Posts Tagged Education and Parenting

In Memoriam — Rav Ephraim Oratz z”l

proverbs-6How do you start to describe the one person most responsible for launching you on the path that has defined you for nearly a quarter century?

I never had any great desire to be a classroom teacher until I found myself under the tutelage of Rabbi Ephraim Oratz, whose unparalleled pedagogic genius and vast reservoir of Torah knowledge inspired me to embark upon my career as a rebbe.  Whatever I have accomplished in the field of Torah education is primarily because of him.

Rav Oratz was — if I may be permitted to use the term — the ultimate Torah-Renaissance man.  He possessed the passion of the Amshinover chassidim, theyekkishe precision of the German Jews, the academic discipline of the Lithuanian scholars, and the worldly nobility of Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, all rolled up — as Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz would say — into one selfless, total servant of the Almighty.

Rav Oratz was truly of the old school, with countless stories about growing up in the post-depression years, about learning and teaching in the old American day school system, about playing stickball on the streets of New York.  He told me once how his father had to go out every Monday morning to find new employment, because his Sabbath-observance cost him his job time and time again.  More incredibly, Rav Oratz didn’t learn of this until years later; his parents kept the children in the dark so they wouldn’t feel insecure.

In our coddled generation, that kind of mesiras nefesh — self-sacrifice — is almost entirely forgotten.

Coddling was one term absent from Rav Oratz’s educational lexicon.  He understood with every fiber of his being that self-esteem is not given, it is acquired by learning discipline and discovering the joy that comes from struggle and success.  He never acknowledged good work with exuberant cries of excellent, fantastic, or well done.  Instead he responded with a silent nod, a quick smile, a short nu, nu or, on one extraordinary occasion, with not bad, not bad at all.  That was high praise indeed.

Rav Oratz would arrive exactly two minutes before each class, replace his hat with his yarmulke in one smooth, practiced motion, then look inscrutably around the room, which was usually less than half full when it was time to begin.  On one occasion, when there were only two of us present on time, he looked at me and asked, “Is something else going on this evening?”

I shrugged my shoulders.  Rav Oratz shook his head.  “Just one of those things I guess I’ll never understand,” he said.

There weren’t many things Rav Oratz didn’t understand.  In two years of classes I never heard him unable to answer a question, although he could hold his tongue indefinitely when he wanted us to come up with the answers on our own.

“Wouldn’t you have hated to have him as a rebbe?” a member of the Ohr LaGolah leadership-training program once commented — after Rav Oratz was safely out of earshot.

“Wouldn’t you love to have had him as a rebbe now?” I shot back.

There’s nothing more inspirational than witnessing a true master do something as well as it can be done.  Watching Rav Oratz teach made me want to be a teacher.  That was it.  My course in life was set, without prompting, without a sales pitch, with just enough encouragement to convince me that I could succeed if I put my heart into it.  And I wanted nothing more than to do what he could do, even if I did it only half as well he could.


Read the whole essay here.

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Why are you missing out?

What does the bar-headed goose have to teach us about striking spiritual balance in our lives?  Is the separation of church and state really as fundamental to the constitution as everyone thinks it is?  When is stress really a good thing?

If you’ve been following my new blog, you know the answers.

imagesBut for some reason, the majority of you who follow this blog have not switched over to my main blog

If you’ve enjoyed my articles up to now, why miss out by not updating your subscription?  Just click on the link and look for the “follow” button, then add in your email as you did when you began following Torah Ideals.  Alternatively, send me an email and I’ll sign you up myself.  You can reach me at yonasongoldson [at]

I look forward to hearing from you.


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A collection of insightful Torah essays that will change the way you look at the world and at yourself.

A Crucible for Silver
Forging a brighter future for our children and ourselves

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Read the title essay here.

Available at Block Yeshiva High School, the Kollel bookstore, or from the author

$18 Donation (+ $3 postage)
All proceeds go to Block Yeshiva

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Building character and acquiring a civil tongue

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In 1972, comedian George Carlin made headlines with his routine “7 words you can never say on television.” And although the FCC still limits what can be broadcast over the airways, the rise of cable TV long ago ensured that you can say – or hear, or see – just about anything on television.

But even this doesn’t show how much standards of refinement have changed.

Older readers will remember Johnny Carson, the legendary host of the Tonight Show whose 30-year tenure preceded that of Jay Leno. But not so many remember Mr. Carson’s predecessor, Jack Paar, and fewer still will recall why he left the show.

In the opening monologue one night, Mr. Paar uttered the expression “W.C.,” a mostly-forgotten anachronism meaning Water Closet, yet another anachronism meaningbathroom. The censors bleeped the term as profane. Mr. Paar quit the show in protest.

The story strikes as comical, and we can’t help rolling our collective eyes at the overzealous censors who couldn’t tell real profanity from the merely indelicate. But when it comes to values, we can’t escape the inevitable objection: who gets to decide where to draw the line?

And so, too often, no line gets drawn at all. That’s not good for us. And it’s even worse for our children. Because what gets lost with the line is something that was once called character.

Read the whole article here.


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Double Down for Spiritual Success

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson


From last week’s Mishpacha Magazine

imgresIt’s been more than a few decades since grade school, and most of my teachers have long ago faded from memory. But not my first-grade teacher. Not Mrs. Campbell.

The reason is simple: I hated her. We all hated her.

My second-most poignant memory of Mrs. Campbell is the time I came to her during recess with a stomachache bad enough to make me cry. Mrs. Campbell said it was my conscience bothering me for talking during class.

But it is a different incident that replays most often in my memory. Mrs. Campbell had left the class alone for a few minutes while she went off to do who-knows-what, instructing us to wait without talking until she returned. How an experienced teacher could leave a room full of six-year-olds unattended and expect them to remain silent remains an unsolved mystery. Predictably, we began chattering the moment the door closed behind her and then, too late, buttoned our collective lips the instant she reappeared.

“I said that no one should talk while I was gone,” she scolded. “Now, when I dismiss you for lunch, everyone who was talking will remain seated and only those who followed directions will stand up to be excused.” She paused to let the instructions sink in, then said, “Stand up to go to lunch.”

Every single child in the room stood up. Everyone, except me.

Mrs. Campbell then broke character and did what any competent educator would do. “Now I know that Jonathan wasn’t the only one talking,” she said. “Since he told the truth, he is excused for lunch and the rest of you will have to wait.”

imagesI tried not to look smug as I walked out alone and headed for my locker, already imagining the day when I would tell my children about the time I was the only one who told the truth. (Eventually I did, although my kids were not nearly as impressed as they ought to have been.)

Full disclosure: I am not George Washington, and if I were ever caught chopping down a cherry tree it’s an even bet I would have lied about it, to go along with the assortment of fibs I told during my formative years. And although I now look back on Mrs. Campbell with a measure of affection, the question that continues to resurface is why – why was I the only one out of two dozen first-graders who refused to lie that afternoon?

Only one explanation has ever come to mind: it just wasn’t worth it.

In Robert Bolt’s masterful drama A Man for all Seasons, Sir Thomas More asks why his protégé, Richard Rich, has testified falsely to condemn Sir Thomas for treason against the King of England. The prosecutor, Oliver Cromwell, reports that Rich has been appointed attorney-general for Wales.

Sir Thomas looks into Rich’s face with pain and amusement and replies, “For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . But for Wales!”

(In terms of prestige, the office of attorney-general for pre-Elizabethan Wales might be comparable to lieutenant-governor of North Dakota today.)

In other words, the betrayal of a friend and mentor might be understandable – if not defensible – for a princely sum or extraordinary power, but never for a pittance. At least let the reward be commensurate with the crime when forsaking one’s portion in the World to Come.

I imagine the workings of my own mind so many years ago in much the same way. Certainly I was capable of lying. But why waste a perfectly good lie on such a trivial advantage as a few extra minutes on the playground? It simply wasn’t worth it.

And even though I have already confessed to the occasional untruth, I cannot deny that from that moment forward lying never came easy to me. Every impulse to prevaricate met a quiet but insistent voice – Mrs. Campbell’s? – warning me to distance myself from the nearest false word.

imagesIn hindsight, it seems obvious that Mrs. Campbell had reinforced some innate sensitivity to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s lesson of s’char mitzvah k’neged hefseida: “Calculate the reward of a transgression against its cost” (Avos 2:1). If that lesson appears to have grown increasingly incomprehensible to our generation, quite possibly it is because we can no longer appreciate the preceding lesson, “Calculate the cost of a mitzvah against its reward.”


In his classic essay on the nekudas habechirah – the point of free will – Rav Dessler explains that the clash between yetzer hara and yetzer tov rages on the battlefront where there is an even balance between the ratzon ha’emes and the ratzon hadimyon, between our perception of truth as it is and our perception of truth as we want it to be. For those of us willing to take a cold, hard look at ourselves, Rav Dessler’s formulation offers a solid defense against the relentless erosion of priorities.

The unpleasant truth is that we give far too little thought to either the value of our mitzvos or the consequences of our transgressions. If we did, would we consistently scurry into davening even five minutes late, let alone stroll in halfway through Pesukei D’zimra? Would we find trivial small talk so compelling that we casually interrupt Chazaras Hashatz and Torah reading, indifferent to the warnings of Shulchan Aruch?

Too often, we are utterly disconnected from the lessons that are right before our eyes. Pictures of the Chofetz Chaim hang in every house without making a perceptible dent in the steady flow of lashon hara. Shammai tells us to greet every person pleasantly, yet we can’t manage a smile or even a passing glance for either our gentile neighbors or our fellow Jews.

Even when we prevail over the temptation, our victories can be hollow. We make time for learning, but we neglect the review necessary to retain what we learn. We pay for our children’s Torah education, but we begrudge the expense, even though we would willingly lay out the same money for luxuries of no intrinsic value. We sacrifice to give charity, but we bristle or sigh when a knock on the door interrupts our dinner or our recreation.

Clearly, our vision of the emes is anything but clear. What can we do to regain clarity?


Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah offers this allegory:

A man went to the pond to cut a bundle of reeds. It was too heavy for him to lift, so he cut more and laid the new bundles atop the first until someone came along and helped him carry them all (Bechoros 8b).

imagesExplains the Vilna Gaon: Because the Jewish people neglected the Torah, they found themselves exiled from their land. Nevertheless, we – their descendants – persevere in keeping the mitzvos. Despite the added hardships of exile, we shoulder the additional burdens of rabbinic mitzvos – like the reed-cutter adding to his load even though he cannot carry what he already has – all the time waiting for Moshiach to redeem us so that we can resume our proper service before the Master of All.

We have to refocus so that we see things as they really are. And, simplistic as it may seem, the way to take things more seriously is to treat things more seriously. Can’t get to davening on time? Schedule your arrival 15 minutes early to say korbanos or the day’s Tehillim. Feel too strapped to give charity? Double your usual donation.

When approached by a simple Jew who claimed he had only half an hour a week to learn Torah, Rav Yisroel Salanter famously advised him to learn mussar (works of Torah ethics). The baal habayis questioned why Talmud or practical law was not a higher priority, to which Rav Yisroel replied: “Learn mussar, and you’ll find that you have more than half an hour available to learn.”

In other words, by putting in more effort we discover what we should have known all along:  it’s worth it.

And it really works. Taking my cue from Rabbi Benzion Twerski of Milwaukee, I began giving a weekly class in prayer, hoping that my own uninspired davening might benefit from the course of study. Five years and 35 printed outlines later (and still less than halfway through Shemoneh Esrei), my davening has been transformed into a wholly different experience.

And the rewards extend vastly beyond my own tefillos.

On one occasion, when my son was a high school senior, I chided him for the supersonic pace at which he davened. “You don’t understand,” he replied. Then, derisively: “You like to daven!

But the message got through. Imagine my delight when he informed me, a few short years later, that he had just switched to the local Agudah for morning minyan. “That other place davens way too fast,” he complained.

Now there’s a story I can tell his children.

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A Matter of Respect

In memory of my father, Yochanon ben Yaakov, whose neshoma left this world on Rosh Chodesh Adar.  Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 17 June 2001.

imagesI was ten or twelve years old. My father and I had arrived at the stadium early, and I felt a thrill of excitement as we stood up for the Star Spangled Banner. Down on the field, our home team, the Los Angeles Rams, stood in a line holding their helmets under their arms. And in the row in front of us, a middle-aged man stood with his hat perched casually upon his head.

“Take off your hat,” my father said.

The man didn’t respond. “Hey you,” my father said, louder, “take off your hat.”

The man grunted an unintelligible, though clearly dismissive remark.

“You unpatriotic SOB,” growled my father; he didn’t abbreviate, either.

“Dad!” I whispered, mortified and afraid, but also faintly confused. My father had never before demonstrated any dramatic displays of patriotism.

The national anthem ended, the game began, and I guess I forgot about the incident because I never discussed it with my father, never asked him to explain an indignation that seemed entirely out of character.

But now I’m a father myself, and I don’t find my father’s action thirty years ago perplexing at all.

Read the whole article here.

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Why we are unhappy

I have long told my students that people don’t complain because they are unhappy; rather, they are unhappy because they complain.
Rabbi Moshe Grylak, publisher of Mishpacha Magazine, found the same message in last week’s Torah reading (Book of Numbers, Chapter 11).  Here are is an excerpted version (with emphasis added):

The Israelites have been showered with benefits — and now the complaints begin.

The Jewish people are in possession of a perfect and comprehensive system of laws which is destined to have a tremendous positive influence on their spiritual, intellectual, and cultural development. Livelihood is no problem; all their physical needs are provided, and their food descends miraculously from the heavens daily. And then  “it came to pass that the people were like complainers, evil in the ears of G-d.”

The verse doesn’t specify what their complaint was; in fact it implies that they didn’t say anything specific. They were “like complainers,” murmuring discontentedly under their breath, showing vague feelings of dissatisfaction. They felt what they had was no good anymore; they wanted more, although they themselves had no clear idea of what “more” exactly they wanted. Whatever the case, this state of mind indicated a lack of gratitude, giving rise to a sense of deprivation. To put it bluntly, they were whining.

What caused them to whine? The Sages’s answer is incisive:

“They weren’t complaining; rather they were resentful. They were looking for an excuse to break away from G-d” (Yalkut ShimoniBamidbar 732).

Several verses later, we see another outbreak of grumbling:

“And the riffraff among them started having strong cravings.”

Again, we aren’t told what they craved. They were experiencing discomfort; they felt something was lacking, but didn’t know what. One thing was clear: they were not satisfied.

Only after this mood of discontent spread, encompassing a larger portion of the people, did their demands take on a definite form:

“And the Israelites, too, sat down and wept, and they said, ‘Who will give us meat to eat?’”

At that moment, the craving for meat became the central goal, the be-all and end-all for the people of Israel, those same people whom G-d lifted out of Egypt in order to bestow a unique, eternal legacy. But they talked themselves into a craving, and to fulfill that craving, they needed to agitate with all their might. This became their raison d’être, revealing their weak nature.

The craving for meat distorted their mental function; it clouded their memories, causing them to make claims that a person would be ashamed to voice under normal conditions. What were they saying?

“We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”

What sort of mechanism was at work here? Is there a logical explanation for their behavior?

The secret of all this is found in the world chinam — “free.” It was a Freudian slip, pointing to what was really bothering them on a deeper level, the real complaint they were ashamed to talk about. The truth was that they were complaining about the yoke of Torah and mitzvos that had been placed on their shoulders, a yoke meant to restrain their wild human impulses, which had run riot in Egypt, even as they were being enslaved and oppressed. The transition from external subjugation to a state of freedom that required character training and self-restraint was too much for them. It made them feel rebellious and conjured up fanciful memories of the delights of Egypt and the fish they ate there for free.

Yes, it was absurd of them to be demanding meat when they had manna from the heavens, offering them the taste of every food in the world. But when the source of their rebellion, the subconscious rationale underlying it, is revealed, then their behavior becomes comprehensible — and considering where they came from, even understandable.

Perhaps we can see something of ourselves here, something of the permissive society that never stops demanding meat, and destroys all that is good in our world.

Read Rabbi Grylak’s full article here.

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