
to deal as effectively as possible with the students he is given. Of course, he
would love to have a group of perfect students, whose only interest is to absorb
with great awe every pearl of wisdom which emanates from the mouth of their
Rebbe. Maybe, if our Rebbe at hand was a living example of that which he
expected from his students, he would merit the above. However, in reality, even
the best of Rebbes in any school system do not merit perfect students.

Rather, the Rebbe’s job is as follows: to analyze the
behavioral and academic level of his students, be aware of their virtues and
lackings, and design a plan of expectations and reaction or punishments, in
order to see that each student achieves as much as possible. If the Rebbe
follows the above advice, those wonder students which he dreamed of, instead of
receiving them as gifts from the administration, will develop through his own
efforts, with siyata dishmaya. Then, he will not only feel
accomplished, but will be accomplished and won’t even think of
complaining about his “lot”.

Was Yitzchok Avinu, the great Rebbe of his generation(s),
confronted with only perfect students? Of course not! Even his own son, Esav,
was rampant with bad middos, yet we don’t see Yitzchok complaining to his
wife about the poor quality son (student) she gave birth go. We find exactly the
opposite! While Rivkah loved Yaakov, Yitzchok loved Esav (Bereishis
25:28). Did Yitzchok not love Yaakov as well? Of course he did! However, he took
the son (student) which Hashem had placed before him who needed the most
guidance and tried his best to guide him down the right path, in middos
and in Torah learning and fulfillment.

If Esav exemplified so many bad middos, what thread of
light did Yitzchok see in him which encouraged him to try and work with Esav?
Rashi says (ibid 25:27) that Esav showed that he had the ability to be exacting
in the fulfillment of mitzvos. True, he used this midah to deceive his
father, but nevertheless he still showed the ability to be exacting. The Beis
(פ’ תולדות תשי”ט “ויאהב”) explains that when Esav came to Yitzchok
he had positive thoughts as well. Only when he left Yitzchok’s presence, did he
revert to his wicked ways.

Another good midah Esav exemplified was honoring his
father. The Midrash says (Bereishis Rabbah 63:10) that Yitzchok loved
Esav for he was always careful to save the best food and drink he had for him.

True, Yitzchok saw that Esav was not like Yaakov, but, even
so he “loved” him, meaning he felt that through the few good middos he
did express, he could eventually change his whole character and direct his great
potential to serve Hashem.

This we see alluded to in “ויאהב יצחק את עשיו…” – “And
Yitzchok loved Esav…”
, where the word used to express Yitzchok’s love for
Esav – ויאהב – is written in the future tense and read in the past tense
(according to biblical grammar), to signal to us that Yitzchok’s love was a
desire to see Esav take the positive he already possessed and use it to affect
his other middos in the future.

This “love” Yitzchok showed for Esav, as all of our
forefather’s ways, was imbedded into the make-up of the Jewish nation for all
generations and each individual can take advantage of it when need be. We too,
as educators and descendants and students of Yitzchok, are commanded to “love”
our weaker students as he did, and take advantage of this power of “love” which
Yitzchok implanted in us to search out the good points in every student, judge
his potential, and see how his good middos can positively affect his
whole personality.

In our parsha, Vayechi, Yaakov’s words of mussar to
Shimon and Levi are full of admonishment for their role in wiping out the city
of Shechem and of plotting to kill Yosef. However, when he decides to curse
these events, he does not curse Shimon and Levi, but their anger alone. Bad
deeds and even bad middos alone do not discount the person behind them.
Rather, lackings need to be clearly identified and then dealt with. People with
lackings have value and deserve our blessing and support for they too are
destined to overcome and accomplish. And thus, after blessing all his sons,
except for Reuvan, Shimon and Levi, the posuk adds in an apparently redundant
wording, that Yaakov “blessed all his sons” (Devarim 49:28), to teach us
that Reuvan, Shimon and Levi were also included in their father’s blessing. On
one hand admonishment, and on the other, blessing. This is the recipe for a
successful educational process.

If the Rebbe mentioned above responds to this article and
wants to differentiate between Yitzchok and himself, claiming that while Esav
did not bother Yitzchok, his talmidim bother him, he merely needs to review the
Gemorah in Brachos (10a) concerning Rebbe Meir and his neighbors. The
Gemorah explains that a pack of belligerent insolents lived in the neighborhood
of Rebbe Meir and caused him a lot of aggravation. Rebbe Meir was about to daven
for their demise, when his wife, Bruriya, suggested that according to the
reading of the posuk in Tehillim (104:35), “יתמו חטאים…ורשעים עוד אינם”
The sins will come to an and…and there will no longer be wicked people”,
we learn that the object is to rid people of their sins and not to exclude them
or exile them because of their lackings. Rebbe Meir conceded and then davened
that they do teshuvah, which they eventually did.

Thus, even a teacher who has a difficult student should not
despair, and should not prematurely consider expelling or excluding him from his
class. Rather he should look for his good middos, highlight them,
admonish his student for his lackings, give him a plan to help him improve and,
as Rebbe Meir did for his neighbors, daven that his student should see the light
and do teshuvah.

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