Zman Matan Toraseinu is upon us, the time when my toddler starts asking me: is Hashem going to give us the Torah again this year?
Indeed, we are meant to feel as if He truly does – which, as Chassidus teaches us, is really the case. But how do we inspire this feeling of receiving the Torah all over again in ourselves and our children?
The Frierdiker Rebbe said that every person must occasionally sit down, close their eyes, and imagine themselves standing at Har Sinai and receiving the Torah.
And there is so much to imagine! The sounds, the sights, and then the stillness, all preceding Hashem’s voice giving us the infinite gift of “Anochi.”
As educators, a primary goal of ours must be to capture our students’ imagination in this way, forging a deep connection to Torah and Yiddishkeit. Koach hadimyon, the power of imagination, is a major theme in Chassidus. In Likkutei Diburim, the Frierdiker Rebbe writes:
Not only do thought and imagination have the power to place a person in the distant past, to the point that here, in his present situation, he is enabled to experience things long since seen with the same sensations as he then experienced, but moreover, now that he is older and more experienced, with a certain lifetime behind him, he is able to view the same events more perceptively. (Likkutei Diburim, volume 1, p. 237)
The Frierdiker Rebbe then goes on to say, “In my thoughts and imagination I often relive sights which I first saw in Lubavitch at different times…”, and describes in great and vivid detail the heartfelt celebrations of the Yomim Tovim in Lubavitch of yore. As educators, how do we paint a picture of Yiddishkeit, and Chassidishkeit, for our students, that they can thoroughly identify with and will remain with them for life?
1. Morah Chaya Estreicher, a first grade teacher, took the Frierdiker Rebbe quite literally in taking her students outside to lie on the grass and close their eyes, listening to the silence, while learning about Matan Torah. That was surely a lesson to remember! On another day, her students held a mock court-case to simulate the debate over whether Malachim or the Yidden should receive the Torah.
The Gemara teaches us that if learning is (ערוכה ברמ”ח איברים שלך, משתמרת” (עירובין נ”ד ע”א” – the more parts of us we involve in the learning, the more it “sticks.” At all age levels, in almost any lesson, the five senses can be involved. Common techniques might include: A picture put on the board for students to discuss; props brought in for the students to see and manipulate; building 3-D models or creating illustrations about what was learned; students doing particular motions at a particular part of a story or lesson; acting out a scenario as, or after, it is learned, and a teacher – or students – in costume. (One has to weigh for the individual students or lesson, as well as the teacher’s classroom management style, as to whether the costume or similar will be overly distracting.)
Stories Done Right
2. Stories are powerful, as most teachers will tell you, but looking at stories through the lense of koach hadimyon gives us new understanding of their capacity to teach and inspire. When we tell a story, we are not conveying something to our students – us giving something over to them. On the contrary, as the Frierdiker Rebbe illustrates, when we tell a story we are inviting our students into a new experience that we are creating for them.
We do this by telling stories carefully and intentionally: Focus on details and savor them, asking students to stop occasionally to imagine a scene or sensation. Use terminology students understand (and if there are any words or phrases that students need to know, explain them before the story, or if necessary take a pause to ensure that everyone is with you before continuing on). Slow down!
Stories are not babysitting – when done right, they are teaching. Reb Elye Chaim Roitblatt, a legendary Mechanech, used to tell his students two stories daily. Once, he had to punish his students – so he took away one of the stories. But one story had to remain, because to him, a story is Chinuch.
3. Journals are a powerful tool. When used in focused ways, they can fit into a variety of subjects and formats, all serving the same purpose – to help students internalize their learning. This can range from one sentence (even dictated) and/or a picture in first grade, to comprehensive essays in older grades.
In fourth grade, my students kept a Tefilla Journal. After learning about the translation as well as deeper meanings of a Tefilla, students wrote what that Tefilla made them think about (after a thorough hakdama about what this means). Some of their entries were profound, some were more simple, and some students drew pictures or comic strips instead of writing – but all of them were enthusiastic and sincere.
In eighth grade, students kept a Chassidus Journal. Every week, they chose one idea from our various subjects within Chassidus – Tanya, Sichos, etc. – to write about how they can apply it to their lives. Again, entries varied, but the requirements were few and therefore students expressed themselves freely. The key with journals is to to provide a few, specific and undemanding requirements to give students a framework, and keep positive feedback flowing. Students can have the option to fold over a page and keep it private.
As we learn in Hayom Yom (י”ד מנחם אב), “u’kney lecha chaver” can also mean “your pen (kaneh) is your friend.” Writing helps us experience what we learn emotionally, not just intellectually, enabling us to internalize it in a lasting and personal way.
4. Reading is an activity which many children escape into, entering a world of their imagination. We can harness this by providing students with reading material that invites them into worlds of Torah and Chassidishkeit.
Whether through Hey Teiveis book reports, summer reading incentives, or other ways, there are so many opportunities to provide students with reading material that can both capture their imaginations and ignite their neshamos! The Frierdiker Rebbe’s writings, published in the Memoirs, the Makings of Chassidim, and similar, beckon students into the world of Chassidus. Older students, especially those who love to read, can be introduced to Likkutei Dibburim.
One of the first endeavors of Lubavitch in America was publishing books for youth and children, and Rabbi Nissen Mandel, a brilliant thinker and prolific writer, was instructed to focus his prodigious talents on works for children! Our Rebbeim well understood the need to capture a child’s heart for Yiddishkeit, as well as the way to do so.
Not Just a Test
5. Finally, if we hope that the learning sticks as we are teaching it, then we need to check afterwards if it was absorbed as deeply as intended. Spit-back and factual tests or quizzes are necessary for assessing concrete knowledge. However, in order to see if something was absorbed deeply and fully – we need to ask our students to reproduce it in their own way.
When a student is asked to summarize something in their own words, either orally or in writing, they show that they have understood the concepts and have made them fully their own. For other students, creating an artistic depiction is a better representation of their understanding. The ability to express a new idea in original terms is stressed in numerous sources in Chassidus, including about the power of speech: we are taught that someone who explains something to another, understands it much more deeply than before.
Let us use all the tools that our Rebbeim gave us to turn on our students hearts and minds to Yiddishkeit. As educators, we have the power to make sure that our students really experience Kabolas HaTorah as their own, b’simcha u’bipnimiyus, on Shavuos and every other day of the year.
After nearly a decade as a teacher and curriculum director, Mrs. Chanah Rose has taken her passion for education to the next level in her role as MEF’s educational director, where she works with teachers, schools and other constituents to bring MEF’s lofty educational goals to life in the classroom. Mrs. Rose also leads the women’s division of TIP.