Good Under Pressure
The referee blew his whistle and stopped the play. He pointed at my son.
With great authority and in a real deep voice he said, “Son, your shoe is
untied.” My son looked down at his feet, quickly dropped to a knee and
frantically began trying to tie his shoe.
Under normal circumstances, he’s pretty adept at tying his shoe. He does so
flawlessly every morning in his room all by himself. But on this particular
occasion he was not by himself; a referee was looking over his shoulder,
seven other players were anxiously waiting for him to finish, and about 25
gathered parents all watched him perform this relatively easy task. As soon
as he started, I could tell this was not going to go well.
A flustered child simply cannot tie a shoe. Shaky, nervous or rushed little
fingers can’t hold the laces in place. The more the child rushes, the more
likely he is to fail; the more he fails, the more flustered he gets, and the
This week’s parsha begins with an odd phrase. In commanding Moshe to
instruct the Jewish people regarding various civil and tort laws, the Torah
says v’eilah hamishpatim, these are the laws, asher tasim lifneihem, that
you shall place before them.
Generally, tangible items (like food) can be placed before someone; laws and
rules, on the other hand, are either taught or instructed, but they are not
placed. Our Sages, therefore, understand from this phrase that indeed Moshe
was required to place the laws before them as if on a platter on a perfectly
set table. They should be easy to understand, clear, and readily accessible.
It would seem that in order to successfully do so, two necessary factors
must be in place. One is obvious: The teacher must present the information
in a clear and well thought-out manner. But there is a second, possibly even
more important factor: The student must have an environment in which he or
she can absorb the material.
To illustrate what that means, consider the following incident recorded in
the Talmud. Rebbe Preida had a student who was not particularly bright. In
fact, this student needed to be taught every single lesson 400 times before
he could grasp the material. Rebbe Preida, with indescribable patience,
would oblige him, repeating each and every lesson 400 times until the
On one occasion Rebbe Preida announced before beginning the lesson that he
had a wedding to attend after the class. He began to teach, and as he
always did, repeated the lesson over and over again to this particular
student. At the end of the 400th time, he stood up to leave.
“But Rebbe,” his student protested, “I don’t understand yet.”
This time it was Rebbe Preida who didn’t understand. “But we’ve studied it
400 times, just like we always do. What’s wrong?” he asked.
The student responded, “Rebbe, today you announced before we started that
you had to leave. But I didn’t know when. Would it be after the 5th lesson
or after the 70th? Each time you began to teach, I thought to myself: This
is it. I have to understand it now because he’s going to leave after this
one. The pressure was too great. I couldn’t concentrate, and I couldn’t
follow the lesson.”
Many of us have jobs where we have to think or perform under pressure. It’s
an important skill that often is the difference between success and failure.
But children do not always function the way adults do. Most children simply
can’t learn or perform under pressure. They can’t think or concentrate. They
need to know that they have the time and the space to figure things out at
their own pace.
If tying a shoe under pressure becomes an almost impossible task, imagine
trying to learn how to read, or figure out algebra, or come up with a
creative writing topic with a parent looking over your shoulder, ready to
criticize every move if it’s not perfect the first time.
None of us would like it if our boss stood over our shoulders while we
worked. Our children do not want us to do it to them either. Give them
space. Whether learning to write, or pouring their own bowl of cereal or
figuring out their math homework, let them work it out. The task at hand is
difficult enough; they don’t need the additional pressure of an impatient
parent who wants them to get it right the first time.
We have many lessons we want to teach our kids. They need an environment
that will allow them to learn, to experiment, to make mistakes and then
correct them. A home in which parents are a source of calming encouragement
instead of unnecessary pressure will be a home in which children flourish.
Have a great Shabbos.