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Thursday
Nov142013

THE REBBE RASHAB’S LESSON PLAN

The fifth Rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab, had such a unique style of presentation that the most respected elder Chassidim of his time entitled him “the Rambam of Chassidus.” The Rebbe Rashab drew from many thousands of Chabad discourses by his predecessors and, based on them, explained the most profound concepts in clear terms, comprehensively and in an orderly progression of ideas.

By Rabbi Eliezer Halon

THE EVOLUTION OF TEACHING CHASSIDUS

The literal meaning of “Rebbe” is “teacher.” Indeed, among the manifold superlative qualities of the seven Rebbes of Chabad-Lubavitch, all have been outstanding teachers. In every generation, they have sought to explain the deepest spiritual philosophical concepts in terms comprehensible to those on a far lower spiritual level and with far less knowledge than they, in order to inspire and teach them how to become closer to Hashem.

In fact, one of the most illustrative analogies Chabad Chassidus employs to explain various profound concepts is that of a teacher and his student (“rav v’talmid”). From the many instances of this analogy’s use by all our Rebbeim, we learn much about the ideal teacher-student relationship, the teaching and learning process, and how the teacher should approach the great responsibility of education.

The Alter Rebbe (1745-1812), the founder of Chabad, launched his unique approach to Chassidus by organizing exceptionally gifted young scholars into three groups, known as “Cheider Alef, Cheider Beis, and Cheider Gimmel.” Cheider (literally “a room”) usually refers, of course, to elementary classes for young boys until their early teens. But the Alter Rebbe’s students were required to be prodigies well-versed in the entire Gemara, both the Talmud Bavli and the Talmud Yerushalmi, besides having expertise in the major works of Jewish philosophy and familiarity with the Zohar, the central work of Kabbala. With such special students, the Alter Rebbe had a receptive audience capable of grasping the profound concepts of Chabad Chassidus as he developed them in steadily greater breadth and depth.

Each of the Alter Rebbe’s successors, generation after generation, had his own unique approach to developing and explaining the concepts of Chassidus. Each of the Rebbeim was a superb teacher who brought these concepts down to the level of Chassidim in his generation through his maamarim, which, while based on his predecessors’ maamarim and explanations, had their own style and flavor.

The fifth Rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab, had such a unique style of presentation that the most respected elder Chassidim of his time entitled him “the Rambam of Chassidus.” The Rambam’s great Mishneh Torah code, which embraces the entire corpus of Torah law, is renowned for its unparalleled clarity. Drawing from all the multiple authoritative texts of the previous thousand years of Rabbinic literature – often written in difficult language and not necessarily compiled in intuitive order – the Rambam created a vast, comprehensive and encyclopedic legal code explaining in orderly manner the rules of every mitzvah in clear language and simple terms, proceeding logically from the mitzvah’s general principles to its more specific details. Similarly, the Rebbe Rashab drew from many thousands of Chabad discourses by his predecessors (the Alter Rebbe, the Mitteler Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek and the Rebbe Maharash) and, based on them, explained the most profound concepts in clear terms, comprehensively and in an orderly progression of ideas.

Nevertheless, most of the Rebbe Rashab’s works are not easy for the uninitiated to understand. To appreciate and study them properly, some preparation is needed by studying various works of the previous and later Rebbeim that provide an introduction to the style and central subjects of Chabad Chassidus.

Fortunately, we can learn the Rebbe Rashab’s approach to teaching Chassidus from a source that is easily accessible. In a letter (Igros Kodesh of Rebbe Rayatz, Vol. 4, p. 71), his son, the Frierdike Rebbe briefly recounts how his father, before fully accepting the leadership as Rebbe, taught Chassidus to a group of adult men in the winter of 5650 (1889-1890), The lesson, on weekday evenings, was on Torah Or, the classic collection of discourses by the Alter Rebbe on the weekly Torah portions of B’Reishis, Shmos, Chanuka and Megillas Esther (which many Chassidim to this day continue to study week by week through the winter, and, later during the summer, the Alter Rebbe’s Likkutei Torah). 

The Rebbe Rashab’s audience included perhaps ten individuals who had some knowledge of Chabad Chassidus, probably at varying levels. The rest were not as Torah-knowledgeable in general and would have understood relatively little of the class’s subject matter without assistance. Such a varied audience obviously presents special challenges to any lecturer.

The Rebbe introduced each lesson by giving a general overview of the entire content of the text he was about to teach. After this introduction, he read and explained each section of the text. On completing each sub-subject, the Rebbe summarized the content of the section just studied before proceeding further. On completing the entire lesson, he again summarized everything taught in the whole lesson.

The subjects of Chassidus are profound and highly intellectual. The purpose of Chassidus, however, is not for its deep concepts to remain purely in the realm of intellect. They are intended to influence one’s character, down to the level of thought, speech and actual deed. For this reason, the Rebbe always concluded his Chassidus lesson by emphasizing some aspect of Avodas Hashem alluded to in the text just studied, usually illustrating it with a meaningful narrative – about tzaddikim or Chassidim, etc. – or with a brief and interesting inspirational talk.

This regular study in general and particularly the inspiring talks and narratives that concluded each lesson left a profound impression upon the listeners. Over time, some of the participants became inspired to begin working on themselves in accordance with the unique Chabad approach to Avodas Hashem. They started to spend more time on their daily prayers, reciting them more slowly and carefully, with greater attention to their meaning, and to saying the words with deeper sincerity. In tandem with this advance in the quality of their prayer, they started to conduct themselves according to the exalted values and virtuous practices of Chabad Chassidus.

A METHODICAL APPROACH 

This vignette of the Rebbe Rashab’s early work of Hafatzas HaMaayanos – bringing the wellsprings of Chassidus to other Jews, even to those already to some degree under its influence – provides us with illuminative insight into the desirable approach to teaching in general. Teachers at every level, from elementary to advanced post-secondary educators, can learn much from this approach.

It’s not enough to teach a lesson understood only by the top of the class. A conscientious teacher wants all the students to advance in the subject studied. So it is of crucial importance to ensure that no students get lost in the course of the lesson.

Besides the obvious necessity for the teacher first to have the subject absolutely clear in his own mind, it is important to explain the subject at every opportunity, particularly if it is difficult. On launching each lesson – whether verses of Chumash, or a Mishna or a passage of Gemara or Chassidus – the teacher should not plunge straight into the text, but should open with an overview, in general terms, of what the class is about to learn. Only then can he start reading and translating the text, accompanied by his explanations, which can now refer back to his initial overview so that the students make the appropriate connections.

At every turn in the lesson, upon completing each brief passage or concept, the conscientious teacher summarizes again what has just been learned. And at the lesson’s conclusion, he summarizes once more, this time the entire lesson.

With the study portion of the lesson now completed, it would seem that the teacher can surely lean back with satisfaction at having successfully communicated the subject to all the students. But the Rebbe’s lesson did not finish there. For a lesson to accomplish its purpose, it must conclude on a pleasant and inspiring note.

The pleasantness is crucial because it is what prompts the students to want to study more. Indeed, that is our daily request of G-d (in Birchos HaTorah): “Make pleasant…the words of Your Torah in our mouth and in the mouth of all Your people…” Particularly in the present generation, when students at all levels have so many distractions, giving such a pleasant feeling about their studies is an absolute necessity.

Besides the pleasantness, however, it is also crucial to inspire our students to let Hashem’s Torah influence their character and deeds. That is why it is so important to finish any lesson with some practical inspiration that evokes joy to be Jews privileged to fulfill G-d’s desire for us to elevate this world by studying His holy Torah and fulfilling His mitzvos.

An inspiring story usually satisfies both these requirements – leaving the students with a pleasant feeling and inspiring them to practical improvement.

This methodical, general approach to teaching any subject also trains students to learn in an orderly manner, accustoming them to review frequently what they have studied and “archiving” each aspect of their studies in appropriate mental categories, so that they clearly grasp the similarity and difference between related topics.

The window this provides us into the Rebbe Rashab’s practical approach to effective teaching is just one example of what we can learn from the narratives of our Rebbeim, and of tzaddikim and Chassidim in general. May we have the wisdom to learn these positive lessons and to pass them on to the next generation, speeding the revelation of Moshiach now.

 

 

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