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Sunday
Oct092016

MESIVTA LEVEL GEMARA LEARNING

About the gap between the level of learning in elementary school and mesivta, about where the Schottenstein Artscroll and Steinsaltz commentaries fit into the yeshiva world, about instilling love for learning in talmidim and about the Chassidic outlook on learning a sugya in Gemara. * As the new school year begins, Beis Moshiach spoke with Rabbi Aryeh Leib Cohen, a teacher in Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim in Netanya and his brother-in-law, Rabbi Aryeh Kedem, a teacher in Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim in Lud, who speak about teaching in an era when concentrating for long periods of time and delving into a daf Gemara is a real challenge. They also respond to the question: what role do parents have in preparing their children for yeshiva.

Photos by Daniel RobinsonThe spotlights never focus on them and most likely, many readers are not aware of their vital job. This is an elite group of talented and learned young men who have an enormous influence on the talmidim in the world of Chabad yeshivos at a formative time in their lives.

The two veteran teachers, R’ Aryeh Leib Cohen and R’ Aryeh Kedem are both sons-in-law of R’ Chaim Ashkenazi a”h. They are excellent maggidei shiur who can explain a complicated piece of Gemara in the clearest way.

They are also gifted with a sense of humor, which they use, as per the practice of the Sage Rava cited in Gemara. They create a relaxed, convivial atmosphere, which we also experienced during the interview.

TO GENERATE INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY

You both teach in mesivta (called yeshiva k’tana in Eretz Yisroel) and welcome bachurim entering yeshiva. What level are they on and how do you deal with the big gap between the level of learning in elementary school and mesivta?

R’ Kedem: The talmidim who are more advanced can read the Gemara and Rashi properly and have a command of Aramaic. They are used to not skipping a single Tosafos (aside from some rare exceptions) and are familiar with the general structural style of Tosafos. There are other talmidim who are not yet on that level. It depends on which school they are coming from and also their individual abilities.

R’ Cohen: In teaching shiur beis, I don’t see as many differences in the level between elementary school and mesivta, but there is a major difference in the style of learning in elementary school and that of mesivta.

The difference is in the ability to learn independently, which is what the bachur needs to develop in yeshiva. Until now, he was accustomed to listening to his teacher teach, and now he has to take responsibility for his own learning. This can take a month for one bachur, two months for someone else, and a year for another. I think that emphasizing the responsibility for learning to a bachur can help him focus on this and make progress.

PROPER AWE FOR THE WORDS OF THE SAGES

What is it like to be a teacher of Nigleh at a time when prolonged concentration on the daf Gemara can be a major challenge?

R’ Kedem: The exposure of this generation to the enticements of instant information has, unfortunately, produced a situation wherein shallowness and superficiality abound. Beyond the hard battle between holiness and the opposite, there is a pull toward obtaining the maximum amount of information with zero effort. For this reason, learning Gemara, especially in-depth study which requires thinking and concentration, is hard. The job of the teacher is to assign the study of Gemara its proper place of honor, to get the talmidim to love learning Gemara so that you can see them light up with enjoyment.

Beyond the need to be clear, which is a quality every teacher must have, and beyond the holiness of the study of Gemara as the teaching of Hashem, the teacher needs to be especially interesting through the variety of illustrations and activities he employs during the course of the shiur. That is how he will create the intellectual curiosity which will enable the students to relate to the fascinating logic of the Gemara.

Since the Gemara deals primarily with scenarios that were prevalent at the time it was written, the teacher needs to find parallels to things we are familiar with, as close as possible to the world of the students, so that they can relate and will want to study it. At the same time, he should not always explain and “chew up” for them the Talmudic processes and their implications. He needs to allow them to read for themselves and get them to find the questions that arise and ask them their opinion, thus turning the talmidim from passive learners into active learners.

It is very important to emphasize that throughout the teaching process, everything the teacher utters must express awe toward every word said by the Tanaim, Amoraim, Rishonim and Acharonim, so that the shiur does not become university style Talmudic research. The teacher’s face has to light up with delight from the k’dusha throughout, because that comes across in a very powerful way to the talmidim.

After all that, the power of negative enticements is still plentiful and powerful. The talmidim’s exposure to those enticements needs to be minimized as much as possible to allow their souls to better relate to positive enticements. But this part pertains more to the parents than to the teachers.

R’ Cohen: As R’ Kedem mentioned, the educational challenge is bigger today. Life today is such that everyone seeks immediate responses and wants to have instant success. As a result, the danger of falling into despair is also greater. Feeling unsuccessful can lead to frustration and can result in a spiritual fall. So we teachers need to praise a good question or correct answer or even showing up on time, and “cushion” any lack of success. We need to strengthen their feeling that as the students continue they will be more successful.

TEACHER AND EDUCATOR

Tell us about the personal relationship between teacher and student.

R’ Cohen: I think that the relationship serves as a “key” to the heart of a student. In order to create a situation in which a talmid is receptive, you need to create a situation in which his feelings toward the teacher won’t be like the person facing him, on the other side of the barricade, but that we are in this together and we have common goals. When the teacher shows interest in a talmid, not necessarily in the subject matter being learned but even simply inquiring how are you doing today, what did you eat for lunch, etc., this often breaks the ice. I have had many instances in which a casual remark or question in the hall, like – you’re doing great with your attendance, led to a connection and relationship that sometimes lasted for years.

R’ Kedem: I think that the answer to your question needs to address both the role of teacher and educator. The rebbi in front of the class is usually seen more as a teacher than as a source of guidance. In our yeshiva structure, the role of educator in terms of personal guidance is ceded more to the mashpia, but a good teacher must also be a good mechanech-educator.

A teacher needs to identify the student’s strong and weak points when it comes to learning: knowledge, interpretation, understanding, memory, abstract abilities, weaving together data, etc. Through a personal connection he can strengthen the strong points as well as provide the means to bolster performance in the weak areas.

It’s important for a mechanech to ask how the talmid is doing, how he is adjusting socially and to dormitory life. These are facts that have an influence on the ability to learn. A teacher needs to make his students feel comfortable, asking him about anything that comes up and showing genuine interest in helping them. Even when it’s a problem that the mechanech cannot rectify, just being an empathetic listener can lessen (and at times even eliminate!) the hurdles that arise through the course of the year.

This is aside from the fact that when he endears himself to his students, he greatly increases their desire to learn Torah from him.

PARENTS NEED TO BE AWARE

As parents to talmidim in yeshivos, do you think that the parents’ connection should be primarily with the rosh yeshiva, the mashgiach, or with the teacher?

R’ Cohen: The reality is that the greater the interest the parents take, the more the staff will be inclined to be involved with the student.

R’ Kedem: As R’ Cohen mentioned, every connection with each member of the staff is desirable. As for the teacher, it’s important for the parent to hear from him how their son is doing. First, since the teacher is not an angel and cannot always manage to focus on all the talmidim equally, every phone call from parents puts their child in the forefront of his mind.

In addition, when their son deserves a compliment, the parents should know about it so they can complement him. Compliments are not only for test results. Compliments are also for effort in learning and willingness to help others in learning. These are things that parents may not hear about without a phone call. Of course, if the boy is having a hard time, parents need to hear how they can help and encourage him.

LEARNING NIGLEH AS CHASSIDIM SHOULD

What is the Chassidic perspective on tackling a Talmudic sugya?

R’ Cohen: I once heard from R’ Mordechai Shmuel Ashkenazi a”h that after World War II there was a dearth of basic Jewish books and someone named R’ Avrohom Trager printed the Rambam. But because it was feared that someone else would print it and he would lose his investment, he went to rabbanim and asked them to issue a prohibition to print the Rambam for a few years until he covered his costs. They directed him to one of the distinguished rabbis who lived abroad.

When he went to him, that rav said: How many people in our generation understand the Rambam properly? Another two g’dolim and me. And if we look closely we will see that one of them doesn’t really understand the Rambam himself, but he repeats his father’s teachings, and the other one doesn’t give the Rambam his due honor because to him, the Rambam and the Mishna Brura are the same thing. Who does that leave us with? Me, and I already have a Rambam.

The Chassidic approach is completely different because the learning is not used to promote oneself. Rather, as the Rebbe Rashab said, the goal in founding Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim was that the talmidim should become such that when learning Nigleh, it would be obvious that it was being learned by someone who learned Chassidus. In other words, we should be looking at the Torah as the Torah of Hashem and not as an intellectual pursuit.

R’ Kedem: A line that I regularly use in my shiurim is: Believe in Rashi and in Tosafos but don’t believe them. Treat every word written by g’dolei Yisroel throughout the generations with awe, but don’t accept it as some mystical kabbalistic incantation. Work to understand it properly.

True, even if you don’t understand it, it remains holy, because we are the ones who don’t understand it and it’s not that the material is not understandable. The deficiency is in us. But we need to make every effort to understand it. This is what Hashem demands of us in our role of preparing ourselves to understand the “new Torah” that Moshiach will teach.

GEULA AND MOSHIACH IN A GEMARA SHIUR

The Rebbe says that all aspects of shlichus should be permeated with inyanei Moshiach and Geula. How do you accomplish this in a Gemara shiur?

R’ Kedem: With the illustrations that I spoke of earlier. The illustrations can be issues that have clear ramifications pertaining to inyanei Moshiach and Geula. Especially when we get to a sugya that has some connection or actually deals with Geula, when we make a “big deal” of it and find a way to get the students even more involved than usual.

R’ Cohen: At the beginning or end of the shiur, a point from D’var Malchus can be mentioned, or a point from a maamer or a sicha on the topic. It can be done by having a different bachur saying something on Moshiach and Geula every day.

In the last yechidus with the T’mimim, the Rebbe spoke about such an intensity of learning to the point that they dream about it at night. Are there bachurim like that today? How does one achieve that?

R’ Kedem: There are bachurim like that, but obviously, they are not a dime a dozen. Dreams are mostly affected by the attention you give during the day to various events and ideas. The more space it takes up in our awareness, the more space they will occupy in our dreams too.

R’ Cohen: In general, the Rebbe demands that the T’mimim be totally invested in Torah study. In connection with this, there is another horaa from the Rebbe to write and publish chiddushei Torah. When a bachur is involved in a topic in order to write about it, you can see how he is fully immersed in it.

DEPTH GENERATES LOVE

How do you instill the love, desire and enthusiasm for Gemara nowadays among the many talmidim who don’t find themselves enamored of it?

R’ Cohen: In the past, not everyone was necessarily drawn to learn Gemara either, but that is a separate discussion. The more involvement in any given topic, the more one feels a connection to it. If we can get a bachur to learn a sugya one day, two days, and three days, he will start getting more and more involved. When you delve into it, it creates the connection to what you’re learning. But if you remain on the “outside,” and just glance at it now and then, it’s no wonder that you don’t feel a connection.

R’ Kedem: Getting the talmidim to love the Gemara is as important as explaining it to them properly. Just as the teacher feels that he failed when he didn’t find the right words to explain an idea, so too (and perhaps even more so) he needs to feel he failed when he doesn’t succeed in getting them to love what they learn.

The tools for this are a combination of: first and foremost, the personal example he provides for love of learning. Second, from how interesting he is as a teacher, and third, the empathy that he displays towards his students (as I mentioned in detail about each of these things earlier).

LIKE A NAVIGATION DEVICE

No doubt, you want to provide your students with the tools so that they won’t need the aid of the Schottenstein (Artscroll) and Steinsaltz Gemaras. What place do those Gemaras have in the world of the Chabad yeshiva?

R’ Cohen: I don’t think there is one right answer for everyone. There are those who need to acquire the ability to learn the Gemara on their own. This will allow them to learn any masechta independently. When a talmid attains this ability of independent learning, he doesn’t need these aids. But there are talmidim who, due to various limitations, will find these learning aids a terrific tool.

R’ Kedem: I guide my talmidim to avoid using these s’farim. Someone once described them as navigating tools that bring you exactly where you want to go but you have no idea how you got there.

As for the s’darim in which the bachurim prepare the Gemara on their own, I emphasize to them that whoever uses these s’farim are doing themselves a disservice because they are deliberately atrophying their ability to learn the Gemara on their own.

This is also an obstacle when the teacher is leading the talmidim toward thinking the Gemara through for themselves. A talmid who has one of these Gemara aids will be tempted to take a peek rather than think, and he ends up the loser.

During chazara, when they review the shiurim, these Gemaras are less harmful but are still not good, because instead of using their memories and reviewing the conclusions they arrived at through understanding, they look inside, remember it momentarily, and soon forget it.

Obviously, there are those talmidim who are exceptions to the rule who, without these Gemaras, would really not succeed. I don’t prevent them from using them, but they are the exceptions.

Do you think that using these Gemara aids is something talmidim should hide and be ashamed of?

R’ Cohen: If it’s because of laziness, the answer is yes. If it’s a real need, there is nothing to be ashamed of, just like there is no need to be ashamed to wear glasses so that one can see better.

R’ Kedem: Should someone who rides a bike with training wheels be ashamed? An aid should be a shameful thing for someone who uses it without justification. If someone really needs it, there is no reason to be ashamed.

THE TALMIDIM HAVE ALL THE TOOLS FOR SUCCESS IN LEARNING

How do you see the level of Gemara learning today in Chabad yeshivos both in quantity and in quality?

R’ Kedem: Boruch Hashem, our yeshivos provide excellent tools for learning both in quantity and in quality, both in what they have to learn and beyond what they have to learn. The level of learning is high and so are the accomplishments. Enthusiasm is something individual and that depends on the teacher igniting the hearts of his students.

R’ Cohen: Without a doubt there are very many bachurim who learn diligently and who see results. But the direction always needs to be in doing more. In ruchnius, being satisfied with your lot is a very big deficiency.

THE PARENTS’ ROLE

For parents who are reading this article, what is their role? What can they do to instill a desire to learn in their children? How can they prepare their child for successful learning in yeshiva?

R’ Cohen: There is no question that a positive role model – seeing their father learning, is the most important thing. Likewise, taking an interest in what their child is learning will motivate him to treat his learning more seriously.

I would also add a point that isn’t spoken about enough, which is an awareness of the Torah literature that has developed through the generations. I’ve come across those from good homes who don’t know the difference between the Tur, the Shulchan Aruch, etc.

If this is spoken about at home, and famous g’dolim are mentioned, that can greatly enrich the talmid’s knowledge of the Torah world and entice him to open the s’farim he hears about.

R’ Kedem: I will answer with a story. Years ago there was an outstanding talmid in Crown Heights whose father was not at all outstanding in learning; on the contrary, the father was a big sports enthusiast and aficionado. At some point, the father was asked how he managed to produce such a son.

He said, “Whenever my son needed help in his learning, when he needed me to explain something or test him on his learning, I would drop the sports I was addicted to and give him my full attention. He understood what my real priorities are in life, even though I have a big yetzer ha’ra. You see the results.”

Parents need to convey to their children that the most important thing to them in life is their children’s devotion to learning. Devotion is not necessarily success. Or put it this way, their children should be convinced that devotion to learning is genuine success.

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