Learning about the Torah’s perspective

Years ago, I was exposed to Cooperative Learning, an approach to structuring instruction such that students learn with and from one another. The students need one another to complete their tasks and they share in the challenge and the success of the endeavor.

I had the opportunity to study Cooperative Learning under the masters, David and Roger Johnson at the University of Minnesota, and I went on to train many teachers in the approach. I was thrilled with the power of cooperation, and I sensed the similarity of Cooperative Learning to learning with a Chavrusa. Here was a training approach to help students learn with a Chavrusa from an early age.

I had an occasion to discuss my excitement with the great Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Henoch Leibowitz זצ”ל, and to mention my desire to complete and disseminate an article that I had begun writing, “Cooperative Learning and the Torah.”

The Rosh Yeshiva זצ”ל took an interest in the title of my article, something that gave me a very brief but intense rush – the Rosh Yeshiva was interested in my article!

The Rosh Yeshiva proceeded to suggest a slight change in the title of the article. Yes, I thought, his edit is going to take this article from mediocre to great.

“What does the Rosh Yeshiva think I should title the article?”

“Why not entitle it, ‘The Torah Looks at Cooperative Learning’?”

I was struck by the penetrating insight implied by that slight change.

The article I had begun to write started from the assumption that Cooperative Learning has great merit and proceeded to find many Torah supports for the benefits of Cooperative Learning. The Rosh Yeshiva’s article would start from the Torah and would highlight the strengths and weaknesses of Cooperative Learning through that lens.

The Rosh Yeshiva זצ”ל had caught the assumption in my thinking and was trying to steer me back to look through the lens of the Torah without the bias that I was going to find corroboration for Cooperative Learning in the Torah.

I also realized that I was not qualified to write the article that the Rosh Yeshiva זצ”ל was recommending. I did not have enough breadth in the perspective of the Torah to be able to render a qualified critique of the strengths and weaknesses of Cooperative Learning.

Such an article would have to wait for a person who could address the title he suggested.

There is nothing wrong with advocating a good idea. There is something very wrong with attributing that idea to the Torah without first asking the Torah.

I would like to add a postscript to the Cooperative Learning article.

Many years have passed and I have been blessed to spend time with the insights of the Chasam Sofer on the Torah. Listen to his words:

עשר תעשר וגו’. בשביל שתתעשר, למען תלמד ליראה את ה’ אלהיך כל הימים. כי הכופרים בהשגחה עליונה אומרים העולם צריך ישוב והשגחת אנשים ואיש את רעהו יעזורו, והם מטיבים זה עם זה ביתר שאת בלי חק וגבול, כי זה כל האדם, ואינם מצפים לתשלום שכר, כי כופרים בהשגחה ושכר ועונש אלא כך מנהגו של עולם איש את רעהו יעזורו. ע”כ אמר במצות מעשר וצדקה עשר בשביל שתתעשר למען תלמד וכי בגלל הדבר הזה יברכך, לומר מצוה שתתן בשביל שתתעשר, שלא יהי’ כונתך ח”ו כאותם הכופרים הנ”ל, אלא האמן שעי”ז תתעשר ע”י המשגיח ית”ש הנאמן לשלם שכר (תורת משה פ’ ראה דברים יד:כב)

To paraphrase the Chasam Sofer: Helping others can conceal a rejection of השגחה:

‘A person must internalize the fact that Hashem is the One Who provides wealth. Wealth is part of the complex system of reward and punishment through which Hashem both tests and encourages us.’

‘Helping another person is wonderful; it is an emulation of the Divine attribute of compassion. But the same helping can imply that the only way to move forward is by looking out for one another.’

‘There is a subtle but deep rejection of השגחה when a person helps another with an assumption that such cooperation is the only way to success. People who reject השגחה are willing to go to great lengths for another person, without any compensation, based on their understanding that cooperation is the only way to achieve our goals.’

‘Avoiding such a כפירה is why the Torah reminds us about יראת שמים after telling us that giving מעשר will lead to wealth.’

When I came across this comment of the Chasam Sofer I was struck by the memory of my conversation with the Rosh HaYeshiva זצ”ל. Here is an example of what the Rosh HaYeshiva זצ”ל was referring to when he suggested an edit to my title.

Cooperative Learning is a wonderful tool. Helping one another in the classroom improves cognitive skills for both students. It sets a tone of caring for one another. It is Divine.

But it can play a subtle role in promoting a terrible message that success depends on looking out for one another and it is not entirely under the guidance of Providence. It is a great idea, but it is subject to Torah-scrutiny and must be implemented with care and caution.

When we think that we have found a great idea we must check in with the Torah. What does the Torah think about the great idea?

How many ‘great ideas’ have been promoted by well-intending people who discovered great but partial truths and set those great ideas as ideals without checking in with the master plan.

(It is intriguing to note that the Chasam Sofer passed away in 1839. He wrote these words in prophetic anticipation of what was to become Communism, based precisely on the כפירה that the Chasam Sofer described in helping one another. Karl Marx was born in 1818…)

The Torah looks at Cooperative Learning, not Cooperative Learning and the Torah.

Posted in Mussar | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

The Perfect Present

Many readers are familiar with the lovely book by Dr. Spencer Johnson, The Precious Present. In it a person learns to be happy by acknowledging that the present is perfect.

There are two assumptions made by the book, and there are hundreds of other books which make the same assumptions and so they are well worth analyzing.

Premise 1: A person, every person, wishes (yearns, desires, hopes, etc.) to be happy.

Premise 2: All a person has is the present (since the past and the future are out of a person’s reach).

Therefore: Be happy with the present since happiness is what you want and the present is all you have.

Happiness/contentment, therefore, is a choice one makes based on a desire for such happiness/contentment and a recognition that the present is the only raw material which can be used to generate such happiness (it can’t be anywhere else).

Does this sound circular?

Why not conclude that life is an endless source of misery, that one’s desire/yearning for happiness is nothing but a childhood fantasy and that there is nothing to find in the present but empty suffering?

The miracle of a satisfying moment lived in alignment with one’s Eternal Calling is a miracle, indeed. It is logical only if one accepts the role that one’s Neshama plays in one’s life.

The Creator conceals all miracles in just enough camouflage to provide human beings with the merit of choosing to see the miracle and not the camouflage. Here is an illustration of yet another concealed miracle.

Posted in Mussar | Leave a comment

The Owner

When a salesman calls to make a product recommendation, he wants to know that he is speaking with the person who can make the purchasing decision. He does not want to waste his efforts making his pitch to someone who might be interested but who cannot follow-up on that interest with writing a check. For the salesman, the only thing that matters is the person who holds the purse strings.

When Chazal make a recommendation, or clarify an aspect of our world and lives, they are assuming that they are speaking to the one who oversees implementing their recommendations or utilizing the clarification they are offering. They are only speaking with the owner; the person who can direct his mind, body, and soul in light of the new information that has been taught. Unfortunately, because we do not generally feel that we can decide and implement for ourselves, we are left wishing and hoping. We hear the message that Chazal are teaching us, but we do not feel the capacities to implement those messages. The only way to become ‘executive’ over our capacities is to learn what those capacities are and develop a sense that those capacities are ‘mine.’ Interestingly, every one of us is executive over ourselves, sometimes in surprising ways!

Imagine that a person inherited a company from his late father. On his first day at his new post, many officers of the company stepped into the office to wish him both condolences on the loss of his father and success in his new mission. After a few days, the nature of the visits changed, however. The officers were now stopping by to make suggestions and requests regarding very specific aspects of the operations of their divisions in the company. Unfortunately, his late father did not have the opportunity to train him into the job and he doesn’t know the ropes. His inclination was to say to yes to each suggestion and to each request since, after all, the officers are good people whom his father entrusted with the operation of their divisions. Sooner or later, though, he came to realize that some of the requests contradict one another. Saying yes to one officer meant saying no to another. There was no way to be the ‘nice guy’ and say yes to everyone. The problem was that he didn’t know the company well enough to know where it was important to invest and where it was best to hold off.

He thought that the solution might lie in consulting with someone who would make the decisions for him, but it became clear that the other person was running a similar, but not identical, operation, and that his advice was not always suited to the unique aspects of his company. There was no alternative but to set out to learn the details of the operation. It was a bit humbling, but he knew that it was the right move. He would learn from the officers who worked for him. He asked them each, in turn, to assign someone in the ‘trenches’ of that division whom he could shadow and observe, to learn the details of each aspect of the business. At times, when someone couldn’t come it to work that day, he would ask to be assigned to that person’s job, to fill in, and, at the same time, to learn the workings of that part of the business from the inside.

And so, slowly, he started learning the aspects of the business that he owned. His decisions were becoming more appropriate. He was still making some mistakes, but before long it became clear that he knew the business better than the officers of the divisions, and that his mistakes were because he was human and still learning, not because he didn’t know the business. Sometimes, an old loyalty to an officer who had been with the company for many years, distorted his perspective and he made decisions that he quickly realized were contrary to his better judgement; the result of a distortion that had crept in due to the old relationship. But, with time, focus, lots of consultation, and experience, he became a more reliable and appropriate decision-maker. His officers began to trust his judgement, even if they received a negative response to their requests. He was growing as an owner of the company, and he could sort through the various suggestions that were put in front of him to see which would advance the interests of the company and which would waste valuable resources of time, effort and money.

You are the owner in the story. When you came into the world, people gathered to congratulate you on your new job as owner of the company called You. Before long, however, those same people started making suggestions and recommendations as to how you should run the You company. And, since they were all good people, you would wish to say yes to all of them, but for the fact that their instructions were causing you to bump into yourself. When someone told you to concentrate on your prayers, you found that your learning suffered because you didn’t know how to strike a balance. And when you heard about character development, you were shown examples of great people who were quite different from you, their businesses were not your business and it was hard to know what aspects of their great lives you could emulate and what parts you could only admire. You were left without an option but to learn the details of the person/company called You from the inside. Only with an insider’s understanding of the company could you make delicate decisions about what is to be the focus of your efforts today and what will be placed on the back-burner. Those good ideas which are not to be the focus today are not forgotten, but they are not placed front and center. The ability to give a thought, especially a good idea, its proper place is part of the art of running the company called You.

We are often given the sense that we are not the owner of the company called You. Or, another way of saying the same thing, there are many messages which support the assumption that we are not in the driver’s seat. Some of those messages have a measure of validity, such as the power of the Yetzer Hara, the Negative Inclination within each person, and some of the messages come from sources entirely outside of the system in which Chazal operate. Those include the message that we are but the products of our upbringing and our environments and that free choice is impossible. By imbibing these messages, we are disconnecting ourselves from Chazal. We are causing ourselves to not be the audience to which Chazal are speaking!

Every insight and awareness that emerges from Chazal is intended to translate into a change in us. Getting to know and own our souls is the way to make ourselves the audience for Chazal. Knowing how and when to use the message of Chazal is a delicate interaction between the Chazal and the self. The more we learn about both the Chazal and ourselves, the better we can utilize the insights that Chazal provide for us.

Posted in Mussar | Leave a comment


There is a popular old legend that a person only uses a fraction of his brain. There does not seem to be any science behind this myth, but the idea that we have more capacity than we are aware of is attractive to people. It stems from our being witness to tremendous feats that people can accomplish with their bodies. At first glance, their bodies look a lot like the bodies of others, and yet they can stretch, flex, train, and push their bodies to do things that surprise and amaze us. From there, it would seem like a small leap to the notion that we can flex our otherwise similar brains and accomplish amazing feats with our brain, as well.

There is not much to support the body-brain analogy, as attractive as the idea might seem. But the idea of stretching ourselves to release the potential in us remains attractive and should be pursued. People who climb want to see how high they can climb, swimmers want to see how far or fast they can swim; runners want to know just how quickly the human body can run a mile.

And if the body-brain analogy is weak, there is a great deal to learn from a body-soul analogy. Most people utilize but a fraction of their souls. And there is a very high price which we pay for neglecting our soul. In the case of the body, we suffer from atrophy and loss of tone if we do not utilize the capacities of the body, but there is not much proof that we gain longevity or the like from being a body-builder. Going beyond the basics to body-building is primarily driven by the desire to know just how far a person can stretch the capacities of the body. With regards the soul, there is a parallel atrophy which sets in if a person does not utilize all the parts of his soul. But, in contrast to the less-clear benefits of becoming a body-builder, there are profound benefits from becoming a soul-builder, and those benefits go well beyond just knowing how far one can go in utilizing his soul.

Posted in Mussar | Leave a comment

Yom Kippur and the Spiritual Smorgasbord

Yom Kippur Smorg

I hope that you find that this short class enhances your Yom Kippur experience!

With warm wishes for a Gmar Chasima Tova,

Rabbi Ephraim Becker

Posted in Mussar | Leave a comment

Audio classes now available

Yeshiva Ohr Avraham, under the guidance of Rav Mordechai Sher, has posted a number of talks which I delivered at the Yeshiva.  They can be downloaded at no charge at the following link:

Shiurim of Rabbi Ephraim Becker

Thank you, Ohr Avraham and Rav Sher!

Posted in Mussar | 1 Comment