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Parshas Balak - Who is the Test For?                 15 Tammuz 5779       

07/17/19 12:37:30


Following up on last week’s message, I would like to share another aspect of experiences from my high school academic career. I was not particularly into test taking or, for that matter, even studying for tests. Despite the advice of educators proclaiming that cramming for an exam is not very beneficial, I, knowing better, reasoned the opposite. “Why should I study or prepare in advance of a test, taking the risk of possibly forgetting the material? I reasoned that it was much better to buckle down and study twenty minutes before the exam. That way the material would be fresh in my mind.” Believe it or not, this strategy did meet with limited success; I did get some of the questions right.

Looking back at my adolescent view of tests, I continue to consider what is the testing process really for? Most educators will tell you that a test is given to measure and assess the student’s growth of knowledge, formally measuring how much information the student retained, was able to process, and apply. I am of the belief that tests in actuality determine the quality and effectiveness of the teacher! Think about it. What student wouldn’t want to do well on an exam? Surely, most students would do whatever it takes to succeed, providing he or she was genuinely motivated and encouraged by the teacher. I believe that the results of student performance on classroom tests are a direct reflection of the focused teaching techniques of the teacher,

I tried using my theory of teaching when answering my parents each time I had to have the tests and quizzes signed off by one of them in order to show the teacher that my parents had been informed and therefore kept in the loop of my academic performance - or lack of. I would defend my lower grade on an exam with the following argument: There was a ten-question test and each question was worth ten points. I got five wrong for a whopping fifty percent, while everyone else in the class scored ninety percent. Obviously, all of them had gotten one of the ten wrong. After carefully analyzing the data of the test, I realized that each student got a different question wrong. That meant that I was not the only student to have gotten that question wrong. To the contrary, each one of the questions that I got wrong another student also got wrong. So, I could surmise that it certainly was not I; it was the teacher who got it wrong. I suppose I could have admitted that occasionally it was my fault, especially if I happened to be the only one who got the wrong answer, but that wasn’t the case!

A teacher’s effectiveness is measured through the growth of his or her students’ love of learning the material; it can be seen through the stimulating, creative and challenging way of presenting the material being taught. My Rebbi, Rabbi Reznick, was all of the above, particularly when it came to giving an exam. He created a twenty-question multiple choice test. . By design, a multiple-choice test has three to five choices and you must choose the best answer possible. Typically, the choices were preceded by letters A,B,C,D. My Rebbi created self-motivation throughout the test with the choice of selection being different numbers such as 4,9,15, or 19. A different set of numbers was presented for each one of the twenty questions. A student could answer each question in order, but if he chose the third answer which, for example, would be 15) he would answer question number 15 instead of question two. If the student answered all twenty questions and did not come back to a question that had already been answered, it meant that the student got them all right and a one hundred percent on the test. I do remember one brilliant fellow, HaRav Shlomo Goder, A”H, who was able to get a perfect score, not by knowing the material per se, but by figuring out the mathematical system. As one could see, tests and their purpose have different goals in different situations. The Torah is replete with leaders and foes of the Jewish people who lived and died by their tests. One such individual who almost passed the test but ultimately failed was Bilaam HaRasha, Bilaam the wicked.

In this week’s reading of Parshas Balak, the Torah states in Bamidbar 24:10 “ויחר אף בלק אל ‘ ‘ “‘ויאמר בלק אל בלעם לקב איבי וגו.בלעם ויספק את כפיו: Enraged at Balaam, Balak struck his hands together. “I called you,” Balak said to Balaam, “to damn my enemies, and instead you have blessed them these three times!” HaRav Yitzchok Shmelkish*in his sefer Beis Yitzchok quotes the Beis HaLevi**and asks why Balak was so angry at Bilaam. Didn’t Bilaam at the very outset tell Balak that he would not speak what God did not tell him to say? But Balaam said to Balak, (Bamidbar 22:38) “And now that I have come to you, have I the power to speak freely? I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth.” From the beginning Bilaam gave full disclosure that he did not know whether he would be able to curse the Jews. Why would Balak be so angry after the fact?

It is understood that when a person says, “I can’t do such and such a thing,” we know there are two ways to interpret the intent. For example: a person tells his friend go to over to a certain respected individual and, for a great sum of money, slap the person across the face! There is no question any normal person would say, “I can’t do that.” If he turns to another person and asks him to lift the wall of a city for a great sum of money, so, too, here the person would reply, “I can’t do that.” Even though both responses were identical, there is a great difference between them. In truth, in the first case he could carry out the request (or the test), but his sense of decency and normalcy does not allow him to carry it through. In the second scenario, it is simply physically impossible to lift the wall of a city. The practical difference between “I can’t” in the two scenarios is one does not think it is worth it while the other is just incapable. Perhaps, for a lot of money someone would slap another, and if he was smart would tell the recipient of the slap that he’d split the money with him. As far as lifting the wall, all the money in the world could not change the facts on the ground.

When Balak approached Bilaam, at first he was offering money that he thought just wasn’t enough and for that reason to curse the Jews, an honored people, would take more than that. So Balak offered more and Bilaam responded that even if you give me all the money in the world, I can’t do it. Balak viewed Bilaam as the first case while Bilaam was looking at the lifting the wall case.

When we test people and challenge them, it must be something that they can accomplish if they believe it is worth it for them. We can’t challenge and test children or adults with something beyond their capabilities. A teacher, parent, boss or employer that gives a test that is too difficult or material that was not properly explained is the “I can’t” factor - the wall. Creating a test, trial or a task that requires the motivation to prepare, to work hard to succeed is the first case scenario. The Ribbono Shel Olam tests each and everyone one of us daily. Our job, our responsibility, is to see the benefit side of what we gain and how we grow from those experiences and not to get down on ourselves. Let us all rise to the test and all say “I CAN”.

Ah Gut Shabbos

Rabbi Avraham Bogopulsky


*Rov of Lemberg passed away 9 Tishrei 5666/1906

**Yosef Dov Soloveitchik born 1820 in Nesvizh, Minsk, died 1892 in Brest-Litovsk, Grodno was the author of Beis Halevi, by which name he is better known among Talmudic scholars. He was the great-grandson of Rabbi Chaim Volozhin.

Thu, February 27 2020 2 Adar 5780