The Kotzker Rebbe had three teachers, R Simcha Bunim of Pshischa, the Yid HaKadosh and the Chozeh of Lublin. The Chozeh once asked the Yid HaKadosh whether he had any students of substance. “No” came the reply, “but I have a student called Mendel (who later became the famous Menachem Mendel of Kotzk) who wants to be of substance.”(Emet ve Emunah p115, par 1.)
Could this be a precursor to the tired old joke: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb…One, but the light bulb must really want to change?
Allow me to digress.
Ever since I was a child, I have always been fascinated by the traditional image of the old-timer pilot. He had the hands of a surgeon but the eyes of a dreamer. I loved the tension between the technicality of precision and the romance of soaring beyond gravity.
Today, to a large extent we may have lost this type of personality because it’s relatively easy to throw some money at a flying school and emerge qualified and certified.
But it wasn’t always like this.
The old pilot was raised on pure passion. As a child he would stand behind the fence of an airfield and press his nose against the wires and wish and dream he could be on the other side. He was too young to go for flying lessons that he would never be able to afford anyway.
So he would go home and build a kite and cover it with tissue paper and dope. He would experiment with different shapes and sizes until he got it right. He would fly it and people would laugh at him; but all the while he was learning about the wind.
He would progress to a rubber band powered balsa wood model plane and people would smile; but secretly he was learning about the power-to-weight ratio.
He would drive in his parents car and stick his hand out the window and feel it lift and they would make him put his hand back inside; but he was learning that at a certain angle the wind would stall and his hand would no longer fly.
He couldn’t afford an engine for his next model, so instead he built a glider and people felt sorry for him. They didn’t realize that he was learning how to increase his glide ratio should his real engine someday fail while he was really flying.
When he got a little older he would become a ‘hanger boy’ and sweep the hanger floor and wash a plane, not for money but for the reward of a five minute flight.
He listened to the older pilots talk and learned more from them than any flight instructor could ever teach him.
When he finally went to flight school he was so grounded in passion that his flying became instinctive.
Many of our religious youth today are first generation born frum.
Their parents were part of the ‘baal teshuva’ revolution, who were passionate spiritual searchers, willing to turn their lives around for an ideal.
They were raised in ordinary schools but their children now go to religious institutions.
The parents know what it is like to want to learn about Torah.
But they sometimes forget that their children aren’t necessarily born with that same passion.
They too can throw money at religious schools and their children can even move on to Yeshivas.
Yet sometimes these children crash.
It’s not enough that your children are learning well.
It’s not enough that they are learning a lot.
It’s not even enough that they are learning the whole day.
What matters is whether you helped them want to learn.
Not all children of old hippies go around singing ‘Kumbaya’.
Not all children of old ‘baal teshuvas’ have enough passion to want to turn their lives around…Just because you did doesn’t mean they will too.
A good parent, or for that matter a good Torah teacher, is defined not by how much they teach, but by how much they inspire their children to want to learn.
There must always be present that tension between technical compliance to Torah and a burning yearning for it.
More important than giving over the learning, is finding a way to transmit the yearning.
This seems to have been the understanding of the Kotzker Rebbe’s teacher.
As a consequence, the Kotzker became great not because he was great, not because his teacher was great…but because he wanted to become great.