1. This address is principally directed towards two groups: those girls who intend to devote the upcoming summer to spreading Jewish education and those girls who are graduating from one level of study and preparing themselves to proceed further to a higher level in the ensuing year, (in the latter groups, as well, a large percentage intend to use the abilities with which G-d has blessed them and the knowledge they have received in their studies to spark Jewish children to a further commitment to Jewish education and in the appropriate time, to spark their own children’s interest).312
The first step in stimulating someone’s interest in Jewish education is to stimulate your own interest. In addition whatever you say or whatever activities you expose a child to, the most effective means of educating and influencing a child (particularly when your aim is to teach attitudes and moral principles) is to provide him with a living example of the behavior which you desire from him.
A vibrant, personal model will motivate the child to emulate his teacher’s behavior in school, and, more important, often make a deep enough impression to affect the child’s behavior at home as well. A teacher who serves as a model and personal example can influence the way a child acts for years, and in many cases, even for a lifetime.
The source and well-spring of knowledge to which a Jew refers when seeking information on how to conduct any of his daily affairs is our holy Torah. Torah is called Toras Chaim — “Living Torah,” i.e. its intent is to provide guidelines on how to behave in every facet of one’s normal life experience.
Since the Torah deals with every aspect of a Jew’s daily life, even those of minor importance, it follows that an issue as important as Jewish education should be elaborated upon in great detail, with clear and powerful lessons on how to provoke the interest of Jewish children.313
Though the Torah’s lessons are spread in many places, when a Jew seeks a particularly relevant lesson, the first place he searches in Parshas Hashavua, the weekly Torah portion or during the summer (when each week is connected with a different chapter of Pirkei Avos) in the chapter of Pirkei Avos designated for that week. It is possible to find within these sources lessons relevant to the week’s current events, including the present occasion, a meeting of individuals active in the furtherance of Jewish education.
2. A lesson appropriate to this occasion can be learned from the chapter of Pirkei Avos which was read this Shabbos (just a few hours before this Farbrengen). Since, as explained many times in the past, the order of priority which Torah uses is also important, i.e., the fact that Torah considers this the first thing that you should learn, is in itself a lesson. Therefore, it follows that the first Mishnah of the first chapter in Pirkei Avos contains serious and important lessons.
However, before elucidating that Mishnah, it is important to communicate one fundamental concept. The Torah is described as “its measure is longer than the Earth, and its breadth wider than seas,” (2) i.e. Torah is an infinite and all-inclusive system of knowledge given to man by G-d Himself. Within each concept of Torah, there are many levels of understanding. Each point in Torah, besides its simple and superficial interpretation, contains many deeper meanings and lessons (progressively growing in depth and intensity).
An obvious example is the Ten Commandments. The first two commands are “I am the L-rd, your G-d” (3) and “You shall have no other gods before Me.” (4)
The simple explanation of the first command is that everyone should believe (and believe with total commitment) that G-d is the one and only master of the world; that he created the world, redeemed the Jews from Egypt, etc.
However, contained within is a deeper lesson. The Hebrew phraseology for the command is — Anochi Hashem Elokecha. The word Elokecha translates as — your G-d. When discussing the different names used for G-d the commentaries on314 the Torah explain Elokim as referring to G-d as the master of all powers expressing G-d’s omnipotence and infinite strength. By using the possessive form, not Elokim, but Elokecha — your G-d — the verse explains that G-d is the source of each individual’s personal strength and power.
Though Torah stresses the importance of individual effort and achievement and demands that a person use his own powers to rise higher and higher — as the Talmud explains “If someone says he has achieved though he has not worked, don’t believe him,” (5) still the first commandment teaches him that the source of his energy and power is not himself but Hashem. Hashem is Elokecha, teaching that all the success and achievements, which are seemingly the product of his own work and effort, are connected with G-d.
This is not a second concept, but rather a deeper interpretation of the verse’s simple intent. Not only is one commanded to believe that once, long ago, G-d created the world and took the Jews out of Egypt, etc., but, even now, after being created as an individual, he is not his own master. Though Torah commands him to work and achieve using all of his powers, still he has to know that Hashem is Elokecha, G-d is the One who gives him the ability to think and feel, the potential to work and produce. The success which he achieves is not only a product of his own efforts, but results from Hashem’s influence.
Likewise regarding the second commandment — “You shall have no other gods.” The surface meaning of the verse is to prohibit a Jew from considering all the idols worshipped by the other nations as true gods. They have no importance or relevance to a Jew’s life. He cannot have them in his home, worship them, make them for someone else, etc.
However, there is a deeper meaning to the verse — you are forbidden to make anything into a god. Money can’t become a god. Honor can’t become a god. You are not allowed to bow your head or follow any other activities in service of these false gods.
You can’t even worship your wisdom or any of your other powers as a god. You have to use them, work with them, and succeed with them, but never consider them as independent entities. They are no more than “an axe in the hand of the chopper.” (6) They are mediums which G-d has given to you to use in His service. They have no existence in their own right and cannot be looked up to as gods i.e., cannot become the focal point of an individual’s life experience.
3. Just as in these two concepts, the simple and primary interpretation was enhanced by the deeper meaning and significance added by the second interpretation; similarly, all concepts of Torah (including the above-mentioned Mishnah in Pirkei Avos) have many levels, each new level adding depth and profundity.
The surface interpretation of the Mishnah is as follows: It begins “Moshe received the Torah on Mt. Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua” (listing a number of intermediate stages until) “the prophets transmitted it to the Anshei Knesses HaGadola (the men of the Great Assembly).” The Mishnah elaborates on the order of transference to communicate the awareness that Torah, even the ethical and moral truths discussed in Pirkei Avos, is not a product of human intelligence, but rather was given to Moshe by G-d on Mt. Sinai. All the statements recorded in Avos were not authored by the various sages (for if they were, they could be disputed, held irrelevant, or at least subject to being changed in the ensuing generations), but rather were part of the revelation of Torah from G-d. Each sage merited to serve as a medium to communicate those divine commands and concepts recorded in his name.
After that prelude, the Mishnah then lists three statements of the Anshei Knesses HaGadola. (Since the Anshei Knesses HaGadola was a Sanhedrin,315 a court of law responsible for giving legal judgments on all questions of Jewish life, the statements recorded in their name concerns judging a legal case).
The first statement was: be patient in judgment; when judging a case you have to become involved, you have to put yourself into the decision, thinking it over patiently and familiarizing yourself with all the particulars involved. After this process, you will be able to deliver a proper judgment.
Their second statement was: acquire and develop many students; when deciding a case a judge has to realize that his verdict will become law and be carried out, not only in the immediate present, but afterwards as well. Therefore, he must develop many students, train the upcoming generation to follow his thought pattern and rationale. Then his decisions will not be temporary but firmly established as law in all places and at all times.
Their third statement was a general guideline — “Make a fence around the Torah.” When deciding a case you have to consider the personal situation of the litigants. It is possible to think that the only way to be sure the decision will be carried out (because one of the sides is unhappy with the case’s outcome) would be to bend the law slightly to give him some consolation. Toras Chaim (the Living Torah) answers that viewpoint with the statement “Make a fence around the Torah.” If you want to be sure a Jew will follow the decisions of Torah, then don’t compromise. Don’t say that people have changed, situations have changed, and therefore Torah must change at least to a certain degree. Although the intent behind such behavior is positive, to encourage people to keep at least some aspects of Torah, however, by making such concessions, you admit that certain aspects of Torah are irrelevant and do not apply to present day life. Such an admission is the first step in the total destruction of Torah life.
If you want to support and sustain a Torah lifestyle, then “make a fence around the Torah.” That fence will make people conscious and aware of the seriousness and severity of Torah law and, likewise, demonstrate the greatness of Torah, how Torah is “our life and the length of our days” i.e. that our lives, and particularly the value in our lives, the connection to G-dliness which is possible, all depend on Torah.316 Then an individual will appreciate the worth of his Torah observance and build a fence around it, try to protect his home environment from the intrusions of secular society. He will develop a Jewish home, a Jewish shul, and a Jewish school.
4. The above is the superficial lesson which can be derived from that Mishnah. However, as mentioned above, Torah is infinite in depth, containing many levels of interpretation. One interpretation of the above-quoted Mishnah is particularly relevant to those involved in the education of Jewish children.317 (And particularly to the women, since, generally, women become more emotionally involved in their work than men.)
The Mishnah’s first statement “Be patient in judgment” can be interpreted thus: When you encounter a child, whom you are charged with educating and influencing, don’t immediately decide on how to categorize him and which course of study to schedule for him. “Be patient in judgment.”
Many times, the first impression a teacher receives from a student (that he is a difficult child and therefore requires strict discipline or that he is mature and therefore can be treated with more lenient supervision in the belief than one can depend on his own character and judgment) can be misleading and injurious to the child’s growth.
The first and therefore most important and fundamental lesson the Torah teaches us is “be patient in judgment.” Before you decide how to deal with a child and what type of schedule to give him, you have to apply yourself and involve yourself in his personal situation. You have to devote all of your energies to attempt to determine the proper manner to structure the educational process of this child whom G-d has entrusted to you.
You can’t waste time, attention, or energy. You have to put your whole heart and soul into the situation and in that way come into contact with the heart and soul of the student you want to teach. If you prepare yourself in this fashion, then Torah promises “If you work — you will achieve,” (7) you will find the correct mediums to communicate with the child and be successful in giving him a proper Jewish education.318
The Mishnah’s second statement “Develop many students” can be interpreted in this manner;
Since there is such a great responsibility and likewise such a great demand for personal involvement (you have to devote all your heart and soul to each child), and for time and patience in trying to determine the best way to structure a child’s education, there exists the possibility for a teacher to feel satisfied teaching only one student or only a few students.
Therefore directly after the statement — “Be patient in judgment,” the Mishnah continues “Develop many students.”
You can’t satisfy yourself with a limited number of students and ignore other potential students, hoping that someone else will take care of them. As long as there is one Jewish child who is not receiving a proper Jewish education, the Torah teaches and commands each individual to devote himself to him, not to spare time or energy in bringing as many students as possible into your school or class.
It is true that such activities will put a strain on you — your heart and soul are limited. However, when your intent is to carry out the mission with which G-d has entrusted you, then He provides you with added strength and vigor.
(As mentioned above, your strength is not your own, but “Anochi Hashem Elokecha” — “I, G-d, am your strength” — G-d allows you the power to work successfully with many students.)
And then the Mishnah proceeds to its final statement, “Make a fence around the Torah.”
Since we were entrusted with the holy mission of trying to involve as many students as possible in schools which provide a Torah education, it is possible to think that it might be worthwhile to compromise on certain principles of Yiddishkeit in order to attract those students whose parents are not yet ready to accept total Jewish commitment and observance. Hoping that through this behavior more children will be enrolled in their school, an educator may, G-d forbid, be willing to try and fool the parents and the children by stating that only certain principles of Torah are applicable now, with the hope that later on he will be able to correct the situation and save those children.
The Mishnah teaches that such a process is destructive. Instead, “put a fence around the Torah.”
It’s true that you can’t demand from parents or children to immediately accept and begin practicing all 613 commandments, particularly if their previous life style was not Torah-oriented. Most people are not able to change so radically in such a short period of time.
At the same time, you have to be careful not to fool the child and give him only certain “essentials of Judaism” telling him this is all that he is required to do, in effect telling him to forget about all the other Mitzvos. A child can sense that such a procedure is not honest, and will lose all interest in Judaism.
Instead, you should explain to the child that even if at present he is not ready to fulfill all the Mitzvos, he should start with the Mitzvos with which he feels comfortable and ready to perform. At the same time, he should be made aware that there are other Mitzvos, and that performance of one Mitzvah leads to another. Fulfilling the one Mitzvah makes it easier to fulfill the next Mitzvah, etc. until he is willing to fulfill all the Mitzvos.
The underlying meaning of the third lesson, “put a fence around the Torah” is that you should protect Torah like you protect your home. Just as a fence prevents undesirable influences from entering your home, similarly the fence around Torah prevents it from being contaminated by any foreign influences. No Torah principle or practice can be conceded. The fence around Torah protects the parents, the children, and the world,319 and insures that they are educated in the manner which G-d wants, and therefore educated successfully.
5. May G-d bless every one of you individually and all of you as a group, (and through you may the blessing reach all other educators) — that you be able to follow the instructions in the Mishnah explained above.
As mentioned before, the Mishnah is from Pirkei Avos (called Avos — our fathers, because its authors, the sages of the Talmud — are the fathers of our people) — and in Pirkei Avos it is the first Mishnah of the first chapter, which demonstrates its fundamental importance.
If you accept these lessons with joy and happiness and apply them with all your heart and soul, then Hashem will bless your activities with success. You will be able to develop a generation of Jewish students, who live a Jewish life-style, and receive blessings from G-d, who is referred to as G-d of Israel. And you will also be able to prepare your students to greet Mashiach, at which time you can rightfully boast “Look at the fruits of my efforts.”
Even though we live in a secular society and therefore it is difficult to follow Yiddishkeit fully and difficult to educate Jewish children to follow Yiddishkeit fully, nevertheless, each one of you should devote yourself heart and soul to carrying out your mission in life and in doing so prepare for the Messianic redemption speedily in our days.
All those involved in educating Jewish children deserve great merit for every Jewish child is considered as the only son of G-d Himself. (8 )
May you have much success, and a happy summer, a healthy summer, and a successful summer (which are achieved by having a Jewish summer). And may we merit to greet Mashiach speedily in our days, Amen.
1. Sanhedrin 37a
2. Iyov 11:9
3. Yisro 20:2
4. Ibid., 20:3
5. Megillah 6b
6. See Yishaya 10:15
7. Megillah 6b
8. See Keser Shem Tov, supplements no. 133