Understanding Each Person's Uniqueness
Bamidbar, 27:15-16: Moses spoke to God saying, May HaShem, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the assembly...
Bamibar, 27:18: HaShem said to Moses, 'Take to yourself Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom there is spirit, and lean your hand upon him."
Rashi, 27:16: sv. God of the spirits: For what [reason] was this said? He [Moshe] said before Him, Master of the Universe, it is revealed before you the nature of each person and that they are not similar to each other - appoint a leader who can bear each person according to his nature.
Rashi, 27:18, sv. In whom there is spirit: As you asked - that he can guide corresponding to the spirit of each person.
Moses, realizing that he will not lead the people into the land of Israel, asks God to appoint a successor. Within his request he describes God in an unusual way; as the 'God of the spirits of all flesh'. Rashi explains that he was alluding to God's ability to understand the different natures of every single individual, and he was requesting that his successor emulate this quality as much as possible. It is illuminating that of all the possible qualities required for leadership that Moses seemed to consider this in particular as the most important. It comes to teach us the importance of understanding the different natures of people, and the accompanying need to treat them differently. This trait is not only relevant to a leader of the Jewish nation - it is necessary for any person in a position of authority over others, including a teacher or parent.
With regard to how we bring up children, King Solomon teaches us this idea through his well known exhortation, "Chanoch lenaar al pi darko", (1) 'educate the child according to his way'. The wisest man teaches us that there is no single correct way of bringing up a child, rather one must understand each child's unique qualities and challenges and act accordingly.
There are many examples of this concept; below we will discuss one of the less well-known but vital applications, through a woman's person account of a challenge she faced in her life. As a child, Rachel always found school very difficult, and it was apparent that she had some kind of learning disability but the experts were unable to detect what it was. She had one particular teacher who seemed to relate to her struggles more than the others, and gave her extra leeway. On one occasion the girl did very poorly in a test. Instead of berating her, the teacher gave her the opportunity to take the test again, but this time the teacher gave her significant help before the test. That evening, the girl worked very hard on the test and was happy to receive an 80% - not an outstanding result by any means, but given her natural challenges she felt redeemed. However, her teacher was not so satisfied: "Rachel, I understood why you did badly on the test the first time, but the second time I gave you so much help, you could easily have achieved a far higher grade than 80. When I was a child I also did badly in school until I realized that if I work harder I can do well; from then on I succeeded. If you would act the same way then you will do far better."
This rebuke struck Rachel very hard, especially since she felt that she had genuinely worked hard. As she grew up she came to recognize that her teacher made a serious mistake. Up to that point she had empathized with Rachel because she had endured through similar difficulties as a child, but she assumed that Rachel's problems were the same as hers and consequently the solution would be identical as well. When this didn't happen she became angry at Rachel, thinking she was lazy, when in truth Rachel had totally different issues from her.
As she grew up and learnt to deal with her learning difficulties, Rachel felt a special affinity to children who had learning difficulties and she took a job as a teacher who's focus was on helping such children. There was one girl in the class who, like Rachel, didn't seem to follow what was going on, and would daydream throughout class. Rachel, relating to these problems, tried the very teaching techniques that had helped her as a child but to her chagrin they did not work. She felt herself getting frustrated at the child but soon realized that she was falling into the same trap as the teacher from her own childhood.
She approached the child therapist of the school with her difficulties with this child and how her techniques had failed to help. The therapist told her that there are two types of people who become teachers of children with learning difficulties; one group are those who always found learning easy and want to help those less fortunate than themselves; the other were people who struggled with those difficulties and wanted to help other children in similar situations. One benefit of the second group is that they could empathize with these children however there was also a danger - they expect that the child's problems are the same as theirs, and that the same solutions should work, when that often isn't the case. The therapist suggested different techniques to try with this girl.
This story teaches us a number of important lessons. Firstly we learn that we are prone to expect other people to function in a similar way as himself; this is natural because the only way we know how to view the world is our own. Yet when we are in a position of authority over other people, whether it be our own children, students, or employees, it is essential to avoid this trap and recognize that their strengths, challenges and outlook are likely to be very different to our own, and consequently the methods that may have worked for us may not succeed for others. In this way we can strive to somewhat emulate God's quality of relating to each individual in the way that will best bring out their potential.
1. Mishlei, 22:6.