D

uring a quiet moment a few years back, I turned to Uri, a geshmake boy who sat near me in my sixth-grade classroom, and asked him, “Uri, will you learn next year like you learned this year?” Uri was a bright boy who shteiged beautifully that school year, baruch Hashem, and I was hopeful that he would maintain his upward trajectory in the future.

Uri understood that I was asking him a serious question. He thought for a moment, and answered, “It depends.”

“What does it depend on?” I asked him.

He answered, “It depends if I like the rebbi.”

I asked Uri if I could repeat this conversation to the rest of the class, as I wanted to discuss this idea with all of them. After Uri assured me he wouldn’t mind at all, I told the rest of the class that I wanted to relate a conversation I’d had with one of their classmates. I repeated the exchange, and when I reached the “punch line,” I saw many of the talmidim nodding their heads in agreement. (Many rebbeim elsewhere have since told me that their talmidim share the same attitude.) I then told the boys the following:

“Boys, I want to tell you a true story I’ve seen printed in a number of books. But the books only tell the first half of the story; they leave out the other half. I’m going to tell you the whole story.

“Rav Chaim Kreiswirth once related that when he was preparing to leave Europe at the onset of World War II, a Yid approached him and told him that he had a fortune in cash and valuables sitting in a Swiss bank account. This Yid was unsure if he would make it out of Europe, and he begged Rav Chaim to find any of his relatives and pass the account information on to them. Rav Chaim agreed, and took the account number with him.

“Nearly 20 years later, now living in Antwerp, Belguim, Rav Chaim was approached by a destitute Yid named Reb Aharon who needed money simply to live. After conversing with Reb Aharon for a few minutes, Rav Chaim realized that the man was a close relative of that wealthy man from Europe. ‘Reb Aharon,’ he exclaimed, ‘you are not poor at all. In fact, you have more money than you can imagine!’ With that, Rav Chaim handed him the paper with the Swiss bank account number written on it.

The moral of the story, Rav Chaim later noted, is that people often think they are poor, not realizing they are richer than they’d ever believe.

“That’s the beginning of the story as printed in the books,” I told the class.

Here’s what happened next. Reb Aharon borrowed a few dollars to buy presentable clothes, and a few more dollars to purchase a train ticket to Switzerland. Once he arrived, he took a taxi to the bank in Zurich. He entered the bank, showed the receptionist the handwritten account number, and asked to see his account.

After examining the account number, the receptionist told him to see teller number three, who was sitting at a desk nearby and finishing a telephone conversation. But looking at him, Reb Aharon was not pleased. The teller’s tie did not appeal to his tastes, and the man was making unnatural motions with his hands.

“Uh, could I perhaps be seen by another teller?” Reb Aharon asked the receptionist.

“I’m sorry,” he responded. “Only that teller handles accounts from the period when this account was opened.”

“Will I need to deal with him much?” Reb Aharon asked nervously.

“Well,” the receptionist answered, “closing out such an account will require at least a few weeks of research and verification. Perhaps even a few months. But then you’ll be on your way with the contents of the account!” he concluded brightly.

Reb Aharon waited a few more moments, until the teller hung up the phone and waved him to his desk. The teller got down to business immediately, after barely exchanging pleasantries. Reb Aharon was unhappy with the man’s demeanor, and after a few more uncomfortable minutes, he made his decision. He stood up, took the piece of paper with the account number from the desk, crumpled it into a ball, and dropped it into the nearby wastepaper basket.

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I cannot deal with this relationship,” he said. “Thank you for your time.” And with that, Reb Aharon left the bank, returned to the train station, and rode back to Antwerp.

“That was the end of the story, which was not printed in the book,” I concluded to the class, who sat openmouthed, unable to comprehend the story’s unexpected ending.

“What?” “But…” “Why did he…”

“What’s the problem?” I asked them.

The boys raised their voices. “But… but… this man is a fool! To give up on all that money, just because he doesn’t like the teller’s tie, or how he spoke to him?” They were incredulous (though a few had immediately realized that “the second half of the story” was Rebbi’s own fabrication).

I sat looking at them for a few moments, and finally said, “And you’re any better than he? After a year of wonderful shteiging in sixth grade, you’ll all be walking into next year’s class holding a valuable piece of paper — all of this year’s accomplishments — entitling you to further wealth and reward. You’re in position to shoot for the moon in learning, yet you’re ready to crumple it up and throw it away, in case you don’t like the rebbi — the ‘teller’?”

Surely we can all agree that the attitude displayed by the talmidim is counterproductive. For a child to insist that his new rebbi meet his exacting standards in style or substance is inappropriate at best, and dangerously empowering at worst. But even though boys will be boys, I believe there is something that parents can do to soften this mindset.

Rabbi Dovid Morgenstern, a segan menahel in Yeshiva Darchei Torah, pointed out that typically, a parent’s first question when his or her son returns home from his first day in yeshivah is, “Do you like your rebbi?” In making this the first (and often the only) point of interest, parents may cause the child to sense that his initial satisfaction with his assigned rebbi is the major factor in his commitment to the program.

Furthermore, if a rebbi feels that his students must immediately like him, it may hamstring his ability to establish the crucial classroom rules and guidelines that are necessary for the talmidim’s success. It also places artificial expectations upon a rebbi, forcing him to live up to the role of “Rebbi Geshmak” rather than being the real and honest mechanech he is.

To be sure, every rebbi should begin the school year with an expression of open interest in, and goodwill for, every talmid. A rebbi must be aware that the health of his relationship with the talmid will go a long way in developing the child’s ahavas haTorah u’mitzvos in both the near and distant future. And a talmid should accept that expression as a genuine effort to open lines of meaningful communication, both in learning and in beginning to develop an all-important personal relationship with his rebbi. But it’s unnecessary — and even potentially damaging — for a talmid and/or parent to expect the rebbi to be “liked” by his talmidim on day one because “he’s so nice.”

Another menahel told me that he coaches his parent body to greet their children after their first day with a wonderful variation of the standard question. Ask your child, “Does your rebbi like you?” In other words, does your rebbi see in you an interest to learn, a desire to improve, and a willingness to be part of the program? Put this way, the message to the child is that it is within his power to make of the school year whatever he is determined to make of it, and that his success will be based in no small part on his desire to do his best to please the rebbi.

It’s time to change our children’s attitude — and our own. No child should ever be inclined to crumple up and discard his precious potential before giving it a chance to develop. —

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 724. Rabbi Asher Dicker has taught sixth, seventh and eighth grades in yeshivos in Brooklyn and Lakewood for 22 years, elucidated numerous perakim in the ArtScroll Shas, and has been a head staff member in boys’ camps for 26 years.