Commentary

Life Between the Lines

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Dov Zinger (Translated by Aaron Toledano and Yehuda Fogel)

EDITORS’ NOTE: This article was originally published in hebrew by Rav Dov Zinger in Karov Elecha, an Israeli weekly publication, and was translated for the Lehrhaus. You can find the original here.

In general, educators dedicate time and energy to two topics: The first is establishing boundaries – boundaries between teacher and student, between the school and the home, etc. The second is about the content itself. 

I generally tell people who deal with boundaries to first examine themselves. It’s important to talk about boundaries, but to keep it in proportion. The “Mishmar ha-Gvul” (border police) is an essential force, but the army isn’t comprised of only the Mishmar Hagvul – there are many other units in the army that are much more important than the border police.

In conversations about boundaries, it is important to consider proportionality; it’s like the ratio between a vessel’s capacity and the thickness of its walls. Having thick walls certainly matters, but that isn’t the whole story. If we fret about boundaries, it may indicate that we are overlooking the real issue – the contents of the vessel. When we focus only on the border police, we lose sight of the bigger picture. When we focus only on the vessel, we lose sight of the vessel’s contents. 

Even when we do turn to the second topic – content, we tend to focus on the nature of the proper subject matter to be studied. How to teach Torah, what parts of Torah should we emphasize; Bekiut (covering ground) or Iyun (in-depth analysis); Tanakh or Talmud? How much Tanakh, how much Talmud? One method or another? Should we study additional subjects? All these questions relate to concrete study – i.e. the “letters of the Torah”. However, in addition to the two commonly discussed topics mentioned above, there is a third area which deserves real attention – the area between the letters, that of the “White Fire” (Aish Levanah). 

Our Rabbis tell us that the Torah was given “Black Fire on White Fire” (Shekalim 16b). In Hilkhot Stam, many laws of writing a Torah are dedicated to the rules of the ‘black fire’: the shape of the letters, the words of the Torah itself, which are written in ‘black fire’. There are also laws dedicated to the ‘white fire’, the Hilkhot Gevil, the laws which deal with the parchment, the white klaf upon which the Torah is written. The white fire is the background on which the black fire of the letters of Torah, what we think of as the content, are written. The white fire is all about what takes place – preceding and embracing the letters. 

We must learn to be sensitive to the unofficial environment which really sets the tone for most of our interactions. What is going on among the students, what is the nature of their “Lingua Franca” – what type of conversations are they having? What happens between teachers and students, and what happens between one teacher and another? This is the nature of the parchment, the gevil, and it’s hard to quantify or define precisely. This “ between the lines” is the enigma of the entire world. 

God is curious 

These days, as we mark the memory of our Temple, we find an interesting phenomenon. Researchers have succeeded in reconstructing facsimiles of the priestly garments, working models of the trumpets, and even a full scale menorah, but there is one thing that is still hard to create: The Cherubs, the Keruvim. This isn’t just because they were created out of one solid block of gold, but rather because there is a certain inexplicable quality to the keruvim. To be more exact, it is the space between the two keruvim which is so mysterious. The relationship between the two keruvim reflects the relationship between God and Knesset Yisrael at any given point in time. God speaks from “in between the two keruvim.

There is an astounding verse (Malachi 3:16): “אז נדברו יראי ה’ איש על רעהו ויקשב ה’ וישמע.” “Then two God-fearing friends spoke one with each other, and God listened and heard.” The language of this verse is challenging. Why does the verse state that God heard the conversations of man, and not that they heard each other? One would expect it to say “and they heard each other” – that they succeeded in achieving a level where they really communicated with each other. However the end of the passage reads “and God listened and heard”. This verse reflects a model of communication that is fundamentally different (although perhaps deeply similar), to the normal model of speaking to God, of prayer. Instead of man turning to God with the words of the siddur, man turns to his fellow in conversation. God is curious about the conversations between people, even those not directed at Him, and comes to listen to the conversations between one and her friend. 

An additional aspect of this verse is the use of the word  נדברו “they were spoken,” which is a passive verb, and not דברו – they spoke, which would be an active verb. The implication of נדברו is similar to a verse I alluded to earlier, about the keruvim: “And the voice was heard that was spoken (“meedaber”- מִדַּבֵּר- and not midaber-מְדַבֵּר– that spoke) from above the kaporet.” This is a reflexive language, a type of hidden reality. For example, if I prepare a lesson and make notes about what I plan on teaching, then if I manage to get through the material without being interrupted, I will have delivered what I intended to convey. However, it just may be that if the audience is engaged, and someone asks a good question, suddenly new approaches of understanding develop. Then wellspring of ideas flows freely, all due to what occurs ‘between’ the lines of the lesson, between the teacher and the students. 

When two friends meet at this level, speaking “one to their friend,” ish el re’ehu, an aspect of nidbaru emerges, a communication greater than the sum of its parts, not from either one but from between both sides. It is to this kind of a conversation that “God listens, and hears.” 

This explanation dovetails as well with the Mishnah in Avot (3:2): “Two who sit together and there are words of Torah between them (ביניהם)…” The emphasis of this Mishnah is the “between”, that there is something fundamental to the Torah ‘between’ two people, like the words that emerge from between the two keruvim. We have a newly created reality between two people. Similarly, our Rabbis say that “If man and woman merit, the Shekhinah is between them” (Sotah 17a).  That which occurs between two people, the newly minted space of their conversation and relationship, is the white fire, the Hilkhot Gevil .

This is a challenging component of education, because when a teacher is in a class, she usually pays attention to what her own students are saying, and her own lesson plan, but attention must also be paid to the aspect of heedabrut (הידברות) – that which is spoken between the students, which is perhaps most important to listen to. How do they speak to each other, whom do they choose to speak with, and what do they talk about? At any given point in time the educational milieu of the students is most certainly influenced by the personal example being set by the behavior and language among the staff members.

When you give space for consideration of the conversations occurring at all levels of an institution, when you give attention to what happens between the lines, then you give space for the Shekhinah to dwell. The Shekhinah constantly searches for the ‘between’, the place of nonexistence, in which to exist. The culture and general atmosphere of an entire educational institution is directly influenced by the types of conversations students are having with each other, with staff members, and also by the conversations between staff members. 

In Hebrew, we refer to a substitute teacher as a “memaleh makom”, which literally means he “fills space”, but in reality, the better teacher is one who is “mefaneh makom”, who creates a vacuum for the students themselves to fill. Before the creation of the world, God contracted His presence in order to allow a space for the world to exist – “Sod ha-Tzimtzum”. Instead of filling the entire world with His visible presence, God contracted, removing His seen presence from His nascent world, thus allowing space for creation. So too, an educator who naturally tends to bestow — “More than the calf seeks to suckle, the cow desires to nurse” (Pesahim 112a)– should seek to emulate God’s characteristics and also be cognizant of the Sod ha-Tzimtum and hold back.

When a teacher sits with her class, it is important that her persona not fill the vacuum, but she should rather create space to allow and motivate students to grow and flourish. 

The Heart Longs to Break

In his letter on education, Rav Kook writes that if our primary goal for children is that they grow up to be mature adults, then the immaturity of the child at this stage is unimportant because it is but a stepping stone towards maturity. However, if we really accept the idea that the world merits its existence thanks to the Torah study of little children as is written: “Ein ha-olam mitkayaim ella be-shevil hevel pihem shel tinokot shel beit rabban” (Shabbat 119b), then the opposite is the case: we’d realize that children are the crown of creation and adults exists merely to feed them and teach them Torah!

My goal as an adult should not be to relate to them as a small child that I need to develop into a mature adult. From the child’s perspective, life is here and now – they are the real thing! The conversational model of “each one spoke to his friend” is predicated first and foremost on my respect for you, as you are now. I don’t wish to impose anything on you, to change you. I want to recognize you, to appreciate you and your essence, your neshamah. This isn’t just true in our conversations with children, but also with other so-called ‘adults’; our dominant desire is not to impose our will on the other, but to respect and appreciate the essence of the other, just as they are. Through speaking with others as they are, without personal agendas, both of us grow, together. The conversational meeting between us creates a presence, a betweenness. This space is defined by each of us, and is more than each of us.

It happens that sometimes when a child walks into a meeting with you, he sits quietly for three or four minutes and suddenly says “thank you” and walks out. What happened here? 

Rabbi Nahman of Breslov has a beautiful Torah on this idea, which I will express in my own words. A tzadik’s heart embraces his disciple, because the heart of the tzadik is a vacuum, as the verse states “my heart is empty inside me” (Psalms 109:22). The heart of the righteous leader acts as a vacuum so that it draws the heart of his disciple to empty itself into the heart of the tzadik and so, the two hearts are bound together. 

The heart longs to break – it has something to say, to express, but we are naturally protective, closed off, defensive, afraid of vulnerability. We fear opening up, lest we be hurt in the process. This is the orlat ha-lev, the defensive covering of the heart, which serves to protect us from emotional damage. But if the student feels completely safe, protected, surrounded, then the heart of the student is able to break, to open up, in the comforting embrace of the heart of the teacher. The student is protected, comfortable and confident that nothing can hurt him. This is how we can create a meaningful conversation, even without saying a word. A meeting of the hearts that emerges from between them.

Belief in My Own Words 

In our yeshiva, we have something called a “bli”tz”, which stands for beli tziniut: ‘without sarcasm.’ In these sessions, we create a sterile environment, a safe space in which we sit in a circle with the students and learn how to speak to each other in a different jargon – in a positive fashion. Words must be more personal and sincere. I open up by saying something sincere from my heart, from myself, because “words which flow from the heart, enter the heart.” For example, I say that I am very concerned about the fact that other students don’t comply with the “lights out” rules because it prevents others from getting to sleep on time. 

This statement must be accompanied by a “playback.” After speaking, I turn to someone in the circle and ask, “Did you understand me?” If they do, they repeat what I shared, in their own words. If they understood me, I express my appreciation for being heard, and if not, I’ll correct them. This happens again and again, until a circle of openness has been created. 

Because as I write this we are currently in the “Nine Days,” I am reminded of something that happened at the time of the expulsion from Gush Katif. I remember a conversation that happened in a class in which there were three students from Gush Katif. It was before the evacuation, and the students who weren’t from Gush Katif were concerned for the emotional state of their friends. There was a sense that those from Gush Katif weren’t acknowledging the possibility of evacuation, maintaining faith that this crisis would be averted. Their friends in class were concerned for them, and it led to a deeply emotional conversation. 

At the end of the conversation, one student turned to his friend and said:

Because I love you so deeply and care about you so strongly, I want to know in any case what you feel, where is this bringing you? It will be be-seder, it will be okay, but tahlis are you scared? Do you dream about it at night? Is it concerning you? How do you want us to relate to this? 

At the end of the day, a vessel was created, in which words matter and are respected, and no one can be pushed away. I believe in my words, that they will reach their destination, and be heard. A bli”tz is a clinic of sorts, or as we call it in Hebrew a klinikah (קליניקה), or as I like to call it, a keli naki, a clean vessel, a space in which I can open up to you, without fear of judgement, without concern of debate about what my feelings are.

In order for a student to express her heart, I need to help her remove the blockage, the orlat lev that stops one from opening up. This can’t happen by force, as the coercion itself often leads one to get defensive and shut down. 

MRI 

The Mishnah (Negaim 2:5) dictates that “a person sees all negaim, outside of his own.” The Baal Shem Tov creatively reads this to say “a person sees all negaim outside; of his own.” The Baal Shem Tov is teaching us that our perception of imperfection outside the self, flows from our own inner imperfections. Every flaw that we see in the world, or in the classroom, we see due to the flaws of the self, and they tell us that we have something to work on. This isn’t just a cute phrase – no less than the Rambam (H. Isurei Biah 19:17) affirms it legally. When I take this idea seriously, if a teacher comes to me and describes all the issues occurring in a class, I respond, “Wonderful, you described everything to me, and now tell me what about this concerns you, where is this type of problem – in you?” 

In one school, a teacher found one of the students to be cheating, and a staff member said, “We can’t have this in the yeshiva! Here we don’t lie – if he wants to lie, he can leave the yeshiva immediately.” I told him: “You’re right, but before we throw him out, I want to ask you the following question: ‘why does this anger you so? It’s true that he cheated, and he should leave, but why are you so upset about it?’” It took him much time, until in the end he told me: 

“Do you know how much I worked on myself to be more truthful, how much I struggled not to tell lies, how much I hold back from telling lies – and he lies so easily!?!” 

In other words, the student’s problem reflects on the teacher – this student triggered something in the teacher. I can’t collide with another car if he is travelling on route 6 and I am on route 4. If I meet someone struggling with something, it may indicate that I’m also struggling with the same thing and the actual meeting is an invitation for me to work on this issue in my own life. 

A certain Rosh Yeshiva invited me to his yeshiva to speak to the students about prayer. I told him that I don’t think that speaking only with the students would accomplish anything. Perhaps I’ll give one talk full of beautiful ideas, but will that change anything? Real growth could come only from doing something together with the staff, working on the growth of the teachers.

This is true in dealing with family issues as well. If one’s spouse or children are angering you, it may be time for you to turn the mirror around – for introspection. We give every teacher and rebbi a small instrument called an “MRI”. What is an MRI? MRI connotes: הם-are-I. When you look at others, you should examine yourself.

There is a story about one of the Rabbis of Chabad who travelled from city to city. In each city people would pour out their hearts to him about their challenges, and he would give them advice – a “tikun”. One Jew came to the Rebbe and poured out his heart about a particular struggle. Instead of immediately giving him advice and a blessing, as was the norm, the Rebbe fasted for 3 days and nights, and didn’t accept anyone during that time. After 3 days, the Rebbe called the man in and gave him a tikun. The hasidim asked the Rebbe what distinguished this case, why did the Rebbe need 3 days? The Rebbe responded that the visiting Jew had discussed with him a certain disgusting sin, and the Rebbe couldn’t find any bit of that matter in himself. At this point, the Rebbe said he understood that “God was hiding something from me, because it’s impossible for a Jew like this to come before me if the issue wasn’t connected to me as well. Therefore I fasted and prayed, and in the end I remembered a certain flaw that I have, however minute, that is connected to this sin. I found for myself a tikun, and only then was I able to give him his tikun.” 

In Hebrew we refer to a ‘problem child’ as a “תלמיד בעייתי”, which I understand to connote that the problem is mine, the problem of the talmid (student) is my problem. (This is a play on words, because בעייתי in this context usually means ‘problematic,’ but can also mean ‘my problem.’) Such a student is an invitation for self-reflection, for a clarification of my personal avodah, to better myself. In this interaction, something occurs between us; when one thing is changed, the change reflects and rebounds throughout both of us. 

Take off Your Shoes 

There is a special Jew named Yisrael Chevroni, who has studied the human body. He formerly was a senior engineer and judo instructor. He has written three important books, one of which is called “Shikhlul ha-Yekholet” – “Improving Your Capabilities”. Unfortunately, I have had problems with my back and after trying all of the conventional solutions, I went to see him. The first thing he told me was to take off my shoes, at which point he stared at my shoes for ten minutes, finally saying “I understand.” He then sat on his chair and asked me to move my heel back and forth for an hour and rotate my ankle. He succeeded in restoring flexibility to my ankles. 

The body is a complex holistic organism. It’s quite possible that because I wear my kippah a bit to the right side, my head leans ever so slightly to the left, and as a result my shoulder angles to the left, until my whole body is influenced. Like someone who is often on the phone, or does the dishes while on the phone, and holds up the phone with his shoulder, he holds his shoulder in a way that ends up hurting. When Yisrael Chevroni looked at my shoes, he saw how I walk, and through this he understood that my problem wasn’t in my back but in my feet. Then he began to treat my right foot, and this changed the entire alignment of my body. 

This holistic approach applies to the body, but we should be aware that the body and the soul are one unit as well. We should understand that physical pain, can come not just from wearing your kippah a certain way, but because of the way I feel about things happening at school. It’s possible that I feel frustration about the way the students are acting in yeshiva, and my spiritual frustration may affect my physical comfort, and give me back pains. 

When ants work together, symbiotically, they aren’t receiving direct instructions about what to do, but rather work with a singular goal, and they intuitively feel what to do. The same is true about the body, with each of our limbs being part of a single organism, they understand what to do, each limb with its particular purpose. The same is true about social institutions, schools, and classes. 

This understanding could be approached through a purely social lens based on existing research, but when viewed through a spiritual lens, more is gained. There is a collective culture, a complex singularity, to social institutions, cultures that can be influenced and understood. When there is a ‘problem child’ in a class, he’s like my back pain – he may be just a symptom to a broader reality, but may not be a problem in and of himself. 

If I ‘deal with it’ in the conventional manner, invite his parents in, involve the guidance counselor as well as the teacher together, and we deal with the issue, it usually doesn’t help because often this addresses only the symptom, but not the broader reality or context. On the other hand, if I try and really understand what is happening, I may discover a systemic problem which expresses itself via the weakest link in the chain- the student with the problem, who somehow is drawn into reflecting or echoing the actual problem. By true introspection we may discover the real problem.

Couples often come to me for advice, and I regularly set them up with three chairs, because there is no such thing as two people alone, there is always an “in between”, something that occurs between them. It’s always very enlightening to see where they place the third chair, the chair of the “beineihem”. I prepared the third chair for the Shekhinah who is here with us in the room, but sometimes one pushes the chair off to the side, or next to the spouse or places it between them. 

When you get used to this approach, you learn to place significance on this sense of presence. We don’t bring students to a mechanic’s garage where we solve technical issues. We are dealing with intertwining souls yearning to ascend together. What we see in the field, in the classroom – is the earthly expression, the result, the projection. In Kabbalistic terms this represents the Sefirah of Malkhut – the earthly expression of God’s rule. However, Malkhut yearns for “yihud,” for a connection to the spheres above so that the “Shefa,” the bounty, can flow down to earth. It is our job to be like a plumber, to identify where this whole system gets stuck. 

Therefore, the problems we face in the classroom are really deep invitations for introspection and analyzing the reasons why there is a blockage in the system. Oftentimes when you make a small change in yourself, maybe just a prayer and then all of a sudden you may find practical changes in others as well. 

How I Love My Phone 

There’s a well-known story about a group of teachers that came to one of the gedolim, and consulted with him about a student they wanted to expel from their yeshiva. The rabbi interrupted them, asking: “What is the name of this student, along with his mother’s name?” The teachers didn’t know. The rabbi responded: “If you didn’t pray for him yet, return home and get back to work.” 

The question is: do you know the names of all your students and their mother’s names, in order to pray for them? Many times we do this with the staff in our yeshiva, we pray for each other and for our students. 

In this generation, there is a great new problem with smartphones, as if before there were phones, there were no other educational problems in previous generations. Before staff members discuss establishing rules and guidelines about cellphone use of their students, it’s a great idea to speak with staff members about their own relationships with their cellphones. Staff members speak about their complicated relationships with their phones – for example about the question of being constantly available. How much they love phones, how much they hate phones – each staff member talks about their dependence on their phones. Studies show that the phone has practically become part of our body!

Once we have had this exciting conversation between us, then when the conversation shifts to speaking about students, the conversation is fundamentally different. Now the teachers are part of the conversation, something has changed, the narrative has changed completely. We no longer take a condescending view of the topic, because we now know that we are part of the problem, we are in this together. This helps humanize the conversation, and focus it. This is like preparation for tefilah. After preparing for prayer, you are able to pray in a much more precise, powerful way. Similarly, with a brief, in-depth discussion of the issue in advance, much time can be saved and put the student in the proper perspective as part of a single organism, an entity in which the students and staff are all one, in which all problems are shared by both the staff and the students, together – ביניהם !


The translators would like to thank Yossi Baumol, David Fried, and Rav Dov Zinger for their invaluable comments and jokes in this process.