McCullough no; ben Zakkai yes

McCullough no; ben Zakkai yes

On June 11, the Florence Melton Adult Mini School held its annual graduation ceremony. Rabbi Kenneth Emert of Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff delivered the invocation. The following is an edited version of his remarks.

David McCullough Jr., a high school teacher in Wellesley, Mass., told graduates in his commencement speech to them earlier this month: “Do not get the idea that you are special, because you are not…! Even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion, that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you. You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.”

McCullough, the son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, very well may be correct in his assessment of academic accomplishment, but somehow I prefer the words of another teacher, who lived many centuries earlier and used a different psychology to motivate his students.

The teacher’s name is Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, and his words are found in a small book, called Pirkei Avot, “Chapters of the Fathers,” a compilation of the teachings of the rabbis of the period.

We read in Avot 2:9: “Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had five disciples and these are they: Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Y’hoshua ben Chananyah, Yosi the Priest, Shimon ben Natanel, and Elazar ben Arach.”

It continues by telling us that Rabbi Yochanan used to speak their praise.

Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, he said, is “a plastered cistern which does not lose a drop,” meaning that he has an incredible memory. Of Y’hoshua ben Chananyah, he said, “happy is the woman who gave birth to him,” meaning that he is a true delight as a human being, so congenial and supportive and sympathetic to his peers. Yosi the Priest he called “a saintly man,” a man of good deeds. Shimon ben Natanel is “a man who fears sin,” a person who goes out of his way to follow the righteous path. And finally, there was Elazar ben Arach, “an ever-flowing spring,” a repository of wisdom and knowledge.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, asks: “What made Rabbi Yochanan so successful in raising up many disciples? Why did they flock to him in particular?

He answers: “Notice how Rabbi Yochanan practiced lashon hatov! He was a master of sensitive speech! He spoke words filled with warmth and praise. His words were those of encouragement and inspiration. He uttered words which motivated his students to appreciate their own talents!”

If you ask me, this passage should be included in a manual for teachers who hope to raise up disciples; students who will have a love for learning, and a love for Torah.

But I would instruct teachers to read another statement found in the Talmud that would qualify our praise for students: “Let no one ever talk in praise of his neighbor, for praise will lead to criticism.”

Rashi, living six centuries after that statement, explained it this way: If you are to praise someone, it must be judicious, accurate, true, and not excessive. For if the praise is excessive, that person’s detractors will be ready to point out all of the praised person’s faults.

I am often amazed how some teachers know exactly how to balance their words. Somehow, they have that magical touch. They know just how much to say, when to say it, and know how to say it well.

McCullough may be correct in saying that some teachers’ praise of their students is overly excessive, but Rabbi Yochanan would tell us that a great teacher knows how to balance that praise in a way that motivates and inspires.

My prayer at this graduation is that teachers and parents alike follow the example of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who understood that the use of lashon hatov, of encouraging words, is much preferred over sardonic utterances spoken by some educators, which do nothing to motivate students and little to inspire them to work to their potential.

May we, Jewish educators, learn to look for the best in our students and never withhold praising them when they indeed merit that praise.

And may our students learn to accept the fact that gentle criticism, which does not look to destroy a student’s love for learning, is a part of educational growth and maturity that can serve to sharpen the intellect by motivating students to become the very best learners that they possibly can be.