One of the most significant objectives in Jewish education is the development of Ahavat Hashem in our students. Indeed, this objective is often expressed as one of the key elements in our collective mission statements. Many of us have a picture in our mind of what Ahavat Hashem looks like: a student involved in mitzvot, in tefillah, in chesed, with great devotion and joy. A student who feels passion in what he or she does. A student who voluntarily spends time involved in Torah learning, activities and pursuits. A student who longs to advance in his or her religious development, thirsting for more. We set this path as an ideal, and we measure our successes based upon how our students measure up to what this looks like, starting in the youngest grades. Sadly, we are often disappointed if and when our children fall short of our expectations.
I write this article in an attempt to suggest that we look at the process of educating toward ahavat Hashem (or any other important, lofty goal) a bit differently.
Imagine, for a moment, that you, as a carpenter, would like to train your very young apprentice how to master the art and the craft of carpentry. Your tender helper knows almost nothing about carpentry. What is the best way to achieve success in your goal of developing a master carpenter? You may be tempted to start by having your assistant do some rudimentary work with wood. But you stop and you realize that if the end goal is mastery, the step right before that—that leads straight to mastery—looks like X, and the step right before X looks like Y, and the step before that…and so on, until you work backward to the first step: introducing the trainee to wood and to tools.
Now, after starting along this path, one may be disappointed after a short time when all the apprentice can do is hold a pencil properly so that he or she can measure wood. This certainly does not look like master carpentry! Yet, without this step, one cannot advance to the next step, and then to the next step toward becoming a master carpenter. What I am suggesting is that we reevaluate what success means along the way toward the ultimate objective. Success at the first stages of carpentry training may be holding the pencil properly, even though the apprentice cannot yet build a nice cabinet. Success in training for ahavat Hashem in the early stages may be understanding a rudimentary idea in Torah learning, or being able to read the tefillah fluently, even though the talmid(ah) cannot yet be devotional and passionate. Each appropriate step will lead to the next, in the right progression and pace. In fact, if we try to simulate the final step without going through the proper progression of growth we may develop a hollow, shallow facsimile that will soon easily fade. In contradistinction, if we invest in going through the proper steps at the proper pace we won’t attain immediate final results, but we can be assured of attaining genuine, lasting results over the long run.
I recently had the privilege of hosting a group of fellow mechanchim for a conference on middle-school tefillah. Some of the group lamented that tefillah does not always look like what we want it to look like—students praying with passion and enthusiasm in an undistracted, dedicated way for the entirety of the tefillah. Together, through the discussion, our group experienced an epiphany. If ideal tefillah is a desideratum, it comes after the progression of many steps, over the course of a number of years. And success in middle school should not be measured by what success looks like at the very end of the road; it should be measured by what success looks like at step number X, at middle school age.
Of course, looking at this issue in this way requires that we have a clear “map” of the steps, a vision of the progression toward the objective. This, I believe, is one of the key elements of what Jewish educators—teachers and parents—need to think about deliberately and carefully.
By Rabbi Saul Zucker
Rabbi Saul Zucker is head of school at Ben Porat Yosef.