SCHOLAR. HERO. BENEFACTOR.
My Educational Philosophy
In the first segment of this series, I wrote about the scholar, the person who learns from everyone. I discussed the need to stoke the passion of curiosity that every child has through engaging and challenging learning opportunities.
I ended with a question: knowledge and understanding, inquiring and learning are a means to an end. What do we do once we have knowledge and understanding?
Before answering that question, there is another, perhaps more pressing question that we have to address.
Knowledge opens doors. It grants access to a larger world. As Francis Bacon put so simply, “Knowledge is power.” But as Albert Einstein said, “Knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be.”
And therein lies our quandary.
We want our children to learn, to experience, to grow independent through knowledge and understanding. But that magic door does not lead automatically where it should, or where we would prefer it to lead.
The Torah relates stories of our patriarchs, not only to set our historical background, but also for us to learn from their lives, to teach us enduring lessons. One of the more enigmatic events recounted in the Torah, a story whose practical lessons for our daily lives is shrouded in pain and blame, is the story of the forcible taking of Dina.
The rabbis of the medrashic period wondered how such a fate could have befallen Dina. Two suggestions are offered.
Medrash Tanchuma (Vayishlach 7) wonders, why, when the Torah lists genealogical connections through fathers, does it identify Dina as Leah’s daughter, and not Yaakov’s? The answer given is that just as Leah went out in an immodest manner, so too did Dina. And this led to her being kidnapped and abused.
Bereishit Rabba (76:9) offers a different perspective. Commenting on the story of Yaakov’s meeting with Esav after over two decades of separation, the medrash writes that Yaakov hid Dina in a box so that Esav would not see her and take her as a wife. Since Yaakov did not allow for Esav to have an opportunity to repent via a relationship with Dina, Yaakov was punished with Dina’s being abused.
Here is not the place to consider the religious implications of these conclusions.
There is a lesson, though, to be learned from looking at both analyses together, finding a common thread and seeing where it leads, what lessons we might learn for our own lives.
Both medrashim address reasons why Dina’s foray into a foreign environment met with disaster. Yaakov was over protective of his daughter and was horribly unsuccessful. Leah took the polar extreme position and allowed Dina to go out unprepared for what she might confront. The results of Leah’s approach were identically bad.
The enduring question, left unresolved in the story, is how do we adequately prepare our own children to go out into the world, into an arena where they will meet situations and temptations that we deem undesirable. Total secession from society, locking our children away by not giving them the knowledge and tools to engage with the world, is not the solution. Yaakov tried, and failed. Unfettered access, simply providing the knowledge and tools for interaction, will also meet with failure. Just ask Leah.
It seems that our first educational goal, of empowering children to think and analyze information, to challenge and develop new understanding, runs the risk of setting up our children for danger.
Ben Zoma, whom we met in our first educational principle, continues his exposition of the pasuk we discussed earlier: “איזהו גבור? הכובש את יצרו Who is the warrior? The one who conquers his desires.”
At first blush, this might be seen as arguing for cutting off all interaction with society. What surer way is there to conquer one’s desires than to crush the source of those desires, the enticements of secular society? By figuratively destroying the desire, by totally rejecting everything that we deem foreign to our perceived perfect lifestyle, we have certainly become the hero, looking out to protect our families from any and all outside influence.
Defeating an adversary, though, does not necessarily mean the destruction of the opponent. Sun Tzu, the legendary Chinese war strategist and philosopher, in his pioneering work, The Art of War, wrote:
In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good…Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting…The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
Destruction is not the ultimate sign of a hero. Strength alone is rarely the determining factor in a conflict. Rather, the measured application of strength, together with careful analysis of all factors that could impact the outcome of the challenge at hand, are needed for victory.
We all face struggles with our desires. The internal battle of right and wrong is constant in our lives. Some challenges are easier to overcome, others much more difficult. Destruction of desire is not an option.
The gemara in Sanhedrin (64.) describes the fragile state of the Jewish people after the destruction of the first בית המקדש (Temple in Jerusalem) After acquiescing to the people’s request that the desire for idolatry be subdued, HaShem grants their next wish concerning the יצר הרע (the inclination to evil) as well:
אָמְרִי: הוֹאִיל וְעֵת רָצוֹן הוּא נִיבָּעֵי רַחֲמֵי אַיִּצְרָא דַּעֲבֵירָה, בָּעוּ רַחֲמֵי, אִימְסַר בִּידַיְיהוּ. חֲבָשׁוּהוּ תְּלָתָא יוֹמֵי.
Then they said, ‘Since the time is propitious, let us pray that the Tempter of Sin [may likewise be delivered into our hands].’ So they prayed and it was delivered into their hands. They imprisoned it for three days.
What could be better for the world than for there to be no desire to do wrong? Everyone would focus on serving HaShem without interruption. The people quickly learned that there were wider ramifications to their wish:
“אִיבְעוּ בֵּיעֲתָא בַּת יוֹמָא לְחוֹלֶה, וְלֹא אַשְׁכָּחו” – “After that, they sought a new laid egg for an invalid and could not find one.”
Total elimination of the יצר הרע resulted in a complete shut down of the natural order of the world. Destruction of the enemy was not the best result, it was not even a desired result. As the זוהר writes in a different context “מקרב בימין ומרחק בשמאל – Embrace with the right and distance with the left;” a balance has to be found, whether in the way HaShem deals with evildoers, or how we interact with the world around us. The יצר הרע is a powerful motivator; its energy must be harnessed and directed for good.
Amassing knowledge and building understanding are, in and of themselves, neutral. Why we seek that understanding and how we utilize it can be either good or bad, right or wrong. Our motives will expose whether our being wise is righteous or not. Using the Torah as the lens through which we view the world, society and culture around us will enable us to engage, rather than destroy, our interaction with that outside world.
But we must go beyond mere engagement for our own purposes. We can not only take from society. We must be a part of the world community, not apart from it, using it for our ends only. Citizenship, an awareness of our place in the broader society, whether locally, nationally or globally, is a critical lesson. As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., said “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” This, too, is the hallmark of the hero, bettering society for everyone.
Learning from everyone, the scholar gathers tools. Our task, as our children scholars amass those implements of engagement, is to train them to be heroes as well. To harness the good of the outside world, to beware of its dangers and enticements, to take the knowledge and understanding and, using the Torah as their guide, to use them appropriately. We, home and school, must partner together to teach your children, our scholars, to be heroes: to subdue the world without fighting, to use what is available in it to better our individual, communal, national and global selves.
I close this segment of my educational philosophy with a quote where the scholar meets the hero:
Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force;
Mastering the self is true strength.
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (33).