A 2017 study conducted by the University of Cambridge showed that school children who receive words of encouragement from a teacher are significantly more likely to continue their education beyond the age of 16 than those who do not.
The study surveyed 4 300 learners across the UK who, during their last year of compulsory education, were asked whether a teacher had encouraged them to stay on in full-time education.
The study showed that the influence of teacher encouragement appeared to be especially powerful for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and for those battling on the margins of university qualification. For such learners facing high levels of adversity, words of encouragement increased entry into post-16 education from just over half to around two-thirds.
In this week’s parsha, Shoftim, we read about the particular importance of words of encouragement. The Torah discusses a special mitzvah regarding troops going out to battle. Just before engaging with the enemy, a priest designated exclusively for the purpose of offering encouragement to the troops reads out a declaration, which appears in this week’s parsha:
“When you approach the battle, the priest should come and speak to the nation, and he should say to them, ‘Hear O Israel, today you are going out to battle against your enemies, let your heart not be faint; do not be afraid; do not panic; and do not be broken before them – because the Lord your G-d is accompanying you to do battle against your enemies in order to save you.” (Deuteronomy 20:2-4)
Rashi quotes the Talmud in Tractate Sotah (42a), which says these four expressions refer to four different tactics employed by armies in those days. “Do not be faint of heart” refers to the neighing of horses; armies of that time would stir up their horses and the ensuing noise would intimidate opposition forces. “Do not be afraid” refers to the clattering of shields; armies would clang their shields together and make a fearful noise. “Do not panic” refers to the trumpets the enemy would blow that would induce opposition forces to flee in terror. “Do not be broken before them” refers to the shouting of the enemies, whose war cries would also scare the opposition. The designated priest would therefore read out a declaration to the soldiers of the Jewish people, saying, in effect: ‘You are going into battle and you are going to hear all of these noises; the enemy is trying to intimidate you, but don’t be afraid. G-d is with you.’
From this we learn the importance of encouragement in facing down life’s great challenges. The Torah is teaching us that the morale of the troops is of the utmost importance; to be victorious, they have to believe in themselves. They have to have faith in G-d and the courage to face the terrors and dangers of war.
The Chofetz Chaim, one of our great sages of the late 19th and early 20th century, applies this principle to other areas of life. He says that on a personal level, when one is facing temptation or the challenge of doing the right thing, a person can feel intimidated by the negative inclination – their base desires. It’s not easy to fight this adversary. It’s not easy to be a person of moral conviction and integrity. We fight a moral battle within ourselves every single day. And to win it, we need all the encouragement we can get.
The Chofetz Chaim also applies this concept in the societal context; following the principles of the Torah means being committed to a Jewish worldview. It’s not necessarily the most popular worldview, and therefore it requires plenty of courage to stand up to competing views – to intimidation from those who try to sway us from our beliefs and what we know is true.
The Chofetz Chaim says we need courage so that we can firmly adhere to our principles in this noisy world. And we can draw encouragement from reflecting on the fact that our faith and our Torah principles came to us directly from G-d Himself, more than 3 300 years ago, and have been passed down through history, from generation to generation.
Ultimately, though, human beings are social creatures – we draw the greatest encouragement from each other. And the greatest discouragement, too. We constantly take our cues from those around us, and this presents both challenges and opportunities.
There is a fascinating law in the parsha about who can be conscripted as a soldier for a discretionary war. One person who is exempt from such a war is someone who is “afraid and soft of heart”. Such a person should leave the front, so that “he should not melt the heart of his brothers like his heart [is melted]”. The Bahag, one of the great codifiers of Jewish law, rules that it is actually a prohibition for him to stay on. Fear is contagious, and if this person remains, he will do great harm to the morale of the army. Of course, it works both ways; courage, conviction and determination are equally contagious.
The principle of social influence applies to all endeavours in life, specifically to the pursuit of Torah. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, one of the great teachers of the Mir Yeshiva in the 20th century, illustrates this from the Gemara, which discusses the great prophet Elisha and his student Geichazi, and how Elisha went to Damascus to track down Geichazi, who had left Torah observance and fled from the Land of Israel. When Elisha eventually catches up with his student, he urges him to return to his spiritual home. Geichazi replies that he is beyond redemption because of his involvement in one of the most serious of all sins – causing other people to sin. One can repent for one’s own misdeeds, but how can one fix what one has caused others to do wrong? The Rambam actually says there is nothing that stands in the way of true repentance – it is just much more difficult when one causes other people to sin. But Geichazi felt he was past the point of no return.
The Gemara discusses what Geichazi did that caused him such despair. One opinion is that he was involved in luring people into idolatry. After the great split of the Jewish people, when 10 of the tribes seceded from the southern kingdom of Judea, Geichazi helped Yeravam ben Nevat, king of the northern kingdom to set up an elaborate idol – a golden cow levered with metal plates and giant magnets to create the impression that it was levitating. This idol served to deter King Yeravam’s subjects from visiting the Temple in Jerusalem, situated in the south, which would have undermined his political power.
The other opinion is not that Geichazi lured people into idolatry, but that he lured Elisha’s students away from Torah learning. The Jerusalem Talmud explains that his means of persuasion was quite subtle; Geichazi used to sit casually outside Elisha’s house of study. When his students arrived, they were immediately discouraged by Geichazi’s lack of enthusiasm, and left in dismay.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz points out that the Gemara seems to be equating the severity of these two sins – one encouraging idolatry, the other discouraging Torah learning. From here, we see how important it is to encourage people (in the correct path) and how terrible it is to discourage them – even indirectly.
The Alter of Kelm, Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, says inner courage is a foundation of serving G-d and leading a virtuous life. When people feel discouraged, they lack the strength and conviction to do the right thing. The Alter of Kelm cites the example of Joshua: when Joshua assumes the leadership after Moses, both Moses and G-d, Himself, offer him those classic words of encouragement: chazak ve’ematz – “be strong and of good courage”.
We see how necessary encouragement is, even for a person as great as Joshua. This was someone who witnessed the great Divine miracles of the Exodus – the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the sea; who saw the manna fall from Heaven and Miriam’s miraculous well; who heard G-d’s voice speak at Mount Sinai; who had the courage and conviction to stand up to the spies’ slanderous report about the Land of Israel. But even Joshua needed encouragement.
We live in a world of much discouragement and confusion. A cynical world in which positive, affirmative, encouraging words are in short supply. But we need to take encouragement where we can find it, for it is vital for our own courage and conviction – for remaining committed to Hashem and His Torah in a society that is often not receptive to these beliefs and ideals. And we must offer encouragement to others – to our spouse, our children, our friends, our community. We need to exude positivity, energy and courage at every turn. In that way, we can reinforce our great beliefs, values and ideals, and infuse the world with a love of Hashem and of doing good.