Self Esteem And The Challenge Of Gemara

By Rav Mordechai Burg

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? It’s an age-old question. (Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin deduces from Rashi that Hashem created eggs first, which is certainly beyond this article’s scope.) Today’s chicken and egg question is, does competence build self-esteem, or does self-esteem build competence?

World-renowned educator Rick Lavoie writes, “A dynamic relationship exists between self-esteem and skill development. It is a relationship wherein one side of the equation increases at a parallel rate to the other side. As a child improves in self-esteem, his academic competence increases. And as that competence increases, his self-esteem improves. The caring and concerned caregiver must come to realize that positive self-esteem is both a prerequisite and a consequence of academic success.”

The value of self-esteem cannot be underestimated. Among other things, children with high self-esteem are generally able to: 

● Approach new situations with confidence

● Accept responsibility

● Exhibit high levels of frustration tolerance

● Keep things in the proper perspective

● Communicate their feelings

In contrast, children with low self-esteem generally:

● Exhibit learned helplessness

● Are overly dependent on others

● Have difficulty making decisions

● Display an excessive need for acceptance 

● Are highly vulnerable to peer pressure

To sum it up, self-esteem is essential to the overall development of a child. It is a prerequisite for competence, and competence, in turn, builds self-esteem. In school, children with high self-esteem will succeed in learning, and in turn, the learning will develop their self-esteem. Children with low self-esteem will struggle with learning, which will harm their self-esteem. It is a vicious cycle with significant and painful consequences.  

This brings us to the challenge of learning Gemara. As the summer winds down in NCSY Kollel, I leave the last shiur or two for general questions and answers. It is an excellent opportunity to address any topics that are important to them but that I haven’t addressed over the summer. Every year the questions are more or less similar, and this year was no different. “It was a really inspiring summer, and I feel like I have grown a lot, but I still hate learning. How can I get into it?” It is an important question, and it deserves a good answer. There are many approaches to answering this question, and I’ll share mine with you. 

“You love learning.”

“No, I really don’t.”

“Yes, you really do.”

“No, I really don’t.”

“What do you love?”

“Basketball.”

“Who is your favorite team?”

“The Brooklyn Nets.”

I asked if he thought the Nets should fire the GM and the coach and keep their star players or trade them because no one is above the system. He felt they should fire the head staff. I asked him why and he gave meaningful arguments. I asked him if he had watched videos about this topic. He had. 

“See, you love learning.”

“That’s not learning; that’s basketball.”

“That’s learning. The topic is basketball.”  

“Ok, fine. I like learning about basketball. I don’t like learning Gemara.”

And this is where the conversation with these teens really begins. I explained that children love learning. My five-year-old son loves to come home and show off which new letters he is learning in Cheder. He is now in the stages of pre-reading and is thrilled at the prospect of putting together the letters to form words. Children love to learn. What they hate is not being able to learn

The guys admitted that the tests are not so much the issue. An aspect of the testing makes Gemara feel like a subject rather than a limud lishma. It creates some pressure, which can be annoying given the intensity of their schedules. Still, most of them acknowledge the need to measure how much they have learned. (Whether testing is the best measurement form is beyond this article’s scope.) If they completely mastered the material, most guys admitted that a test could be good. As one guy said, “Yea, if I know I’m going to kill it, I don’t mind taking a test. You feel good when you get a good grade.”  

The real issue is that they don’t have mastery over the material. Especially when it comes to Gemara. Several serious obstacles present barriers to entry. The first is language. Specifically vowelization, translation and punctuation. Listening to some of our teenagers read is like nails on a chalkboard. They don’t know how to pronounce the words. They need to figure out where to start and stop. They don’t know if the Gemara is asking a question, advancing an argument, or making a statement. Some words (and their translations) are familiar, but some are not, and they quickly lose patience trying to decode the sentences. 

The second obstacle when learning Gemara is that the Gemara was written stylistically like a notebook, and as such, there are gaping holes in the text. Even if you could translate all the words and form them into sentences, the necessary information is only sometimes found within the text. The Rishonim fill in the gaps for us, but it requires sensitivity to the text to appreciate what is happening.

Third, the Gemara was written as a debate. The dialectical method is a discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject but wishing to establish the truth through reasoned argumentation. To study a dialectic, one needs to be able to analyze the underlying concepts that each side is presenting. Some of our teenagers have yet to be taught this process of analysis. Too many think Gemara is simply about memorizing a machlokes between Rava and Abaye or a question that Tosafos raised. And frankly, memorization is boring. 

Fourth, like a medical textbook, the Gemara assumes that the reader has the prerequisite knowledge to understand the text. To succeed in Gemara, one must have comprehensive knowledge of the Torah sources that the ideas are based on and a strong grasp of the relevant Mishnayos (which can often go beyond the particular masechta a boy is learning). Have our boys learned Tanach? Are they well-versed in Mishna?

Lastly, there is the issue of relevance. “How is this Gemara about an ox goring another ox relevant to my life? I don’t have an ox, and no one I know has an ox either. Why are we learning this?!?” It is the most common argument that I hear from talmidim. Still, I place it last because my experience is that when talmidim are capable of reading the text, appreciating the technical aspects of the Rishonim, analyzing the concepts and having the necessary background information, the question of relevance seems to have a lower volume. Nevertheless, it is an important question, and our talmidim deserve a meaningful answer. 

Our children love to learn, but they hate to feel incapable of learning. In everything, safety comes first. If you pick up a book and can’t make heads or tails of it, you feel foolish. Understandably, they close the book. It is the best way they know how to feel safe. I don’t blame them. 

I live down the block from Rav Eli Stefansky, the famed Daf Yomi maggid shiur with over 10,000 talmidim. Merkaz Daf Yomi is less than a stone’s throw away from my house. As such, I hear the testimonials all the time from Rav Eli’s talmidim/Chasidim (or, as they lovingly call themselves, the “shotim”). “It is the first time I ever really liked learning Gemara.” “Before Rav Eli, I had not picked up a Gemara in decades; now I don’t miss a day.” When I have the time, I press these guys to give me the Rav Eli difference. Why have they gotten into Gemara now after all these years? The answer is complex. There are a lot of factors. “It’s a great chevra”. “Rav Eli is very dynamic and entertaining.” “I am more mature now than I was in Yeshiva.” The one answer that I hear from everyone, “Rav Eli makes the Gemara crystal clear.” Daf Yomi does not answer all of the challenges of learning Gemara. Certainly, very few people have the charisma of Rav Eli. But, programs like MDY and Vhaarev Nah work because the talmidim have clarity in their learning and feel successful. And, as we know, success breeds success. 

This article is not intended to address the question of how much Gemara our talmidim should be learning every day or about the diversity of our curriculum. It is certainly not intended to be a criticism of the amazing Rabbeim who give lev v’nefesh, heart and soul, to their talmidim day in and day out despite the underwhelming salary (and sadly sometimes appreciation as well). My point is only that once we are teaching our children Gemara we should be aware of the challenges and create an infrastructure that maximizes the chances of success. Because, at its core, this is not just about learning Gemara. Learning requires a prerequisite of self-esteem but self-esteem is also a consequence of success in learning. And, as we stated at the outset, self-esteem is critical to our overall development. When talmidim spend several hours a day learning something they just don’t get, their self-esteem takes a severe hit. As such, we as parents and educators are responsible for giving our children language, technical, and analytical skills, and the background information they need to see the depth, profundity, and meaning in Gemara. Our talmidim love to learn. We must listen very carefully to those talmidim telling us that they hate learning. What are they trying to say? Many of these comments have covert messages, and if careful, we may notice what is being communicated. Are they telling us about their overall struggles in Yiddishkeit? Are they asking to be shown the relevance of Gemara to their own lives? Are they saying that it is hard to sit and concentrate for long periods at a time? Or are they saying I hate doing something I am not good at? 

Baruch Hashem, our Yeshiva system has evolved over the last several decades, and we are doing fantastic work. There is so much to be optimistic about. Like so many of the challenges we have faced in the past, with Hashem’s help, we will also be successful in this endeavor.


Internationally renowned speaker, educator, and author Rav Mordechai Burg is the Menahel of Mevaseret, Mashpia of NCSY Summer, Mashpia of Nitzotzos, author of Nitzotzos on Chumash and a senior Rebbe at Tomer Devorah and Bnot Torah Institute. His shiurim can be found on Nitzotzos.com

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