|11 Shevat 5779||
Over the last 14 years, I have asked this question to over 200,000 students, in 345 Mesivtos, Bais Yaakovs, and Day schools in America, Canada, and England. The overwhelming majority of them had tremendous difficulty articulating a coherent, compelling, and correct answer. Let’s understand – they were unable to effectively answer the most important question of their lives!
I became aware of the magnitude of this problem after seeing the answers given in a survey that I distributed around 12 years ago to over 2000 Yeshiva, Bais Yaakov, and Day school students – and also based on a tremendous amount of anecdotal evidence.
I asked the students to provide me with an anonymous answer to the following question: “Iy’h you will remain frum your whole life – why?” 97% gave the profoundly weak answer of “that’s the way I was brought up”, or “we were brainwashed”. Three percent gave the correct answer, which is because the Torah is Emmes! Why is the answer of “that’s the way I was brought up” profoundly weak? Because 2000 Moslem and Christian students will give exactly the same answer! Our students are incapable of providing a qualitatively better answer than the Gentiles? Shall we send them out to an endless war with the Satan and Yetzer Harah, and the reason they think they are frum is due to an accident of birth?
Over the years, dozens of principals, from “unzerer mosdos”, have placed panicked phone calls to our office, and they continue to call me on an almost daily basis, asking me to meet with yet another student who has “serious hashkafah questions”. Questions on Emunah, Bitachon, Hashgachah, Bechirah, Tefillah, Tzaddik Vera Lo, or simply a kid who does not care about anything.
Hundreds of Bais Medresh bachurim and seminary girls have set up appointments with me over the years to discuss their so-called “big kashas” on Yiddishkeit. And they DO have serious questions which, of course, can all be effectively answered.
For example, I am constantly asked:
A) How do we know Hashem exists?
B) How do we know the Torah is true? There are three billion Moslems and Christians who are convinced that THEIR religion is the Emmes?
C) Why did Hashem create the world?
D) Why did he create goyim?
E) Why does Hashem care if I am frum?
F) The Creator of the universe really cares if my skirt covers my knees? I can’t be a nice moral person without covering my elbows?
G) Because Hashem rested on Shabbos, I have to rest? And if I don’t want to rest I am Chayav Misah? And if you tell me that Shabbos is a wonderful matanah from Hashem – well, no thank you, I don’t want the gift - and now you are going to kill me because I don’t want to accept this gift?
H) We are supposed to live our whole life for a future Olam Haboh that nobody ever saw, and nobody knows exactly what it is, and its existence isn’t even mentioned in the Torah?
And the answers to these basic questions are all readily available in dozens of Seforim, including the easily accessible ones of the Ramchal, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, and Rabbi Avigdor Miller!
When our students confront the outside world, is it not inevitable that they will hear about or meet Christians and Moslems who also claim to have the emmes?
They won’t meet Christians or Moslems who also claim to have a mesorah?
They won’t meet happy and fulfilled goyim?
They won’t meet happy and spiritual non-frum Jews?
They won’t take courses, or read books, newspapers, and internet blogs that are full of very sophisticated kefirah?
Although it is an indisputable fact that our current Chinuch system has been extraordinarily successful, and that its growth – both quantitatively and qualitatively – is unprecedented in Jewish history, it is also an indisputable and painful fact that we are all experiencing difficulties with conveying to the minds and hearts of many of our talmidim the truth and beauty of Yiddishkeit.
Our students are spending numerous years in a fantastic chinuch system. Nevertheless, many of our students emerge without having acquired compelling reasons for their frum lifestyle. They are unable to explain to themselves, or to others, why they are shomrei Torah Umitzvos. Many do not have the answers to the most fundamental questions about Yiddishkeit – and this will chas veshalom plague them throughout their lives and, in many cases, after the inevitable nisyonos pop up in their lives, will undermine and dilute their Avodas Hashem and Yiras Shamayim.
The only answer and solution to this problem is that we must arm our students with the unquestionable and unshakable realization that we have a Toras Emmes, and a Toras Chaim. Toras Emmes means that our students know, and are capable of demonstrating, that 3323 years ago Hashem appeared before three million of our grandparents and gave them the Torah She-Biksav and the Torah She’beal Peh - and therefore, despite any pain they may have experienced, the Torah still remains True! And they must also know and feel that we have a Toras Chaim.That it’s good to be frum. That it’s geshmak! That the only sane, intelligent, and pleasurable way to lead your life is to be a shomer Torah Umitzvos.
Teachers must therefore educate themselves. They must learn how to effectively explain to their students the fundamentals of Yiddishkeit. And we are not talking here about learning or teaching the Moreh Nevuchim! It’s the basic classical issues that are dealt with decisively in the sifrei rishonim, achronim, and in the seforim of today’s Gedolim. (Please see our Reading List at www.projectchazon.com). It’s the alef bais of Yiddishkeit! Why did Hashem create the world? How do we know that the Torah is true? Why did He give us the Torah – what’s in it for Him? Aren’t we asking for trouble if we cannot answer these questions correctly, and in a satisfying way?
Teachers are like a defendant on the witness stand, the class is the jury, and the students asking the teachers those difficult and confrontational hashkafah questions are the lawyers. Do we want to look guilty or innocent? If the students see that whenever someone asks these types of questions, we sweat and rub our palms, and look nervous – then no matter what answer we give, we basically lost! We must project confidence in the truth of Yiddishkeit!
I have heard many hundreds of Yeshiva students say “Yiddishkeit, Christianity, whatever – we believe in what we believe, and they believe in what they believe – it’s all the same”. How pathetic and sad! They don’t know the difference between Yiddishkeit and the nonsense being passed off in the street as “religion”? If you ask me what’s the difference between a spoon and a knife, I can respond. But what if you ask me what is the difference between a spoon and a monkey? Our students must know that there is no dimyon whatsoever between Yiddishkeit and everything else out there!
The Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 117) states that “we must explain to our teenage students the reasons and benefits of living a life of Torah and Mitzvos”. Otherwise, he writes, “they will throw away their Yiddishkeit and forsake it forever”. And this was written hundreds of years ago – before internet and cell phones
In 1972, Reb Moshe wrote a Teshuva for Mechanchim wherein he states that Hashem wants us to demonstrate to our students the truth of the Ikrei HaEmunah, and not rely on our students interactions with Tzaddikim, or the fact that everyone around them is a shomer Torah Umitzvos.
Rabbosei - we must realize that we are at War! The Satan is attacking our talmidim’s neshamos, and today’s yetzer harah is armed with Nuclear weapons. When we grew up, the yetzer harah had conventional weapons, but today he has nuclear and biological weapons. If our students go to battle with today’s yetzer harah without a powerful and deep recognition of the truth and beauty of Yiddishkeit, they will be terribly vulnerable. They will not be armed and protected for this lifelong battle.
Our competition waits on every corner, and it has very powerful and sophisticated weapons – internet, videos, exciting tayvos, and sophisticated kefirah. We must decisively demolish the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual competition that the outside world will inevitably offer them!
The entire “kids at-risk” phenomenon is outrageous! For the first time ever, frum kids are running AWAY from Yiddishkeit, as opposed to running TO some other alternative like Communism or Haskallah. Why do we have this problem? Why doesn’t our educational system, and the power of Torah, keep them on the derech, despite the pain in their lives.
One of the reasons is because many of our kids have no idea why they are frum or what Yiddishkeit is really all about. Not long ago, the Skulener Rebbe z”tl would remain awake at nights because of what was happening to our youth today. He said that the reason this is happening is because our children’s knowledge of Yiddishkeit is just surface-level, with no real, heartfelt connection. He advised, as a solution, teaching them the Yesodei HaEmunah.
I once asked Harav Moshe Schapira, shlita, why some kids are going off the derech. His response was “Hamotzi meichaveiro alav hareiyah”! If you want to prevent the kids from living a lifestyle that they perceive to be very easy, pleasurable, and exciting, you must first bring proof for why they should be following the Torah’s lifestyle.
If the reason kids are frum is because that’s the way they were brought up, mitzvos anashim milumada, and it’s simply a convenient lifestyle, then it is easily expendable when they get very angry or experience pain, and then it’s worth throwing away in order to get back at their parents, or to make a statement, or to express their independence.
We must fortify our children with Emunah, and an understanding of the truth and value of the Torah, and to teach them WHY they should value the Torah so much that, no matter what happens in their lives, they will never consider throwing it away.
If Yiddishkeit is on offense and scoring points, the outside world won’t have a chance. Our students must know with absolute conviction that we have a Toras Emmes - Asher Bachar Banu Mikol Haamim. And they must also recognize that we have a Toras Chaim and that Torah is good and beautiful – Ashreynu Mah Tov Chelkaynu.
Only then can we be assured that, Bezras Hashem Yisbarach, our talmidim will love Hashem, Torah, and Klal Yisrael.