I ran away from school crying on my very first day of first grade. Why, you ask? Was the teacher a strict disciplinarian? A cruel tyrant who caused innocent children to cry? Actually he was a kind and gentle man. I ran away because he gave me too much recess.
Let me explain. My family moved to a new neighborhood at the beginning of the school year, into a house right behind the school. I missed the first two days of school and came late on the third. When I walked in to the classroom, the teacher was testing a few children privately. He welcomed me, gave me a kindly smile, and told me that I could go out to recess for now. To the teacher’s utter astonishment, I burst out of the classroom in tears, and ran home bawling “They don’t want to teach me anything!” (I have matured since then. Somewhat.)
Actually, the story is not as strange as it may seem. Most first graders go into school with freshness, an excitement to learn and discover new things, and an innate belief in themselves and their ability to accomplish great things. Not to learn is a disappointment.
Then they actually get to school.
Go into a first grade classroom. The teacher asks a question. Many children excitedly raise their hands, jumping at the opportunity to answer.
Go into an eighth grade classroom. The teacher asks a question. One or two children sheepishly raise their hands and say something to the effect of, “I’m not sure if I’m right, but maybe the answer could like maybe possibly like be . . . but I’m not really sure.”
Pearls of wisdom from my daughter’s eighth-grade yearbook:
First grader: Better late than never!
Eighth grader: Better never than late!
First Day of School:
First grader: I am so excited!
Eighth grader: Only 179 days and counting!
First grader: If I do the extra, I’ll get a smiley face!
Eighth grader: If I skip some questions the teacher probably won’t notice.
You get the idea.
What happened?? They no longer believe in themselves or their abilities.
In this week’s parsha, the Jews are poised to enter the Land of Israel. Moshe sends out scouts to determine the best way to conquer the land. They have G-d’s promise that if they do their job, He’s got their backs, they have nothing to worry about, and their mission will be spectacularly successful. They scout the land and come back with a devastatingly negative report, sending the Jews into depression and panic.
What happened?? They did not believe in themselves or their abilities.
The great sage R’ Yonah of Gerodni writes as follows:
The first gateway to serving G-d is for man to know his own worth and to recognize his lofty stature . . . he should say to himself, “I am a great and important person with many exalted positive attributes. I am a . . . descendant of royal lineage. . .” One should constantly make an effort to appreciate his worth . . .
The scouts came back and reported on the mighty giants they saw. They said: “We were in our own eyes like grasshoppers, and so, too, were we in their eyes.”
Acknowledging that they must have looked like grasshoppers in the eyes of mighty giants was not the problem, not with G-d on their side. But once they saw themselves, in their own eyes, as grasshoppers, they were doomed to failure. It is truly tragic how many students feel more like grasshoppers than giants.
For those who have been beaten down, it is vitally important that they not allow others to define who they are, but rather remind themselves and constantly review the precious words of R’ Yonah. As parents, teachers, spouses, siblings, and friends, we should always keep in mind that we have the choice to build up those around us and treat them like the giants they really are. If we do so they will be giants in their own eyes; if we treat them like grasshoppers, that is, unfortunately, how they will view themselves.
Rabbi Yitzchok Oratz is the Rabbi and Director of the Monmouth Torah Links community. Shortly after receiving his semicha (rabbinic ordination) from Bais Medrash Govoha, the famed Lakewood Yeshiva, Rabbi Oratz, along with his wife Toby and family, moved to Marlboro, NJ where they co-founded the MTL community in 2001. Aside for his “Devar on the Par” that he writes for MTL, his writings have also been published on Aish, Times of Israel, Seforim Blog, Hakira, and in various Rabbinic journals. Rabbi Oratz looks forward to continuing teaching Torah in a way that is timely and timeless, and sharing meaningful Jewish experiences with the amazing MTL community.