This is a really amazing story from Penina. I have nothing else to say except that it’s great.
I had a very chassidish teacher in high school who was (and still is) in many ways regarded as one of the saints of the school. She’s brilliant, and even though she brings no sources nobody really cares because we know that if someone asked her what sefer an idea come from she’d list it with the page number. She’s also incredibly sweet and gentle, and we admire her no less for these qualities than for her brilliance.
I never quite melded with her very chassidus-filled lessons (or, to be perfectly honest, with her testing style). But I was known as being one of those girls who behaved well but didn’t necessarily always go with the flow. While I highly respected her as a teacher, I often either didn’t understand or didn’t agree with ideas that she mentioned, and I wasn’t hesitant to raise my hand to ask any questions that I had.
At a certain point, she told me to stop raising my hand and to instead write down my questions, which she would answer for me outside. I proceeded to do so — not every class, but every so often. The advantage to writing your questions down is that you have more time to think them over and really refine them, and I definitely took advantage, honing them down to a point and being more conceptual — trying to understand the concepts in chassidus that were coming up as she explained the meraglim rather than asking questions about the meraglim.
Every time I asked her something, she sat me down and explained the answers. I would always thank her for her time when she was done and leave.
One day, after class, she motioned for me to follow her into an empty classroom. I was confused, because I didn’t have a single question to ask her. I had no idea what to expect. “I notice you’re asking some really foundational questions here,” she told me in her sweet soft voice.
Uh oh, I thought. It’s coming. She’s going to tell me that I’m being annoying and wasting her time and my hashkafos need a boost…
“These are really fantastic questions!”
I nodded, but I knew she was just cushioning me for the blow.
“But there is one thing that I think is really important that we get on the table here.”
Here it comes… “The derech I teach, while you need to know it for the test and while I think that it is extremely beneficial in life, is not the only derech, and I hope that you don’t think that just because you’re not connecting with my derech, you aren’t connecting with yiddishkeit. Because what I teach, that’s only one way, and it doesn’t work for everyone. Other people need different approaches, and I think that you can find the one that works for you more than my class does.”
I was open-mouthed.
She looked stricken.
“I hope you don’t think I’m brushing you off! I look forward to talking with you and I’ll always answer any questions you have. But I just want to make sure, for your sake, that you know that just because this isn’t connecting for you doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or your hashkafos or your emunah — it just means that chassidus may not be the path that works best with your neshama and sechel.”
I finally closed my mouth and told her, perfectly honestly, “No teacher has ever before told me, straight out, that there was an approach besides that of her class and that it’s okay if I don’t connect.”
And it was true — just like every year our English teacher taught us an entirely new and only possible legitimate way to write an essay, our tefila teachers and parsha teachers and kesuvim teachers taught us the one right way to understand a given topic. Even when they contradicted, nobody would ever comment on this — it was understood that what the teacher was saying was emes le’amiso.
There was only one other teacher in high school who told me that — the teacher who, when I questioned the Ramchal too many times, told me that Mesilas Yesharim doesn’t have to be my path toward shleimus. But it was Ramchal! I don’t have to agree with Ramchal?! I was astonished.
I really have to thank both of those teachers for leading me toward a path where I can discover the ways toward shleimus and Torah which do work for me.