What I Learned From Having a Teacher’s Pet

Parsha Thoughts by Rabbi Shmuel Wagner: We often like to put people in ‘boxes’, dividing them into personality types. But an experience having a teacher’s pet taught me a valuable lesson.

By Rabbi Shmuel Wagner – teacher at ULY Ocean Parkway

There are two types of people: Those wh-

Really? Two types of people? Of the billions of humans Hashem put on this world, you got them all narrowed down to two types?!

Yes, I know that the “There are two types of people” opening line is either in a joke or is speaking within the framework of a specific context. I know that, and I am not here to nitpick on the exact phrase.

I am merely using that phrase as an example of how we tend to indeed do that: We figure people out, and we place them into a box of certain personality types.

Ostensibly, it is quite fun, and even eye-opening, to learn about personality types. You answer a few questions, and voila! You read a professional report about who you are! “Yes, this is exactly me!”, you exclaim. “Oh my, this is so spooky – how do they know me!?”

Suddenly, you are hooked. You are researching more about your personality type. You are sending links to all your family and friends (“You have to see this!”). You begin assessing those around you, trying to see if you can correctly calculate their personality type.

What can be wrong with this?

Maybe nothing.

Let us examine, what does Torah-Yiddishkeit have to say about this topic?

Exhibit A:

This week’s Parsha.

Moshe, the Faithful Shepherd, is told that the time has come for him to depart from his beloved flock. Moshe turns to Hashem and emphatically requests that Hashem appoint a new leader to guide his nation, proceeding to enumerate the required criteria for said leader.

Opening his request, Moshe addresses Hashem as “אלקי הרוחות”, “G-d of the spirits”. This unique title prompts the sages of the Midrash (quoted in Rashi) to uncover that Moshe was alluding to an additional quality necessary for the next leader to have. “Hashem,” said Moshe, “you know your children whom You have created. You know that there are no two people alike. Please appoint a leader that will be able to connect individually with each person.”

The Midrash connects this with the Halacha that upon seeing 600,000 Jews together, one makes a Bracha, blessing Hashem for being the “Wise One of the secrets”. We praise Hashem’s ability to create 600,000 individuals, each one with their own distinct personality as diversely unique as their physical appearance. In the words of our holy sages, “כשם שאין פרצופיהן דומין זה לזה, כך אין דעתן שוין זה לזה”.

Tell me, you see here 16 personalities?! 600,000 personalities?!

Exhibit B:

The first Mishna, not only of this week’s Perek, but of all of Pirkei Avos.

After a concise tour of the transmission of Torah (I’m talking one-thousand-years-in-fifteen-words concise), the opening instruction-lesson of Pirkei Avos is, “הוו מתונים בדין”, “Be patient in judgement”.

Being that Pirkei Avos was written primarily for judges, it instructs them not to rule hastily, which may cause them to err. (פירוש המשניות להרמב”ם)

Why would a judge be hasty?

This refers to a scenario where the judge is ruling in a matter that has already been before him, with other litigants. The judge may think, “I am already familiar with this question! I know the ins and outs of these arguments, so I can cut to the chase and quickly rule in this case.” To that the Mishna says, “No! Judge patiently.” (רבי עובדיה מברטנורא בשם הספרי)

But, if this is the scenario, why indeed may the judge not rely on his previous experience?

Because, Rabbi Yeshayahu Halevi Horowitz explains, when you are dealing with a new case and new people, past experience should only guide you, not blind you. It should point you along the journey, not trap you into thinking that you have already arrived at the destination having seen it all. (של”ה תורה אור על הפסוק צדק צדק תרדוף)

In a Sicha, the Rebbe takes it a step further, applying this lesson to anyone; not just judges:

When looking to help someone, be patient. Do not rush into your own comfort zone of familiarity, thereby confining that person to your own experiences. Do not project your personality as the premise of his position. Get out of yourself, free yourself of your preconceived outcomes. Then, and only then, will you truly be able to help them, as they are. (ביאורים על פרקי אבות)

True story:

I am a teacher. Do teachers have pets? I cannot speak for all teachers, but I am guilty of subconsciously having had a teacher’s-pet one year. Was it the goody-goody student? Was it the wise son? Far from it.

This was a student who, to say it positively, prompted me to communicate often with his parents. This was a student who required me to work many an after-school-hour, pondering a way to “make it work” for him in class.

Why was he my favorite student? Because I felt like I “got him” (a feeling corroborated by his parents). I felt a connection to him – because so many things about his personality reminded me of myself at that age. Many times, in conversation with him, I was able – to his amazement – to correctly guess how he was feeling in class. As I explained to him, this was because I was going back in my memories to myself as a fifth grader, and it most often matched.

One time, I was talking to this student’s parents, and I said, “Yes, I get him; he reminds me so much of myself.” As the words exited my mouth, I heard what I was saying, and I instantly realized how wrong the whole thing was: basically, I was teaching myself, not him. The whole time, I was not dealing to him, I was subconsciously dealing with a reflection of myself.

It was BH a transformative moment, which changed the way I continued to deal with that student, and any other student in similar situations. Yes, it is true that the fact that we shared personalities was a positive resource to help me help him – but exactly that: We are not the same person, and I needed to make sure that I was helping him.

People, also known as “individuals”, are exactly that: individuals. Not collective creatures of consciousness.

Back to our examination of personality tests.

Not to get too much into the psychology and history of how these tests were created, but the basic idea is that they are able to fit everyone into certain pre-types. When we take the test and see how we fit into a certain type, we get so excited that we identified our ‘self’, so we start living the version of life they match to our personality type.

Basically, we start telling ourselves stories of how life should be, because of what a certain website, doctor, therapist, etc. told us. Worse yet, we go ahead and impose these new beliefs on others.

Ponder this: When you initially took that test, how was the website able to tell you which personality type you are, if not from the information provided by – you, from episodes that happened to – you, in – your life. You will now solely choose the career they suggest?! You will now cultishly follow their marriage advice?!

There are two types of people: Those whose personality type control their life choices, and those whose life choices control their personality type.

“So, what did you think about that Shiduch resume I sent you?”

“It was great, really, everything seems exactly what I am looking for. Kindhearted, Chassidish-But-With-It, smart, good family-”

“Ok, excellent, so are we on? Shall I set up the date?”

“No.”

“What? Why not?!”

(Sigh:) “I thought we went through this last time – the personality types do not match.”

(Exasperated:) “What do you mean?! I specifically did the research. I made sure they are an INFP! What’s wrong?!”

“I need an INFP-A. This person, from what I gather, is an INFP-T… Sorry, I don’t mean to be difficult, but it just won’t work. We’re not compatible.”

Or, how about this one:

“Hey Moishy, good to see you, long time no see! You still live in Crown Heights? I thought I heard that you were moving on Shlichus?”

“Hey! Yeah, we were meant to move a few months ago, but it fell through.”

“Oy, sorry to hear that. Wait, I thought you were all close with that head-Shliach, no?”

 “Yeah no, it fell through because we backed out.”

“Oh, interesting. Why?”

“Just didn’t feel like it was for me.”

“Huh? Wasn’t it a CTeen Shlichus?”

“Yeah, it was.”

“How is that not your thing?! Hello? Remember the CTeen Shabbaton five years ago – you were rocking that place! What’re you talking about not your thing?!”

“I know, but I recently took the MBTI test, and according to the results, I am less of an S, and more of an N. I think I’m gonna go into graphic design or something like that.”

The issue is when these 16 lenses become those with which we view everyone, and we are not able to look past those frames and frameworks.

The problem becomes when we predict, prophesize and plan purely upon the proposed properties of these predetermined personalities.

Are they irredeemably evil? no. They are not absolutely against Torah views. They invaluably help identify the patterns of a certain behavior, and many people are able to help their children once they have a better understanding of what exactly is happening. It would be imprudent to rule that there is no good available in these tests.

Ban personality tests? I would not rush (get it?) to say that. Ban treating these tests as diagnostic scripts for life? Absolutely!

Even a Rov giving a Shiur in Halacha will preface with a disclaimer that the Shiur is for informative purposes only, and that in a specific case one must consult with a Rov.

I would say the same for these tests: use them for illustrative purposes only. As with every step of life, a competent Mashpia must be asked before applying such methods – especially on others, especially on children.

There are two types of people: Those who believe in “two types of people”, and those who bring themselves to appreciate each individual for who they truly are.

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