May 24, 2024
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Psychological Insights From the Torah: Building Resilience and Self-Esteem in Our Youth

This week, at my Central High School reunion, I introduced an extraordinary teacher who had a lifelong impact on the adult I became: Dr. Livia Bitton-Jackson, professor, author and international speaker. Inspired by the parshiot surrounding this event, I used the lessons they taught in describing the measure of greatness in Dr. Bitton as an educator. In Parshat Beha’aloscha, when Moshe Rabbeinu is frustrated and loses his cool with the complaining nation, he beseeches God with a plea that ends with “…just kill me.” The commentators are hard-pressed to understand how the quintessential advocate for Bnei Yisroel appeared ready to give up, rather than daven for the nation. In his weekly Parsha class, Rabbi Andrew Markowitz referenced Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik’s analysis of the text, where the Rav explains that Moshe’s role extended far beyond that of a leader. Interestingly, the word “omain-nursing mother” is used in the pesukim as a metaphor for the obligations Moshe held in leading Bnei Yisroel. Indeed, a nursing mother is expected to be completely devoted to her helpless, exposed infant, suspending her own agenda, cradling him in her arms or bosom, protecting him from harm and mirroring her love and affection. Through this process, the physical and emotional nutrients provided by the mother are absorbed by the child and prepare him to gradually go through it alone.

I believe that Hashem uses this metaphor to remind Moshe that Bnei Yisroel were at the “infancy” stage of spiritual development and therefore he must not be frustrated. Rather, he was expected to be at their beck and call, even at the expense of his own family. Moreover, this manner of treatment was even more important during the scary and challenging transition they were about to face, when regression was to be expected. This explanation offers such a wonderful lesson about the dormant infant inside all of us, which needs to be dealt with in a caring manner, at various stages in life.

In Parshat Shelach, the commentators grapple with what Rabbi Jonathan Sachs considers the greatest “collective failure” of leadership in the Torah, “Chait Hameraglim.” Given the context within which this event occurred, following the miracles and gifts that Hashem bestowed, they should have recognized His goodness and known that the nations “trembled before them.” So what went wrong?

According to Rabbi Sachs, this tragic event was the result of a systemic failure of Moshe and the leaders in building the esteem and self determination the nation required in order to make the next move towards independence. The charge of leadership, he believes, is less about the skills of the leaders and more about the confidence that they instill in their charges; a confidence that is rooted in their own optimism, hope and certainty, that with God’s help, and with the nation working together, a “Mission Impossible,” could turn into a “Promise Fulfilled.” Without it, they were doomed for failure. Viewed from this perspective, perhaps the added years were not a punishment for a sin, but an opportunity for Bnei Yisroel and its leaders to grow into their roles as a nation worthy of their mission. What a lesson in not rushing students to the finish line.

In Sefer Mishlei, Shlomo Hamelech advised: “Educate a child according to his own path, and even when he grows old, he will not stray from it.” The Piaseczno Rebbe, in his seminal work, “A Student’s Obligations,” interpreted this pasuk in an unusual way, as he advised the parents and teachers in the Warsaw Ghetto of their obligations to their children. His words of wisdom survived him even after he was tragically killed in the camps, and continues to impact until this very day. The Rebbe explained that in Hebrew, the word for education, “chinuch,” does not mean to teach a skill. Rather, it refers to the actualization of capabilities that the child already possesses. Therefore, the responsibility of an educator is to become aware of and nurture these qualities. Indeed, the Rebbe was well ahead of his time in advancing the insights of such educational and psychological practices, known today as: “Differentiated Instruction,” “Multiple Intelligences,” and “Differential Learning Styles.” He dismissed the typical “one size fits all” approach, and argued that the manner in which chinuch is accomplished for one child must be different from the way it is approached with another, “whose unique nature, will and personality are different from the first.” This daunting task becomes even more challenging when the potential of a child may be found only in very small measures, or even completely hidden, because of the child’s life circumstances; the truly gifted educator is willing to dig as deeply as is necessary to identify, nurture and grow these proclivities.

The Rebbe’s ideas are also consistent with current clinical practice and research on resilience. Findings indicate that the most critical factor in helping adolescents transcend adversity and disability is just one person—a parent, teacher or significant other adult who believes in him. Therefore, teachers are cautioned to remember that while not all students will learn or recall the subject matter taught, they will remember the teacher who reached out and tried to understand them and how that teacher made them feel.

In setting priorities, teachers are asked to never underestimate the vast effect they have on their students; through the words they use, even the body language they emit, they can “build” or “destroy,” and the positive and negative memories can impact for a lifetime.

How fortunate I was that my teacher Dr. Bitton, with her fine-tuned skills in validation and building the self-esteem and resilience of her students, crossed my path at a time when I really needed her. As a child of Holocaust survivors, life at home was all about survival; it was school that became my safe haven, where I could have fun, be myself and escape from the angst my parents suffered. It was Dr. Bitton, a teen holocaust survivor, who in the face of her own loss and trauma in the camps became my role model not only in transcending adversity, but also for the example she set in the possibilities open to women. It was her optimism and passion for the mission to teach, as well as connect with youth in a meaningful way, that filled a void I didn’t even know I possessed until I came under her tender, loving care. Well before “self-esteem” and “resilience” building were the buzz words of the day, she understood that it was not just subject matter she taught, but real live children with spiritual, intellectual and emotional needs. I share the sentiments of the Rebbe, that those of us who were fortunate to have such an “auspicious” start because of a Dr. Bitton in our lives, “much like beautiful, well-nourished flowers, nurtured by a master gardener, will continue to develop and grow all the days of our lives.”

Renee Nussbaum is a practicing psychoanalyst with special training in Imago Relational Therapy. She can be reached at: [email protected].

By Renee Nussbaum PhD, PsyA

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