Balancing Acts and Education
Chapter 6, Law 10(b)
"A person is obligated to be careful [in dealing] with orphans and widows
since their souls are very lowly and their spirits are down... as it is
stated, 'Every widow and orphan you shall not afflict' (Exodus 22:21)....
(Omitted text quoted in Class 10(a).)
"When is this true? When one afflicts them for his own sake. But when a
teacher disciplines (lit., 'afflicts') them to teach them Torah or a trade,
or in order to direct them on a proper path, it is permitted. Even so, he
must not treat them as everyone else but should treat them differently
(lit., 'make for them a distinction') and treat them with gentleness, great
mercy and with dignity -- for G-d will champion their cause.
"[The above is true regarding] both one orphaned from his father and from
"Until when are [such people] considered orphans regarding this? Until they
do not need a grown person to rely upon, to rear them, and to take care of
them, but rather they can take care of all their needs by themselves as all
We began studying this law last week. The Rambam discussed the prohibition
against oppressing widows and orphans, which as we saw really applies to all
unfortunates -- or to anyone who may be sensitive about real or perceived
This week the Rambam adds an important qualification -- that even with
everything being said about treating the likes of orphans with tender loving
care, it obviously must not come at the expense of spoiling them silly.
Children, even underprivileged ones, must be set straight and disciplined.
There's a common tendency in the liberal media today to basically never hold
the underprivileged accountable for their behavior, be them Palestinians or
inner city youth, since it's really our fault they became so disadvantaged
and angry to begin with. However, regardless of whether or not there's any
validity to such an argument, such treatment is equally counterproductive.
Going too soft on such unfortunates will never bring them to taking
responsibility for themselves or surmount the very real disadvantages fate
has handed them.
(It can also be argued that people who were not blessed with a stable
upbringing require *more* tough-love discipline than less. The child of the
stable home observed decent, responsible behavior in his formative years.
Less discipline is required to bring him back to the values of his roots. A
child, however, who never saw such behavior close up and never developed an
appreciation for goodness may require far harsher measures to lead him to
G-d. See Pirkei Avos 5:21
(www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter5-21b.html) where I discuss this
more fully. R. Eliyahu Dessler views this as one of the bases for
understanding G-d's seeming favoritism of the Jews -- as we did in fact
inherit such sterling characteristics from our ancestors.)
Further, treating the orphan or child of single-parent home too differently
from the rest of the class will do little more than breed jealousy within
the classroom. The other children are not likely to be sophisticated enough
to understand why certain children get away with so much more. And at the
same time, the underprivileged child too will feel "different" and
self-conscious, knowing he is being treated better than the rest. The real
trick is to actually go softer on such kids while acting as if nothing is
All of this raises an important side issue worth mentioning, namely that the
entire concept of a school system is an innovation within Judaism.
Interestingly, the Torah -- which outlines virtually every aspect of Jewish
daily living -- makes no mention of such an institution. And the reason is
because the Torah envisioned that parents themselves would teach their
children: "And you shall teach them clearly to your children..."
(Deuteronomy 6:7). In other words, only a parent -- who truly understands
his child, roots for him, and can offer the tailor-made education he
requires -- should be entrusted with fashioning something so precious and
delicate as a developing mind.
(And incidentally, the education is conveyed equally by the parents'
behavior as by that which they teach their children. And this makes today's
classroom education all the more difficult if the messages the students'
teachers convey differ considerably from the real-life behavior of their
parents. (And of course I'm not talking about the R's but the true Jewish
values a Torah teacher must impart.))
The Talmud (Bava Basra 21a) states that home-schooling was the arrangement
in Israel for all of our early history until Yehoshua ben Gamla (a High
Priest of the late Second Temple era) instituted a school system. Why did he
do so? For the sake of the orphans, who had no fathers to teach them. Rather
than creating special schools for the orphans -- which too would have
marginalized them from ordinary society, R. Yehoshua revolutionized the
entire educational system. If orphans had no fathers to teach them, *all*
children would learn in the classroom without distinction. (A very early
precursor of the public school system; I don't know offhand how far back
such was attempted in the world at large.) And, states the Talmud, if not
for his foresight the Torah would have been forgotten from Israel -- for a
significant portion of our youth would have been left abandoned and uneducated.
(My teacher R. Yaakov Weinberg OBM asked, how could the Talmud state the
Torah would have been *forgotten* from Israel? What about the many children
who *were* blessed with fathers? How great a percentage of orphans could
there have been? 20%? 30%!? Still, the vast majority of children were being
educated! He explained as follows. Had Israel's attitude continued to be,
"It's too bad about all those orphans, but at least my kids are okay," then
the *entire Torah* would have been forgotten. It wasn't just a matter of the
orphans themselves. If *we* could have condoned such an attitude, the entire
message of the Torah would have clearly been lost upon us. If anyone could
say, "So long as I'm alright I can keep going; the orphans aren't *my*
problem," he has clearly missed the point of Judaism in a big way. And
whether or not the rest of us were busy studying Torah texts, the true
message of the Torah would have been forgotten entirely.)
Returning to our subject, the entire educational system as we have it was an
innovation from early Mishnaic times. And as great and necessary as it was,
any innovation, while solving some problems within Israel, invariably
creates new ones. And as we all know, classroom education in which 25 or
more students are forced to study together and at the same pace at the hands
of a single overworked (and probably underpaid) instructor is far from the
ideal -- and really a problem educational institutions have not solved till
this day. Do you gear the curriculum for the better students, leaving the
weaker ones frustrated and behind? Towards the lower half, leaving the
brighter students bored and fidgety? Do you divide the class into smaller
groups, most of which the teacher has no time for? And, of course, there are
always misfits in any group who virtually cannot be worked with. Do you put
a lot of frustrating effort into them, or just ignore them and pass them on
to the next grade, making them someone else's problem? We can go on, but
there's basically no correct solution to such problems as the quandary is
unsolvable. Once the teacher-student ratio is lower than one-to-one,
difficulties immediately arise.
It's thus curious that although as the Rambam here states, the Torah teacher
must go easier on orphans and the like, the very educational system which
was instituted for their sake is poorly served when different children are
treated differently. We thus have yet another manmade institution which
though worthy and necessary is impossible to perfect -- as most things in
this world. And in such a situation -- as in all areas of human endeavor --
we must do our part and strive to make the best of an imperfect world.
(As a final interesting aside, why did the Torah not institute such an
educational system itself if orphans have always been around? Couldn't G-d
have "thought of" the same solution as R. Yehoshua? I discussed a similar
issue once before in Pirkei Avos (3:17
www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter3-17b.html) -- that the Torah
depicts the human condition in its ideal state rather than dealing with the
needs and vagaries of relativistic man. Please feel free to check out our
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org