Like a massive wave, this social pressure threatens to engulf a bochur altogether
In last month’s column we learned how Rabi Akiva survived a shipwreck by grasping a plank and lowering his head, allowing the waves to pass over him. We discussed how this method can help yeshivah bochurim survive the pressure to excel. Now I would like to approach this issue using the same Gemara, but from a different angle.
The Gemara says that Rabi Akiva’s method of staying afloat is the one we must use when evil forces menace us. The intent isn’t just physical enemies of the Torah and its adherents. The world is full of spiritual forces, no less powerful than the physical ones, that try to lure us away from a Torah-faithful life. Some of them are explicitly heretical, but others are more subtle, and therefore more dangerous.
We don’t need to look too far. If we listen carefully to the voices of society, we will hear compelling messages and attractive outlooks on life that in fact contradict the Torah. Some of them manage to penetrate even the most insular frum communities. For example: American culture today is obsessed with achievement. All around, inspiring slogans encourage us to seek excellence: “Choose to be remarkable; let others be mediocre!” The result is that countless people are afflicted with perfectionism and are terrified by the prospect of making a mistake. Many think that their whole life has to be picture-perfect, every moment worthy of a chapter in an ArtScroll biography. Sounds like a noble goal? It’s not! Not only does it produce dangerous stress that has literally cost people their lives, it goes against the Torah! Shlomo Hamelech teaches us: “A righteous person falls seven times and rises….” (Mishlei 24:16). Rav Hutner explains that he rises not in spite of his failures but because of them. Hashem wants us to stumble here and there, because it’s through our mistakes that we grow and rise to our true potential.
The danger of these messages is that we’re often not even aware of their falsehood. They’re so enticing and pleasant to our ears that we follow them innocently as they lead us astray, like children spelled by the pied piper.
Even in yeshivah, ensconced in the fortress of Torah, a bochur isn’t entirely safe from false social messages. Many bochurim find that their peers glorify the “shpitz bochur,” the yeshiva’s standout lamdan. He’s the intellectual sharpshooter who instantly uncovers the hidden flaws in any logical argument and produces ingenious answers to the most puzzling difficulties in the Gemara. The message bochurim absorb from their peers is that only that “top” bochur is really worthy of acclaim.
Like a massive wave, this social pressure threatens to engulf a bochur altogether. It’s an all-encompassing force that drags a bochur’s life away from what Hashem wants of him!
A bochur might, for example, spend hours upon hours trying to come up with some novel approach to the Gemara that will wow his peers. The odds are that the “chiddushim” he produces will be specious and distort, rather than enhance, his understanding of the Gemara — besides being a colossal waste of learning time. Another bochur might try so hard to be seen as an epic masmid that he ignores his most basic obligations! I knew a bochur who never really davened. Till Shemoneh Esreh, his eyes were fixed on a Gemara, not a siddur, and he scribbled chiddushim in his notebook during Krias Shema! Another bochur I know is convinced that he’s plagued by the yetzer hara to relax here and there, but he’s fighting windmills. He has a high-strung personality, and lack of relaxation is especially hazardous for him. But the pressure to be the best has him convinced that what he really needs, what Hashem wants of him, is the urging of the evil inclination. And he has yet to discover, much less work on, his real yetzer hara!
Now we understand that the issue is far greater than mere anxiety. Even if a bochur finds ways to cope with the stress, if he doesn’t escape the wave of social pressure, it will still take him away from what Hashem wants of him. How can a person survive such a mighty wave? The answer, says the Gemara, is to emulate Rabi Akiva. First of all, one needs to lower his head. It’s dangerous and futile to try to fight the wave. The message he hears all around him is too compelling to resist. Rather, he needs to grab a plank, and wait it out till the wave passes.
What plank can help our bochurim ride out the wave of social pressure? Once a bochur consulted with me regarding the stress he suffers in yeshivah. I asked him what he likes to learn when he’s by himself. He told me that he enjoys learning the Ramban on Chumash. I advised him to set aside time during the week for his “Torah hobby.” He wasn’t sure how exactly the Ramban would help him cope with stress, but he agreed to give it a shot.
He came back after a couple months and told me that his new hobby had helped him tremendously. Anything in the Torah can elevate a person. Especially when someone has a natural affinity to a part of Torah, it has particular potential to build him. But many bochurim don’t pursue those interests because of social pressure. This learning doesn’t win them acclaim, and in fact raises some eyebrows. What, a lamdan like you is wasting time on Chumash?
At first it’s difficult to hold on, but if a bochur sticks to a project that’s personally meaningful to him, eventually he will escape the wave of pressure. He will see that he’s built himself up much more than if he’d gone after social standing. He will discover that the world he thought was so narrow, limited by the dictates of social pressure, is really a broad expanse, full of exciting possibilities.
He shouldn’t be concerned that his “hobby” will detract from his principal learning (as long as he remembers that a hobby is by definition not one’s main occupation). The opposite is true! With the newfound confidence his plank has given him, he will be able to approach the yeshivah curriculum itself in a healthier way. Then he will see that the once-tempestuous waters have transformed into a tranquil sea.
The problem is that the wave of pressure prevents bochurim from taking hold of such a project in the first place. Parents and educators alike need to prepare future bochurim from a young age, by stressing the importance of all areas of Torah study. The gedolim of all generations invested time in learning Chumash, Tanach, and aggadeta. Yet today, sadly, many think that these parts of Torah aren’t worthwhile projects for advanced learners like them! Over the years, as their school curriculum becomes more and more Gemara-focused, it’s natural for boys to feel that they have “graduated” from studies like Chumash. We need to make sure we’re correcting that error, and certainly not reinforcing it! If a boy consistently sees that his parents and mentors sincerely value these Torah endeavors, down the road he’ll be more likely to pursue areas that interest him, even if they don’t win him the admiration of others. It’s up to us to make sure he has all the options available. One of them may well be the plank that will help him weather the storm.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 822)
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