Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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6 Tammuz 5761 - June 27, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Home and Family
More About Burn-Out

by R' Zvi Zobin

I. TO THE EDITOR: Rabbi Zobin's article about burn-out was very thought- provoking and presented the problem very clearly, but it did not give us any help in the way of treating or heading it off. The problem is so widespread, it really makes us, as parents, very worried. Do we really have to sit back and watch our children burn out? Isn't there anything we can do now, while they are still young and enjoying life?

II. TO THE EDITOR: Regarding Rabbi Zobin's article about burn-out, I recognize many of the symptoms in myself and in many of my colleagues in kollel. What can we do to get ourselves back into learning?


Many of the roots of this problem have become enmeshed so in our society that even if we know what to do, it is very difficult to put it into effect.

For example, in prewar Europe, the regular style of learning was for children to master Chumash and mishnayos in cheder. When they began to learn gemora, they went through whole tractates, learning a minimum of commentaries until they were through the entire Shas.

The modern style of teaching gemora in depth with rishonim and acharonim before the student has mastered Shas was introduced after World War II. In those days, a regular student went to yeshiva for one year. If he was highly motivated, he would stay for a second year. If he decided to go into rabbonus or related fields, he would stay even longer. One famous rosh yeshiva explained then that because they had only one or two years to work with a boy, they needed to try and instill in him an appreciation for the depth of Torah and a desire to continue learning even when he left the yeshiva and went out to work. Therefore, the shiurim encouraged delving into rishonim and acharonim.

Consequently, the post war generation grew up on this style of learning and assumed that this was the way to teach gemora. That generation became the parents and teachers of the following generation; so now we have the situation where cheder-children are expected to learn gemora in depth and be proficient in rishonim and acharonim. Furthermore, the measure of success of the various educational institutions has become the extent to which they can push children into levels of intellectual achievements which are really, as discussed by Seder Hayom, beyond their capability.

Unfortunately, the Torah institutions are forced to relate to the demands of parents and so, until parents revise their yardstick for deciding which style of learning is `in fashion,' there is little we can do. The usual fate of a school which tries to reverse the trend is for it to become labeled as `special' and it does not find favor in the eyes of the general public. Often, even if the parents feel such a place is better for their children, the children themselves see it as a non-regular school and feel insulted and resist going.

There does seem to be a gleam of light on the horizon because I have heard of one community which appealed to its rav to set up a `healthier' school system, which he did. However, unless we are prepared to go back to the old European system, in which parents got together and hired teachers for their children and learned in rooms (hence the name `cheder'), then setting up a new school entails the usual top-heavy arrangement which demands an emporious building costing many times more than the staff.

One spin-off from teaching a child to an intellectual level beyond his capability is that the child learns to accommodate and compensate but loses contact with his ability to really understand. This actually deforms the neurological development of the brain and lays the foundation for future burn-out.

Another consequence is that the student develops an unrealistic attitude to learning. As one famous contemporary rosh yeshiva commented, "If you teach a child acharonim when he is in cheder, by the time he gets to yeshiva gedola, he feels that there is nothing left for him to learn." But, of course, it is in the yeshiva gedola that a student begins to really learn how to think.

So, an important stage in rehabilitation is to teach the student how to begin to attain true clarity at his mature level of understanding. For example, Rabbi Dovid Abenson of Manchester is becoming famous for his courses which reprogram bochurim and kollel members to rejuvenate their learning. As one student comments, "You mean I have to stop learning and start thinking?"

Furthermore, many students never appreciate the reality of learning nor do they learn how to develop their own approach to learning. Some see their rebbeim zoom through the gemora and then go straight into the commentaries, and they think that they should be doing the same thing -- but they did not observe their rebbi when he was staying up late the night before, preparing for the lesson and breaking his head trying to understand the gemora.

Another aspect of the problem, especially in Israel, is of the "poverty trap" preventing kollel members from branching out and supplementing their income through engaging in outside work. Such work often disqualifies them from receiving aid and subsidies and once someone becomes disqualified, it is almost impossible to become relisted. This means that in order for a kollel member to "make the jump," he must have a guaranteed, permanent job with a starting wage which will be high enough to compensate him for the losses caused by his starting to "go to work."

However, even if all these financial conditions are fulfilled and a young man is told by his posek that he needs to spend at least part of his day working, sometimes he and his wife become beset with intense guilt feelings because they feel that by spending part of day in a job, the young man is no longer a "ben Torah." The guilt feelings can be strong enough to force them to reject the ruling of that posek.

Sadly, the result of this rejection of the ruling can lead to the building up of intolerable pressures within the family which can lead to health and marriage problems and be passed down to the next generation.

There are some types of positions available within the kollel sphere but these are limited, so many young kollel students are faced with the sad realization that they will never be able to develop and channel their creativity and individuality.

A regular office job is also often not conducive to developing and channeling creativity and individuality. But the regular office worker resigns himself to this because the job is primarily a means for earning a wage. If he desires greater fulfillment, he can seek it after office hours. However, the kollel is an environment demanding continual intensive intellectual and personal development. Therefore, unavailability of outlets for channeling talents can lead to much higher levels of frustration.

A third aspect to the problem is that we are living in an era in which we take pride in customizing our cars and houses, but are scared to customize ourselves and our children.

We are so used to mass production that we are losing the concept of individuality. We read books and hear pronouncements intended for general application. Many people feel that they can rely on these general pronouncements for their own personal development, the development of their children and as strict guidelines for running their family and in formulating their relationships with others. We see what everyone else is doing and assume we must do the same.

There were twelve (or thirteen) tribes and in the desert, and for many hundreds of years, each had their own style of prayer and customs. Chazal mention how each tribe has its own personality traits. We need to be comfortable with the fact that different is not a synonym for wrong.

On the contrary, when a person forms a personal relationship with a posek, he will see how the posek varies his ruling according to the nature and circumstances of each person.

For example, even if someone seems to be learning diligently, sometimes that learning itself needs to be `customized.' Someone who is learning intensively only because he feels it is the right thing to do, but does not enjoy the actual learning, will soon `crash.' Such a talmid needs to learn how to enjoy his learning. Another student might be enjoying learning so much that he is pushing himself too much and is risking burning himself out. He needs to be told to relax and get more rest.

It is clear from these points why, by definition, no specific advice can be given in a public forum such as a newspaper article. Each individual needs to seek guidance for his unique combination of personality and circumstances. And he needs to begin this process, for himself and for his children, at the earliest stages. This was the way it was in the past, until the formation of the impersonal mega- kehillos which have led us to lose sight of the individual.

Rabbi Zobin can be contacted at his e-mail:

Rabbi Dovid Abenson can be contacted in England at 0161-740- 4436.


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