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A Torah Teacher and the Ikea Effect

01/24/2019 12:00:00 AM


This week is the second yahrzeit for Philip Zuckerz"l - Mr. Zucker served as the Shammash and Baal Koreh for our synagogue for many years, teaching a generation of our young people how to read the Torah. 

Mr. Zucker liked to share short d’vrei torah with me. He would begin with a question that often felt like a riddle or a puzzle? After waiting for me to come up with a solution – he would deliver his answer with a big smile. He would glow with the joy of someone who had just delivered the best joke he had told in his entire life. That feeling of elation – and triumph. As if to say - Ahhh – THAT was a good one.

I mention this point, because I came across a Rashi. This Rashi is such a classic that every Israeli quotes it without knowing its source.  כל התחלות קשות- All beginning are difficult. Did you ever wonder where that phrase comes from? It comes from a Rashi on our parsha.

רש"י שמות פרק יט (ה) ועתה - אם עתה תקבלו עליכם יערב לכם מכאן ואילך, שכל התחלות קשות:

כל התחלות קשות- All beginning are difficult. Allow me to pretend to be Mr. Zucker and ask you a question. Why must all beginnings be difficult? Why couldn’t God make a world in which teaching students Torah would be easy? Where children would not run from school, as if they had just been freed from prison? A world where Jewish Education would not always be in perpetual crisis?

The answer can be found by aligning this Rashi with the text of the blessing that we recite every morning on the Torah. Open your siddur to page 81 in the Birnbaum and page 16 in the Artscroll. We do not use the word limud – study to describe the mitzvah of studying Torah – rather we use the word laasok – which means to labour – to engross oneself - to work hard. The words that follow are a prayer – vehaarev na; please God – now that we have worked - make the words of Torah sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of our children. Why must Torah be a challenge – why must teaching Torah require so much effort? BECAUSE ONLY THEN WILL IT BE SO SWEET.   

Rashi’s insight into our experience at Mount Sinai has a scientific corollary called the IKEA effect. Behavioral economists have discovered a cognitive bias in which consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created.

The IKEA effect has been described as follows: "The price is low for IKEA products largely because they take labor out of the equation. With a Phillips screwdriver, an Allen wrench and rubber mallet, IKEA customers can build their own furniture. But what happens when they do? They fall in love with their IKEA creations. Even when there are parts missing, when the constructing is difficult, and the items are incorrectly built, customers still loved the fruits of their labors.

I do not know if Mr. Zucker ever visited an IKEA store, but he made use of the IKEA effect. He expected great things of his students. He expected them to “not be monkeys” who would repeat back like “a tape recorder.” He expected his students to learn proper dikduk, the teamim and all the nuances. He expected them to read SLOW, CLEAR, and LOUD! This was hard work. This was an esek – a labour. But just as when he told a dvar torah which finished with a sweet smile, the end results of his teaching were young men and young women who loved Torah – who experienced sweetness in the sound and the meaning of Hashem’s Torah.

When we push people to work hard and achieve, they will often thank us for the opportunity. When we demand excellence of ourselves throughout our lives, we will experience a sweetness that does not come from the laid-back-life. A member of our congregation told me a story. One Shabbat morning, he woke up to see that it was pouring outside. He debated, “Should I stay at home or go to shul.” “Should I stay or should I go” – This man’s yetzer hara was about to win. Gosh, it was really raining hard? A torrential downpour, Hurricane-like winds of Biblical proportions:  Suddenly, he noticed a yellow raincoat slowly moving down the street.  Mr. Zucker, a man thirty years his senior, had gotten dressed in rain pants, a rain jacket and rain boots and was making the long trip from his home to Shaarei Shaomyim. Unknowingly, Mr. Zucker had vanquished this man’s yetzer hara.

Mr. Zucker displayed a seriousness and love for Torah and mitzvoth to his students and to his community. The sweetness of his Torah – his vehaarev na – was earned by – laasok bedevrei torah – by the steady careful work: a pasuk well-practiced; a wet walk to shul; one careful step at a time.  

Let us continue his legacy by devoting ourselves to Torah and the culture of excellence in the study of Torah. Let us invest in Jewish education – and let us rejoice in the struggle. May we each be blessed to experience the sweetness that God has promised to us.

וְנִהְיֶה אֲנַֽחְנוּ וְצֶאֱצָאֵֽינוּ, וְצֶאֱצָאֵי כָל עַמְּךָ בֵּית

יִשְׂרָאֵל, כֻּלָּֽנוּ יוֹדְעֵי שְׁמֶֽךָ, וְלוֹמְדֵי תוֹרָתֶֽךָ לִשְׁמָהּ

Mon, 30 November 2020 14 Kislev 5781