Switching Tracks

(Image from Flickr)
I was recently asked a very interesting question during an interview for a volunteer position.  The question was, “What is my style of parenting”?
I answered that I tend to be somewhat strick but within large parameters, so that there’s flexibility and a feeling of making a choice.  In truth, I’ve been working on being more laid back since the kids started up in school again.  Prior to being asked the question, I had been giving my parenting skills a lot of thought over the past two months.  My wife has pointed out that I’m, at times, somewhat demanding about little things, especially after my kids have spent almost eight hours in their day school.  As a product of the public school system, I really don’t know what it’s like to deal with both a duel-curriculum and a long day at such a young age.  My wife was right (as usual), I was putting emphasis on the wrong things and at the wrong time.
I had been wanting to write about this for quite some time, especially after reading something that R Nosson Kamenetsky wrote in Making of a Godol regarding Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka and his derech of Mussar within the Slabodka Yeshiva (Knesses Yisroel), the yeshiva he started.  The following is from page 57:

By 5664 (1904), with Russia’s humiliating defeat in its war with Japan, the winds of Socialist revolution blowing through the Russian cities and villages for decades increase in velocity.  By 5665 (1905) they had reached hurricane force and sucked in a sizable number of yeshiva students- including a son of R’ Noson-Zvi.  The anti-Musar forces merged with the revolutionary element to endanger the very existance of the yeshiva.  To the good for fortune of both yeshivoth [Knesses Beis Yitzchak and the Alter’s yeshiva], when the revolution was quashed, the goverment clampdown on all Socialist sympathizers cleared the yeshivoth of their troublesome elements.  R’ Frankel’s stance through the first years of the crisis was perceived by many as passive and weak, and evoked sharp criticism within his yeshiva.  But beneath this outwardly inert pose, cataclysmic changes were evolving.  The Alter was metamorphosing his educational technique, and ultimately, when he personally was struck with the tragedy of his son’s apostasy, a new approach to Musar crystallized inside him.  No longer did he dwell on the weakness of humanity.  He turned instead to reflect on man’s potential for greatness.  His shmuessen (“conversations”, musar talks) began concentrating on the sublimity of Adam before the Sin, on the superiority of the Patriarchs, on the grandeur of Biblical figures, on the loftiness of the Generation of Wisdom hearing the Word of G-d in the desert- and on how every individual can reach those dizzying heights.

So, it seems that even though the Alter started out with one particular derech, he realized that there was another route that would allow him to arrive at his destination.  I read this passage two months ago.  I’ve been reading it every day since then, prior to my hisbodedus.  While it is far easier for me to pick apart things that my children don’t do, it takes effort and strength to be able to help build them up.  To be hypercritical about clothes being thrown on the floor, is really not the most important thing in the world.  Letting your children know that you believe in them and their innate greatness is probably more important.

I think that’s what the Alter realized.  To change one’s battle plan midway though the war means that you have both humility and confidence in what you feel is right.  It takes much strength to accept what the real emes (truth) is.  I’m sure there were murmurs throughout Slabodka and Kovno (just across the river Vilna) when the Alter’s Mussar started focusing on Galdus HaAdam (the greatness of man).  While I could not find any biographical information about what ultimately happened to Rav Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel’s son, I do know that Slabodka and it’s talmidim became one of the most influential forces with the yeshiva world.  Probably because the Alter of Slabodka chose a track that builds, not one that breaks.

9 thoughts on “Switching Tracks

  1. DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي)

    Great post! It also reflects the fact, which the Alter recognized, that different generations often come from very different places spiritually, and therefore adapting one’s emphasis in the bechinos of the Torah are appropriate for each generation. For instance, the prior generations may have been more rooted in “yirah” so the approach of humility and katnus ha’adam connected more to those generations. Whereas later generations may have come from the bechina of ahava, so that the approach connected to that mida was now appropriate. And this is why the Alter changed course. And, as you said, the ability recognize changed circumstances, and have the anivus to change is such a testament to the Alter’s greatness.

  2. N

    the idea of change is alien to many frum yidden unfortunately, which bothers me ever so much. people in my community are very averse to differently dressed people for example.

  3. Neil Harris

    Just check out what the Chumash says regarding the Shevatim. We all are somewhat different. It’s important to look for common demoninators.
    Thanks for commenting, N.

  4. Micha Berger

    The Gadlus haAdam / Shefeilus haAdam does not really represent the sources as they look to me. After all, the Alter of Novhardok’s book is titled Madreigas haAdam — and it wasn’t about the lowly “Level of Man”! I think the problem is that we’re trying to fit Kelm or Novhardok into Slabodka’s terms. It’s more like dependency on and trust in G-d vs a reflection of and partner with Him.

    Also, Gadlus haAdam may be used in Ohr haTzafun more often WRT the people you encounter than self image. Treating others with an awareness that they are nothing less than reflections / children of the Almighty.

    None of which touches your thesis. To continue your discussion with DY… I think we all need to be aware of when our own children don’t fit the mold of the community we ourselves most identify with. We are all unique — our own children aren’t us. A kid who can’t sit still, read well, or simply doesn’t catch on as fast as others, who is told that his primary avodah is learning has real reason to give up on Orthodoxy. Who wants to stay in a system that asks me to see myself as second-rate? On the other hand, a girl who sees her parents discussing sanctifying the world we’re in with hifalutin terms, but is disenchanted with the number of times her neighbors and parents lose the battle against the negative temptations of Western Society, is also likely to leave. We created a society where leaving observance altogether is thought of as an option before considering becoming Mod O or a “chnyuk”. While lowering the walls won’t solve the At Risk issue, it would help.

    As for what caused the change the Alter was trying to address, my guess is relative affluence. When most of the students came from towns like Tevye’s Anatevka, the “stick” was part of life. You lived in a wooden bungalo that let the wind right though with a woodburning stove in some of the rooms. By 1881 (when the Alter arrived in Slabodka) more of the boys were coming from homes with brick, and increasingly with indoor plumbing. They needed more “carrot”, less “stick” because suffering wasn’t as accepted part of life altogether.

  5. yitzi turner

    Wow so nice to perspective on gadlus haadam!! Never knew or heard this , that the alter was originally kelm mussar then switched to galus haadam
    I especially like it cause people take mussar like Torah, that it’s with a mesorah, and this is the derech hamusar . Seems like whatever works for the person and generation, works

    1. admin

      Thanks for the comment. What you are saying is very true. For me, it boils down to growth and what I need to learn and do to get closer to Hashem.

      1. Yitzi Turner

        When I first read this here, it really shifted my thinking and being a “Baal Shita”. I saw from this that the only Shita is whatever you, talmidim or generation needs


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