Monday, June 18, 2007

Stories with Educational Lessons

There is a famous story told of Netziv to encourage students to reach their full potential. The way I heard it, the Netziv said at a seudos hodaah, that as a young boy, he overheard his parents having given up on him as ever amounting to a talmid chachom, and were therefore going to teach him a trade. He then became serious, and later in life reflected that had he not published his Seforim and instead learned a trade, Hashem would have demanded from him the Seforim that he never would have written, and he was therefore thankful for fulfilling his obligation.

Rabbi Bechhofer criticizes this story as having:

disastrous implication is that "not gifted students" should never opt for a career track, because perhaps they can be Gedolim, just like the Netziv. It is the most anti-TIDE story I know, but even more so, enough to impose an eternal guilt trip on so many people who would actually do well to seek a profession and be neheneh me'yegi'a kapeihem.

I exchanged e-mails yesterday with Rabbi Bechhofer and some other people, and I see the point of Rabbi Bechhofer's criticism. I agree that we should look for better stories that convey the point of a person reaching his full potential, and/or that illustrate that people are not always aware what that potential actually is.

However, a rebbe might choose to relate that story(I've heard the story a few times in schmoozen). In such cases, the person telling the story should be put it into context of positive statements regarding TIDE, or chanoch l'naar al pi darko.

In general as well, there are many points that a smart mechanech or parent would do well to put in context, and give some nuance to the lesson, if he or she truly wants to help a child develop, instead of giving them a guilt trip.

On the subject of stories in general, I noted in my e-mail that R. Wolbe (Alie Shur, vol II, pg 296) cautioned against telling stories of gedolim of dubious veracity, as it could lead to a weakening in emunas chachamim; I humorously suggested that perhaps someone should publish a book of stories which are so strange that they must be mistaken.

An example of a story that is so strange as to be untrue, is a story told that R. Akivah Eiger responded, in kind, to a letter-writer addressing him, Ha-Gaon Rashkebahag, saying in humility, that he assumed that this the way all were addressed in letters.

On page 109-110 of R. Hanoch Teller's biography of RSZA, R. Shlomo Zalman told R Avigdor Nebanzahl that this story was not genuine, and was made to riducle RAE, as RAE certainly knew that he was the Rashkebahag and would not use such a title to all who addressed him.

Returning to the Netziv story, the question is not if it is true, but rather if it has a lesson for the typical yeshivah student.

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