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Personal Accountability and Blunting the Teeth of the Rasha

Alumni and Students
Rav Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky
            The Pesach Haggada contains many pedagogic insights and seems to even anticipate “modern” educational techniques.
            One well-known section of the text draws upon a didactic midrash that describes the “Four Sons”[1] and is found in two primary ancient versions. The one that appears in the Haggada is from the Mekhilta (Exodus 13:14),[2] which introduces four children: chakham (wise), rasha (wicked), tam (simple),[3] and she-eino yode’a lish’ol (does not know how to ask). The section is structured as questions posed by the four categories of children and the appropriate responses to each.
            The questions are based on four different Biblical verses that are woven into one unified “story” by the midrash.
            (a) The chakham’s question is from Deuteronomy 6:20,[4] and the answer given to him, befitting his status as a “chakham,” is from a mishna. The Biblical response of Deuteronomy 6:21 does not appear in the Haggada in response to the chakham,[5] but is rather paraphrased to form the basis of the general answer provided in the paragraph of Avadim Hayinu, which follows the four questions of the Ma Nishtana.[6]
            (b) The rasha’s question is from Shemot 12:26.[7] The Biblical part of the Haggada’s response to him is from Shemot 13:8.[8]
            (c) The tam’s question and answer are both from Shemot 13:14.
            (d) The statement to the final son (“who is not capable of asking a question”) is from Exodus 13:8. This verse begins with “you [feminine] shall tell your son,” but has no prompting question. Note that this is the same verse used in the answer to the rasha.
The Anomaly of the Rasha
            The most perplexing part of the Haggada’s formulation, and the focus of this essay, involves the rasha, whose question is deemed to be outright heresy and who is met with a bafflingly severe response:
The rasha – what does he say? “What is this work for you?” “For you” – and not for him. Since he removes himself from the group, he denies the existence of God. And you should hakheh his teeth and say to him: “For this God did for me when I left Egypt.” “For me” – and not for him. Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.
            The anomalies in the answer are also troubling from a stylistic viewpoint. Whereas the other three children each receive a straightforward verbal response, the rasha is treated to two additional components. The Haggada’s response to the rasha includes the instruction “hakheh et shinav” – do something to his teeth – and it additionally provides a stinging reprimand for his impudence. We inform the rasha, in third person,[9] that had he been enslaved in Egypt, he would not have been redeemed.[10] Why is he given these two extra responses, and is there a connection between these anomalous aspects?[11]
            In the remainder of this essay, we will first survey some of the standard answers offered to these questions, and we will then propose a novel explanation of the Haggada’s message.
Previously Suggested Explanations
            The Haggada Sheleima translates “hakheh” as “anger him,” and thereby relates the two responses as cause and effect. The rasha is angered by the admonishment that he would not have been redeemed from Egypt. The “hakheh” is thus not an action that must be performed, but rather the natural consequence of the rebuke. In other words, to paraphrase Psalms 112:10, the rasha is answered with a provocation that will cause his teeth “to gnash and melt away.”[12]
            Others similarly explain that “hakheh” is not active, but is rather related to the first half of the answer that declares the rasha a heretic. Since the rasha has demonstrated that he is removing himself from the Jewish community, he is viewed as a ben nekhar, and he is therefore prohibited from partaking of the Passover sacrifice (Shemot 12:43; Pesachim 96a). Indeed, the Biblical answer to his question (Shemot 12:27) discusses the korban Pesach. When we inform the rasha that he will have to watch everyone else eat the succulent, aromatic Passover sacrifice, while he will not be permitted to partake, his teeth will “stand on edge.”[13] The Ramban (Bereishit 49:10) similarly explains that the meaning is “to weaken his teeth with your words.”[14]
            Most explanations translate “hakheh” as to “blunt” or “dull” his teeth, and various explanations have been offered to clarify the intent here. R. Ovadia Yosef in his Haggada offers a creative and beautiful explanation that views this phrase as an analogy to the rasha.[15] The rasha is bothered by all of the ritual activities performed at the seder, which he labels as avoda (work). It seems that he would rather meditate and think about the Exodus than do the actions mandated of him. He is the original “cardiac Jew,” an individual who has a Jewish heart but is not interested in active mitzvot.
            The response of “hakheh” is a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the rasha contemplate what it would be like to live with blunted teeth that prevent him from eating. He could then ponder and speculate about the eating experience. He might even swallow a few vitamins, but he would not survive. As physical beings, humans require concrete activities in order to endure, and this applies to both the corporeal and spiritual realms. Hence, just as one must eat in order to survive physically, one must actively perform mitzvot in order to survive spiritually.[16]
            Interestingly, there is Biblical precedent for “bashing the teeth” of the wicked, although the word “hakheh” is not used in these sources. One example is Psalm 58, a condemnation of unjust judges. Verse 7 begins the psalmist’s prayer that God punish and incapacitate them, and his first request is, “O God, break (haras) their teeth in their mouths.” Psalm 112 is a prayer for the righteous individual who fears God and desires to imitate Him and fulfill His commandments. The response of the wicked to the triumph of the righteous is described as, “the rasha will see and be angry; he shall gnash his teeth and melt away” (verse 10). Here, the teeth are not broken by an outsider, but as a natural consequence of what the rasha observes. A similar phrase is used in Psalm 37, a psalm that discusses the problem of theodicy and asserts that the wicked will indeed be punished. Verse 12 states that a wicked person will plot against the righteous and gnash (ve-choreik) at him with his teeth. Similarly, in Psalms 35:16, the future King David complains that Saul and his party “gnash (charok) at me with their teeth.”[17]
Proposed Explanation
            All of the above explanations ring true, but it is unlikely that they reflect the original intent of the compiler of the Haggada. There is much more hidden within the unusual word “hakheh” that is used to describe blunting the teeth. Indeed, the entire response to the rasha presents an integrated message about Judaism’s system of reward and punishment. The anonymous compiler of the Haggada cleverly inserted this message, assuming a knowledgeable readership that would recognize it via particular words and phrases that would serve as hints or “hyper-links” to broader concepts.[18]
            The word “hakheh” is extremely rare in Biblical and liturgical literature. It is not the common word הכה, which means “hit,” but is rather הקהה, from the root ה.ק.ה. It appears in only three places in the Bible, Yirmiyahu 31:28-30, Yechezkel 18:2, and Kohelet 10:10, and all three citations are relevant to the Haggada’s usage.
            The verse in Kohelet notes that if one desires to chop wood with an ax that has a dull blade, he will have to apply additional muscle in order to accomplish his goal: “Im kaha (קהה) ha-barzel.” From this verse, we can deduce an unequivocal definition; in the context of an ax, “kaha” clearly means “blunt.”
            Indeed, Metzudot Tzion uses the meaning of ka’ha in Kohelet to derive its meaning in the less clear context of Yirmiyahu 31:28, where the word describes teeth. He explains that this refers to the “weakening of the teeth’s ability to cut food, just like the iron [of the ax] is weakened in its ability to cut wood,” i.e., a blunting of the teeth.
            The contexts of the word’s appearance in Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel both address the culpability of one generation for the sins of another, an issue that appears to have conflicting sources in the Torah. Devarim 24:16 states, “Fathers shall not be put to death for the [sins of] children and the children shall not be put to death for the [sins of] fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin.” This seems to clearly dissociate the actions of one generation from the responsibility of another, be it previous or subsequent. A seemingly contradictory statement is found in both versions of the Ten Commandments (Shemot 20:5; Devarim 5:9) and in the Thirteen Attributes with which Moshe pleaded with God to forgive the Jews after their sin with the Golden Calf (Shemot 34:7) and after the sin of the spies (Devarim 14:17-18). For example, Shemot 20:5 describes God as “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the third and upon the fourth generation of those that hate Me.” While the first source appears to state that Divine punishment does not cross generational lines, the others imply that it does. Many resolutions to this apparent contradiction have been suggested.[19]
            This same apparent contradiction is found in Nakh as well. Yirmiyahu 32:18 presents an example of intergenerational merit and culpability along with the associated reward and punishment: “And who recompenses the iniquity of the fathers into the bosom of their children after them.”[20] Additionally, Yirmiyahu 36:31 states: “And I will visit their iniquity upon him and his seed and his servants.” However, the contrary notion of personal responsibility, as expressed in Deuteronomy 24:16, is also found in the prophets. Yechezkel expresses it in a number of places, most prominently in chapter 18, where he states: “(v.17)… he shall not die for the iniquity of his father... (v.20) the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father... neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son ... (v.26) for his iniquity that he has done shall he die.”
            One of the clearest statements of individual accountability is a proverb found in almost identical form in Yirmiyahu 31:28-29 and Yechezkel 18:2-4, and it is in that context that the uncommon word “hakheh” appears. Yirmiyahu states: “In those days, they shall say no more: ‘The fathers have eaten unripe (sour) grapes,[21] and the children’s teeth are set on edge (tik’hena).’ But everyone shall die for his own iniquity; every man that eats the sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge (tik’hena).” In Yechezkel, the proverb is formulated as a question: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge (tik’hena)?” Thus, in the Bible, this unusual word appears as part of a parable to teach that there is no intergenerational accountability.
            It seems that the word “hakheh” in the response to the rasha is designed to recall for the reader the verses and parables from Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel. Seeing that unusual word is supposed to be like a hyperlink that reflexively brings to mind the rare Biblical occurrences of its use and its meaning in that context. Certainly for Rashi, this association is self-evident. In Ta’anit 7b (s.v. kaha ha-barzel), Rashi explains the word “kaha” in the verse in Kohelet by citing the verse from Yirmiyahu 31 and by quoting the response to the rasha from the Passover Haggada!
            The message of the parables is clear – there is no cross-generational reward or punishment. Merit and culpability are individually accrued and do not get passed down from previous generations, nor is the next generation burdened or rewarded with them: “Every man that eats the sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.” That is the message transmitted to the rasha in the Haggada.
            As noted above, the passage about the four sons in the Haggada is taken from the Mekhilta. This is the only occurrence of the root ק.ה.ה. in the Mekhilta and, indeed, it is rare in all of Rabbinic literature. The root sometimes refers to its plain meaning of “blunted” or “bitter.” However, it seems that it is more often summoned from obscurity by the rabbis to link the reader to the Biblical parables and hint at an intergenerational context, or, more precisely, an unsuccessful transfer from one generation to another.
            In Avot 4:2, R. Yossi bar Yehuda compares the disadvantages of learning from a young person to eating unripe grapes (“anavim keihot”) and drinking freshly squeezed wine from the winepress. There are many other ways to say unripe grapes that are used throughout the Mishna, but the word of choice here is “keha,” in the context of an unsuccessful intergenerational transfer.
            In Sota 48b-49a, the Gemara analyzes Zekharia 4:10 and suggests that the verse refers to the young children of the wicked who died for the sins of their fathers. The bereavement over their deaths would spare the wicked fathers additional punishment in the World to Come. The children petition God that if His intent was to exact punishment from the wicked in the future, why did He “blunt their teeth” (“hek’heita shineihem”)? Here, children being killed for the sins of their fathers, i.e., intergenerational transfer of guilt, is termed “blunting teeth.”
            Later on the same page, the Gemara relates that R. Huna found a special type of date, which he proudly gave to his son Rabba after he had established the latter’s spiritual purity. Rabba’s son Abba soon arrived, and Rabba gave the date to him without ascertaining his spiritual level. To this show of generosity, R. Huna responded that Rabba had blunted his teeth (“hikeita et shinai”), indicating an attempt at intergenerational transfer of merit. Generally, however, there is no intergenerational transfer of guilt or merit.
            The Gemara in Sanhedrin 109b engages in exegetical analysis of Korach’s name, as the Torah refers to him as Korach ben Yitzhar ben Kehat. As he was a descendent of Kehat,[22] the Gemara explains that his name characterizes him as a son who set the teeth of his ancestors on edge by embarrassing them through his actions. Again, the word is not merely used as an expression of upset or disappointment, but rather in the context of a perceived intergenerational relationship.[23]
                The Ramban suggests that this same root is actually found in several other Biblical verses. Commenting on Bereishit 49:10, “ve-lo yik’hat amim,” the Ramban understands the word “yik’hat” differently than Rashi, connecting it to Yirmiyahu 31:29,where it means weakness or breaking. The Ramban explains the verse to mean that the scepter of kingship will not leave Yehuda until his son (i.e., the messiah) comes and defeats the nations. This understanding of “yik’hat” adds a multi-generational component that is not explicit in the verse.
The Ramban does not explicitly explain the appearance of the root ק.ה.ה. in Mishlei 30:17, “tavus lik’hat eim,” but he alludes to the same explanation as Menachem ben Saruk (s.v. kuf heh), writing that the phrase means something like “He scorns the mother when she is weakened,” i.e., in her old age. In this case, the verse itself uses the word “keheh” to describe an intergenerational process.
            What is the significance of this association between the word “keheh” and intergenerational relationships in the Haggada? Possibly this: The rasha excludes himself from all of the Passover rituals, yet he is seemingly not concerned about his fate. Surely, he thinks, if all of the ritual that he rejects is truly required, he has no cause for worry. After all, the people around him are his family, and they are all engaged in performing God’s commandments. In his way of thinking, some of that merit would transfer to him.
            The compiler of the Haggada therefore instructs, “Blunt his teeth!” In other words, remind him of the “sour grape” verses. Remind him of the message of those parables. Neither guilt nor merit crosses generational lines. The code-word “hakheh” reminds him (and us) of the Biblical parables that teach that there is no intergenerational transfer.
            Based on this, the logical conclusion is exactly what the compiler of the Haggada writes next. If the rasha were in Egypt and had not behaved properly, he would not have been redeemed. The merit of his family would not have helped. The universal message is that there is no transfer of merit.
            The prophets in the books of Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel stressed personal accountability. Each person is responsible for his own deeds and is capable of teshuva. The burden of one’s sins and the suffering that one might endure as a result of them cannot be attributed to previous generations. Neither can one sin in the anticipation that the burden of guilt will be borne by subsequent generations or that he will get a free ride on the backs of meritorious previous generations. Jews cannot rest on the laurels of righteous ancestors; rather, each generation must establish its own merits and legacy. This is the meaning of the keyword “hakheh” and the Biblical parallels associated with it.
            It might be suggested that there is one exception to the rule of individual accountability – the concept of community zekhut, merit. That is why, for example, tefilla be-tzibbur is so important. Someone who falters can continue to be supported by the community that surrounds him. This is why we stress to the rasha that this merit will be of no avail to him, because he has removed himself from the community.
            In 1985, I was fortunate to spend the Passover seders in Odessa, Ukraine at the home of some real Jewish heroes, the Nepomnaschys. Yehudit, a courageous young woman whose father and fiancé were both rotting in Soviet prisons, explained to me and Baruch Sterman, my traveling partner, what was an important concept for these returning Jews of the Soviet Union. Although they were now practicing Jews, many of their close friends and relatives were not. She emphatically stated that in Judaism, almost no one is beyond the pale of hope. At the seder, one of the sons is labeled a rasha, an evil son, which is not a trivial designation. And yet he is given a seat at the table and even dignified with an answer to his insolence! We invite all “children” to the table and respond to their questions in an appropriate manner.
The new understanding of the blunting of the rasha’s teeth makes Yehudit’s insight even more meaningful. We answer the rasha in a seemingly harsh manner. However, in reality, it is a subtle yet powerful reminder of his personal responsibility. This individual accountability has the potential to doom him, as he is explicitly told, but it can just as readily rescue him, because he is judged on his actions alone. We tell him that he is not beyond hope, but it is up to him to rescue himself.
            The message to the rasha is a powerful message to us as well – each person is given free choice and sinks or swims on his own merit.

[1] There is a vast literature on the subject of the four sons. Practically every Haggada – of which there are hundreds, if not thousands – includes a discussion on this section. In addition, a list of free-standing articles can be found in Joseph Tabory, “Jewish Prayer and the Yearly Cycle: A List of Articles” (1995), and a list of books that contain material on the topic can be found in Tabory’s Hebrew books Pesach Dorot and Jewish Festivals in the Time of the Mishna and Talmud. A few articles of particular interest are: F.O. Francis, “The Baraita of the Four Sons,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 42 (1974), pp. 280-297; Mira Friedman, “The Four Sons of the Haggada and the Ages of Man,” Jewish Journal of Art 11 (1985), pp. 16-40; R. Ari D. Kahn, “The Wicked Son in the Passover Haggada,” in The Annual Volume of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel, ed. R. Emanuel B. Quint (Jerusalem, 5747/1987), vol. 1, pp. 31-39.
[2] The other version is found in the Yerushalmi (Pesachim 10:4). On these two versions and their differences, see R. Menachem Kasher, Haggada Shleima, pp. 120-123.
[3] The other version of the four sons refers to this son as tipesh (stupid); see also Rashi, Exodus 13:14. A translation for tam is difficult, but it is likely a complimentary term. Thus, for example, the Torah uses the word tam to describe Yaakov Avinu, seemingly in a positive manner (Bereishit 25:27). However, since the tam is not the focus of this discussion, the standard translation will be used without further discussion.
[4] This verse includes the phrase “that our God has commanded you,” the same troubling word used in the wicked son’s question. The Yerushalmi (Pesachim 10:4), Mekhilta (Bo 19), and Rambam all modify the verse quoted in the wise son’s question, replacing “you” with “us,” possibly to make it more palatable and less like the rasha’s question. This is also how the verse itself appears in the Septuagint. The Glatzer Haggada (Schocken), p. 26, notes that old versions of the Haggada quote the phrase in a modified manner, as “which our God has commanded us (otanu).” Similarly, the Venice Haggada, the Sarajevo Haggada, and the Prague Haggada all have “us” instead of “you.” Note that in contrast to the rasha, the chakham does say “our God.”
[5] There are actually three textual answers: Deuteronomy 6:21-23, 6:24, and 6:25 (see end of Ibn Ezra to Exodus 20:1), and none of them are told to the chakham in the Haggada.
[6] This seems to imply that the generic child who asks the Ma Nishtana is treated as the Biblical chakham.
[7] As presented in the Torah, what the rasha articulates is somewhat less of a question than that of the chakham or tam, both of which are introduced with “va-haya ki yishalkha,” “and when your son will ask you.” The rasha’s question, in contrast, is introduced with, “va-haya ki yomru aleikhem beneikhem,” “and it shall be when your sons tell you.” This impudence may be an indicator that the speaker is a rasha.
[8] The answer provided to the rasha’s question by the Torah in Shemot 12:27 is used later in the seder in Rabban Gamliel’s explanation of the main points of the seder. It is possible that Shemot 12:27 is not used to respond to the rasha in the Haggada because it discusses the redemption of the nation. The Haggada wants to emphasize to the rasha that not all of the Jews were saved, and indeed, he is told that he would not have been redeemed. As Rashi points out, the word “li” in 13:8 is an indication that that verse is intended as the response to the rasha.
         For an alternate, beautiful explanation of these verses and why the Haggada does not quote Exodus 12:27 see Maier Becker, “Lest Your Sons Tell You – Insights into the Ben Rasha,” Young Israel of Cleveland Torah Journal in Memory of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, vol. 4 (5757/1997), pp. 48-50. He postulates that the Biblical answer should be viewed as a preventive lesson to ward off a son who would ask such a damning, rhetorical question, rather than a response to the question once it is asked. The Biblical introduction of ki in this verse should be translated as “lest,” rather than “when.”
         The Torah Temima to Exodus 12:26-27 (notes 201, 203) suggests, contrary to the simple reading of the text, that 12:26 and 12:27 should not be paired as a question and answer. Rather, 12:26 is the question of the rasha, to which no answer need or should be given, and 12:27 is a new topic, teaching various laws about the Passover offering and the seder.
[9] In the Biblical verse quoted in response to the rasha, he is not answered directly, but rather in third person. He is not confronted, and there is no desire to debate. The response merely states the facts amongst those assembled.
[10] The Yerushalmi’s version of the text adds only the rebuke and omits the teeth blunting.
[11] A final question, which will not be addressed here, is that the same verse is used to answer both the rasha and the she-eino yode’a lish’ol, yet only the rasha is deemed a heretic and is responded to with the additional two components.
[12] Haggada Sheleima, p. 24, text near notes 258-259.
[13] For support for this theory, see the Be’er Miriam commentary in the Haggada of R. Reuven Margoliot. This also may be what the 18th century Moroccan paytan R. David ben Chasin (1727-1792) had in mind when he wrote, “It is the Pesach, and the teeth of the resha’im will be blunted when they do not have a portion in it.”
[14] The Ramban cites a similar explanation from Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba (1:12).
[15] I originally heard this idea many years ago from my good friend, R. Reuven Halpern.
[16] See Sefer Ha-Chinukh, mitzva 16 (the prohibition to break bones of the korban Pesach), where he first presents his important principle of “adam nifal kefi pe’ulatav” – people behave based on their actions. In other words, a person develops a certain personality and attitude based on the activities that he engages in. The Sefer Ha-Chinukh reiterates this fundamental tenet again in mitzva 40 (not to cut the stones for the altar with metal), mitzva 95 (to build the Beit Hamikdash, albeit with a slight change in the phrase), mitzva 99 (the special garments for the priests), mitzva 263 (the obligation for a Kohen to become tamei for relatives), mitzva 266 (a korban must be unblemished), mitzva 270 (korban musaf on Pesach), and mitzva 285 (lulav). In mitzva 264, he suggests that observing the rules of mourning leads to the emotion of tza’ar, pain, once again invoking the principle of adam nifal kefi pe’ulotav. The Sefer Ha-Chinukh emphasizes the idea that humans require physical activities via other principles as well. For example, in mitzva 265 (the Kohen Gadol must marry a betula, virgin), he writes, “acharei ha-machshavot yimshakh ma’aseh ha-gufot,” and in mitzva 275 (prohibition of a Kohen with a blemish performing the avoda), he explains that a person is influenced by external actions, “lefi she-rov pe’ulot bnei adam retzuyot el lev ro’eihem lefi chashivut oseihen.” This idea, which is beyond the scope of our present discussion, is central to the Torah view of mitzvot. Rather than actions that express existing emotions, mitzvot are intended to instill within us proper ideas. Thus, for example, Chazal instituted the recitation of Asher Yatzar not because every time one says it, he feels inspired to acknowledge the wonders of the creation, but rather because that is an opportune moment in which to remind the person who has just relieved himself that he should now be aware of God’s magnificent world.
[17] Note that the root used here, ח.ר.ק., is relatively rare, appearing in only 5 places in Tanakh: 3 times in the psalms cited here, in Iyov 16:9, and in Eikha 2:16.
[18] It is unclear whether the Haggada’s author expected a similar familiarity with Rabbinic literature. For example, is a phrase such as “kol dikhfin” meant to trigger an association with a similar phrase found in the last line on Ta’anit 20b? There, one of the praises of R. Huna is that when he would sit down to eat, he would open his door and declare, “whoever is in need, let him come and eat.” Regardless, it is fairly certain that the Haggada assumes familiarity with Tanakh.
[19] For a survey, see Ari and Naomi Zivotofsky, “Inter-Generational Accountability in the Torah Judicial System,” Young Israel of Cleveland Torah Journal, vol. 2 (May 1995).
[20] This verse is a paraphrase (with some important variations) of Exodus 20:6: “Who shows mercy to the thousands and pays the iniquity of the fathers into the bosom of their children.”
[21] See Rashi, Sanhedrin 39a.
[22] The Torah Temima (Bemidbar 16:1, note 2) similarly notes that the verse that states that Korach was ben Kehat, the son of Kehat, means that with his actions he blunted the teeth of his parents.
         Note that in later generations, the word may have lost its Biblical and Talmudic meaning. Hence, the Shela posits that the names of Levi’s three sons are intended to show the empathy that the Levites felt for their oppressed brethren. Gershon indicated that they felt like strangers, Merari that their lives were embittered, and Kehat that their teeth were blunted (kehot) by the misery of the exile. (Cited in Torah Lodaas, vol. 4, p. 156, commenting on Shemos 6:14-16.)
[23] The Gemara (Ta’anit 7b) analyzes Kohelet 10:10, where the word “keheh” appears, but none of the suggested exegeses relate to intergenerational issues. Rather, it explains that the verse is either ascribing lack of rain to a degenerate generation, as describing a student who struggles because he has not organized his studies, or as referring to a student having difficulty because his teacher does not encourage him.

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