Rabbi Nachman Yosef Twersky, Beis Moshiach
Over the years, I’ve noticed how the Tzemach Tzedek’s saying, “Tracht gut, vet zein gut,” applies not only to problematic situations but also as a chinuch approach. When parents and teachers think positively about a child, the child thinks positively about himself and the result is that the situation becomes good; even very good!
Our thinking shapes reality and when we think positively about a child, he senses it and tries to apply himself to the reality that we constructed in our thoughts. This is an established fact!
PARENTS’ POWER OF THOUGHT
Several years ago, I was called and told about a boy who was expelled from yeshiva about a year before, who was wandering around in the street. They wanted me to get involved and help out.
I called his mother and she told me how worried she was about her son. He was wandering the streets while still dressed as a yeshiva bachur, but she anticipated that he would be removing his hat and jacket and would go to dangerous places and years down the road he might intermarry, G-d forbid.
I told her that although I sympathized, these bad thoughts of hers were leading her son directly into the tragedy she feared. I said, your son senses what you are thinking about him and will do precisely what you are thinking. You can stop things though and change direction. If you and your husband think positively about him, he will start to change for the better.
She asked how it was possible to think positively about a bachur who was expelled from yeshiva and wandering the streets. I told her: Your son did not succeed in yeshiva because he is hyper and crossed all red lines so that the staff could not retain him in the yeshiva any longer. But even if he is not in yeshiva, he can be a good Jew! You and your husband should change your view of him and instead of seeing him as a failure and fearing the worst for him, think about how to encourage him in his situation and make sure that he is a good Jew, even without learning in yeshiva. For example, encourage him to have set times to learn each day, once or twice a day, etc.
I was pleased when they accepted this and completely changed their outlook about him. They were able to convince him to have daily study sessions and I myself learned with him a few times a week. Within half a year, he was able to go to a yeshiva for bachurim who find it hard to learn an entire day. The following year he was able to go to a regular yeshiva and he completed the normal learning track like every other bachur!
What was the turning point? When his parents began thinking positively about their son! This needs to be a lesson for all of us. Whatever state a child is in, parents need to look ahead and think and believe that things will be good. This will give strength to the child to fulfill these thoughts.
My grandfather once went to the holy Rabbi Aharon of Belz and poured out his heart to him, saying he has a son who does not want to learn. The Belzer Rebbe stopped him and said: A father is not allowed to talk like that about his son. The Chozeh of Lublin once said that when we say, “My son doesn’t want to learn,” we cause a kitrug (heavenly accusation) on the child. How is it that a Jewish child doesn’t want to learn?! So you can’t say that.
From then on, whenever that child went to the Belzer Rebbe, he would call him, “My masmid.” When you give a person a positive name, it affects him positively. One time, when my grandfather went to the Belzer Rebbe with a few of his children, the Rebbe give each one piece of cake. He gave the “masmid” double, for his hasmada. In the end, the child grew up to be a big masmid.
THE FORTUITOUS ERROR
Teachers too have enormous power to change their students’ behavior. Here’s a story to illustrate that. At the beginning of the year, a rebbi in the yeshiva spoke to his colleague from the previous year and asked him for information about the new students he would be teaching.
In that class, there were two students with the same first name and very similar last names. One of them was the top of the class and the other was the weakest one in the class. By divine providence, the new rebbi confused the information he received and thought that the weak student was outstanding and the outstanding student was weak.
In his first lesson, the weak student sat passively and was not involved in the class, as was his wont. The rebbi, who was sure that he was the excellent student, wondered why he did not participate and figured he was still tired from the summer and was having a hard time concentrating. After the lesson, he gently said to him that he probably found it hard to concentrate and therefore, he (the teacher) wanted to go over the point of the lesson so he wouldn’t begin on the left foot.
When you treat a child nicely, even if he’s weak, he will put in effort. This is what happened to that weak student. He put in more effort than usual. The next day, he listened better but he still did not participate as he was a weak student. Again, the rebbi assumed he hadn’t recovered yet and he went over to the student after class and explained the shiur privately. This is how a change began. Within a short time, the weak student became a good student!
A few months later, at the PTA meeting, the father of the bachur came to thank the rebbi for the transformation he had brought about in his son. He asked: How did you manage to change him so drastically?
The rebbi listened to the compliments and realized he had made a mistake. He asked the rebbi who taught the boy the previous year: Didn’t you tell me that this bachur is the top of the class?
The rebbi smiled and said: The truth is that at the beginning of this year, I realized you made a mistake with the names. I saw how you treated the weak student and decided not to correct you and to let Hashem run the show. I saw that the outstanding bachur continued to be outstanding while the weak bachur was making giant steps because of your mistake. You managed to lift him to new heights and it’s all because you thought well of him. You conveyed that message to him, that he is an excellent bachur, and he tried to live up to your view of him.
It’s important to note that nothing new was created here. It wasn’t “something out of nothing.” The child had abilities, just as Hashem provides abilities to learn Torah to every Jewish child, but these abilities were latent. Since no one believed in him, these abilities remained dormant. The positive view that the rebbi had of him drew those abilities out.
One of the yeshivos noticed that bachurim came there as a way station between yeshivos. Bachurim registered, learned for a year, and then moved on to other yeshivos. At a certain point, the hanhala felt they could not go on like that and considered closing the yeshiva. They wrote to the Rebbe and received a sharp response (which I saw at the time) which said: If the talmidim felt the teachers and mashpiim also thought about them outside the yeshiva’s sedarim, they wouldn’t leave. You write that the bachurim want to leave the yeshiva because they want a change of atmosphere – that is what the bachurim tell you, but in yechidus, they tell me otherwise!
When a yeshiva bachur feels that his rebbi loves him and thinks well of him, he won’t leave the yeshiva. Furthermore, even bachurim who, for some reason, experienced a spiritual fall and left yeshiva, if they have a good relationship with one of the staff members who left the door open for them, there is a good likelihood that they will return to yeshiva. If that staff member would maintain contact with that bachur, he is likely to return, because he would feel that they love him and think well of him.
SENSITIVITY PREVENTS TRAGEDY
A good educator doesn’t need to make a mistake with his students’ names in order to see the good in every student. It comes naturally to him, as we see in the following story.
Reuven (a pseudonym) was a bachur who already in shiur alef of yeshiva ketana (mesivta) managed to be thrown out of three yeshivos. For shiur beis, his father managed to get him into a new yeshiva, on express condition that it was only a trial. The father said from the get-go: Give him just one chance, his final one, and if there are problems, he can be thrown out immediately with no complaints.
This bachur, who obviously did not like learning, decided that in the first class he would provide a reason to be thrown out. When the rebbi walked in and asked them to open their Gemaras, this bachur said impudently to him: I don’t want to take out my Gemara and you can’t tell me what to do!
A typical teacher would immediately throw out such a boy, but this rebbi was gifted with special sensitivity and he immediately realized this was no ordinary situation. He decided to ignore him. After everyone opened their Gemaras and it was quiet, he walked around the classroom and when he reached the rebellious boy he bent over and whispered: I know it’s hard for you and I understand you. I just ask you for one thing, try! I will try to help you.
This surprising message took all the wind out of the boy’s sails. He had expected to get it over the head but after hearing that, he was struck dumb. He bent his head on his desk and did not raise it until the end of the class. The next day he opened his Gemara and began learning.
ENEMY #1: POOR SELF IMAGE
From the thoughts of parents and educators we will go to the thoughts of the children themselves. One of the big problems of our generation, which causes many educational breakdowns is when a child feels that he’s nothing.
One of the great students of the Mezritcher Maggid once said that when the evil inclination convinces a Jew to do a sin, his great profit is not in the sin itself, because teshuva can be done for a sin. He gains when a person breaks and feels that’s he a zero. That was the evil inclination’s goal!
When a bachur has a poor self image, that could lead him to think: In any case I’m not worth anything. Why should I make the effort to learn, to daven and do mitzvos? This attitude easily leads to a general deterioration.
What can we do about it?
Many years ago, a woman who, before World War II, had escaped from Vienna to the United States, went to the Rebbe. She told the Rebbe that she wanted to visit Vienna, and the Rebbe asked her to visit Dr. Victor Frankl and convey to him that he must be strong and continue his work; he cannot give up, no matter what. If he continued with his work with iron determination he would be successful.
She did not find Frankl easily. When she went to the hospital, they told her that he hadn’t shown up in weeks. After much effort, she located his home. At first, he did not understand what this unfamiliar woman wanted from him but after he heard the message the Rebbe had sent, tears filled his eyes. After he recovered somewhat, he thanked the woman for the message from the Rebbe. As they spoke, he told her that he thought he would abandon his work in developing his approach to psychology and had considered leaving Vienna for Australia, but now he would reconsider.
What was Frankl’s approach which the Rebbe thought was so important? Unlike other psychologists who thought that man is motivated by the desire to provide for his physical needs, and when he cannot obtain them, he falls into a depression, Frankl thought that human beings are different than animals. What motivates people is the desire for meaning and even when they lack physical needs, they can rise above their situation.
How did Frankl come to this conclusion? He went through the Holocaust and he saw people who went through hell and according to all psychological approaches they should have been broken but they managed to remain strong. After the war, these people went on with their lives, married and had families. He thought a lot about this and concluded that those inmates succeeded in developing a sense of purpose through great effort and maintaining a positive approach.
The approach he developed was: when a person feels that his life is no good, it is because he decided that his life was no good. When a person wants to have it good, he needs to decide that it will be good!
Like many scientific inventions, everything is alluded to in Torah and Frankl’s novel approach is in one of the Rebbe’s sichos. It is a fundamental sicha not just for the chinuch of children but for our own chinuch.
In the sicha of Shabbos parshas Mikeitz 5734, the Rebbe focuses on the conversation that Yosef has with the Butler and Baker which began with a question, “Why are you looking down today?”
The Rebbe asks, first, why does Yosef ask why they were looking down when they had been important ministers and were now in a dungeon! That enough is an excellent reason to look that way. Second, from Yosef’s question we understand that Yosef’s face was always smiley and this is completely not understandable! This happened after ten years in prison because he was slandered and nobody cared about him: his father thinks he was torn to bits by a wild animal, his mother died when he was a child, his brothers sold him as a slave in Egypt, and the people of Potifar’s house were the ones who threw him into prison.
One would expect a person like this to be embittered, angry at the world, barely able to hold on to his sanity, and you surely would not see a smile on his face. And yet, not only did he wake up in the morning as a happy person, but he sees two non-Jews, wicked people, who look downcast and he asks in wonder, “Why are you looking down today?”
The Rebbe explains that Yosef knew that every person has a special mission. This mission is one that only he can do. Even after ten years in prison, when he got up in the morning he felt that he was going to carry out the mission that Hashem assigned him. Every morning, he thought: It makes no difference what happened yesterday and what happened two days ago, now, this morning, I need to think: What does Hashem want of me today.
From Yosef’s perspective, the greatest joy on earth is when a created being has the ability to carry out the assignment given to him by the Creator. This applies equally to every person even if he is wicked. A wicked person also has a new job each day. To Yosef, every person ought to get up with a smile on his face and joy over the task Hashem has given him. So when he saw the downcast faces of the ministers, he was so taken aback that he did not refrain from questioning them. In addition, since he was always thinking about what that day’s mission was, when he saw the downcast faces of the ministers he assumed that this was his mission for the day, to bring them joy by explaining to them the proper outlook on life.
This sums up Yosef’s approach, as explicated by the Rebbe: to get up happily every morning with the knowledge that Hashem has given me a new mission today and to think, each day, what is my job for today.
When we ourselves take this approach and teach it to our children, our future will be much better. We will get up every morning and know that we have a purpose. This knowledge gives meaning to our life and spurs us on to action and success.
SEEING THE BEAUTY IN EVERY BACHUR
Some years ago, I farbrenged in Mezhibuzh and someone came over to me and told me about a problem he was struggling with. He likes nice things and felt he was wasting a lot of money on this. “I don’t lack the money,” he said, “but when I spend thousands of dollars on a certain item just because it caught my fancy, I feel that this is an inappropriate lust.”
I told him that he can look at it from a completely different perspective: Since Hashem blessed you with a special talent to have an appreciation for beautiful things, that is a sign that it pertains to your mission in life. Like the Rebbe says when a person starts studying a profession, he needs to complete his studies and use what he learned because it probably pertains to his purpose in life. You can use this special talent that you have to consider boys who went off the derech and find the beauty in them and by emphasizing their good points this will help them get back on track.
A year later we met again and he excitedly told me: You have no idea what happened thanks to your advice! I went to where kids off the derech hang out and since I don’t lack for money, I invited them to expensive restaurants. As we spoke, I tried to bring out their beautiful points. This approach surprised them and over the past year a few of them came back to Yiddishkeit!
TO VALUE WORKING THROUGH DIFFICULTIES
Knowing the goal is not enough to give a person a sense of satisfaction. He also needs to value what he is able to accomplish and it is with this point that many fail. There are bachurim who do not value the good things that they do.
They tell of a baal teshuva who had yechidus with the Rebbe and complained that it was hard for him with the tests he experienced in life. The Rebbe asked him: What is your hobby?
He said that he loves the paintings of a certain artist and he especially loved seeing a certain painting in which the sun is setting into the sea, and in the foreground of the picture there is an older couple walking on the beach and children playing on the beach.
The Rebbe asked him: How much does this painting cost?
When the man stated a huge sum the Rebbe asked him: If someone would come as the painter is painting and take a picture of the same scene with a camera, which would be more accurate, the painting or the photograph?’’
The man said, of course the photograph. The Rebbe asked: How much is the photograph worth?
A quarter, said the man, not understanding the Rebbe’s point.
The Rebbe asked: How is it possible that the more accurate photo cost a quarter while the less accurate painting costs so much?
The man said: Rebbe, what comparison is there? The photo was done automatically, with the pressing of a button while the painting was made with much effort and this is what people pay for!
Said the Rebbe: Hashem has tens of thousands of angels but they all operate on automatic and their service is worth a quarter. When a Jew, who does not succeed in davening and learning automatically, deals with the difficulties and trials and accomplishes nonetheless, what he succeeds in doing, even if it’s not as perfect as what angels can do, is worth far more to Hashem.
We need to instill this point within ourselves and our children. When a child knows that every good thing that he does is valued by the Rebbe more than tens of thousands of deeds done by angels, he will have enormous satisfaction and chayus in doing mitzvos.
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