July 19, 2024
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July 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

This vision is an inspiring one, but also a difficult one. It demands each person get to know themselves in a deep way — at what do they excel,with what do they struggle, in which topics are they interested? Many people nowadays struggle to plumb the depths of their own personas, sufficing with the “standard track” that everyone else takes through life. High school, a couple of years of Yeshiva, college, and job; doctor, lawyer, accountant or businessman. If we’re serious about becoming those whose “hearts lifted them up” to contribute to the klal (society), we need to allow our hearts to tap into the unique strengths with which we were endowed.

Some people are meant to work with their minds; others, with their hands. Some are meant to work with people; others, with ideas. Some people are built to thrive in high-pressure contexts, while others need calm and quiet to do their best work. These are all examples of qualities that we are meant to use in determining what role, what mission Hashem had in mind for us when He sent us down into this world. In fact, if we really take these ideas seriously, then to ignore those qualities would be a form of bal tashchis, wasting the potential that we were granted to use for the betterment of those around us.


Welcome to Fifth Grade

While more challenging to implement than a more black-and-white, single-value system, this perspective has a definite ring of truth to it. A quick peek into any fifth-grade classroom during recess quickly reveals these differences. The few kids reading quietly are blessed with the ability to sit, listen and learn. The kids drawing and doodling are more creative and artistic — they need more stimulation and active involvement to be drawn into frontal learning. Behind them, you have a few kids tapping out a song on their desks — they’re the musical ones, who’d often rather be learning a new song than a new sugyah or science unit (this got me permanently removed from seventh and eighth grade American History). Finally, there are the physically blessed, the strong and dexterous, roughhousing in the back; they are more gifted with their bodies than their minds, sometimes making school especially difficult for them.

Is it possible that each kid in that classroom is meant to fit into the same mold, learning the same topics and spending the same amount of time in the educational system? Can it be that any realistic system has the same hopes for every one of these children, if their aptitudes and abilities are already so clearly differentiated? Of course not — each person is meant to use what they were blessed with to contribute to the world around them, and that necessitates different tracks for different types of people.


Chovos Halevavos:
Like Cats and Cows

The Chovos Halevavos develops a similar point, applied more directly to a person’s day-to-day life. Discussing the proper perspective on parnasa, he writes that Hashem creates every individual with an innate proclivity toward a specific field of study or area of business. Just as cats are drawn to mice and cows are drawn to grass, and both have the “tools” needed to process their respective sources of sustenance, Hashem directs each person to the career they are meant to focus on and grants them the skills and interests they need to succeed.

For the Chovos Halevavos, this goes beyond the pragmatic necessity of putting food on the table. He describes this as the fulfillment of the mitzvah of l’ovdah u’l’shomrah — the commandment to cultivate and protect this world. Each person is meant to recognize their Divinely-apportioned gifts, and use those gifts to divine the impact they are supposed to make on the world through the time spent on career and income generation.


All for One

The Torah records that Yaakov summoned all of his children to his deathbed toward the end of his life.1 He turned to each one and remarked on a unique quality or trait: Reuven was identified as passionate but impetuous, Shimon and Levi as hotheaded and prone to violence. Yehuda was described as a young lion, Yissachar as a hardworking donkey. After finishing with the last son, the Torah comments, “Va’yevarech osam ish asher k’birchaso beirach osam — He blessed them, each according to what was in character with his particular blessing.” Rav Hirsch notes an inconsistency in the verse: It starts with the singular (k’birchaso) but proceeds to the plural (osam). Wouldn’t it have been more correct to say, ish asher k’birchaso beirach oso?2 Rav Hirsch explains that this nuance indicates a profound idea: “Each one benefitted from the general blessing of the community, while the special blessing of each one enhanced the community.” Yaakov’s blessings to each child were not meant to benefit the lives of each individual tribe; rather, each tribe was called to use its unique nature to enhance and contribute to the rest of the tribes.3

This is particularly powerful when we remember that the ultimate goal was for the tribes to create a fully functioning society in Eretz Yisrael. In order to do that, all types were necessary: doctors, lawyers, rabbis, businessmen, plumbers, teachers, social workers, artists, physical therapists and everything else. By acknowledging and validating each tribe’s unique gift, Yaakov was ensuring that the society they would eventually create would have everything and everyone it needed to thrive.

The same is meant to be for our classroom of fifth graders: We are meant to help each one identify his abilities, and direct him in ways which will allow him to develop those kochos for the good of the klal.

Tzvi Goldstein was removed from seventh grade American History for drumming too much on his desk, yet still graduated from Yeshiva University with semicha and a degree in Psychology. After making aliyah, he taught in Yeshivat Hakotel for five years and now edits sefarim for a number of publishers. He recently published a sefer with Mosaica Press called “Halachic Worldviews” exploring Rav Soloveitchik’s approach to developing hashkafa from halacha, and writes at tgb613.substack.com. You can reach him at [email protected].


1 Bereishis 49:1.

2 49:28.

3 This idea was a recurring one for Rav Hirsch: see Letters 3 and 4 of the 19 Letters, his commentary to Avos 5:1, and e.g. Bereishis 2:1, 35:11, Shemos 7:5, Bamidbar 1:2.

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