We’ve all heard the expression, “Think Outside of the Box.”  Have you ever wondered what box this refers to?

The primordial box was not metaphorical. It was a specific box in the form of a two-dimensional square. “Sam Loyd's Cyclopedia of 5000 Puzzles, Tricks, and Conundrums (With Answers)” originally published in 1914, includes (it’s still in print!) a puzzle known as the 'Nine Dots Puzzle' which was posed like this:

"Draw a continuous line through the center of all the eggs so as to mark them off in the fewest number of strokes."  “Continuous” means you can’t lift your pencil off the paper. Also, each line segment has to be straight.

Here are the eggs:



Have you tried?  How did you do?

If you remain inside the imaginary box that forms the boundary around the eggs there is no way you can do it!  You have to think outside of the box, like this:



There is a more formal term for “thinking outside of the box.”  It is called “second order change” whereas exercising alternatives within a box is called “first order change.”

First order change is limited by the parameters of the box, precluding solutions to problems that can only be effected by bringing alternatives from outside of the box, as illustrated by the nine dots puzzle above.

Another example, one most of us have experienced, is presented in by Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch in their seminal book “Change, Principles of Problem Formulation and Problem Resolution,” Norton, NY, 1974, page 12, as follows:

“[A] person having a nightmare can do things in his dream – run, hide, fight, scream, jump off a cliff, etc. – but no change from any one of these behaviors to another would ever terminate the nightmare.  We shall henceforth refer to this kind of change as first-order change.  The one way out of a dream involves a change from dreaming to waking. Waking, obviously, is no longer a part of the dream, but a change to an altogether different state.  This kind of change will from now on be referred to as second-order change.” [emphasis in original]

On a rainy Shabbos day, thinking inside the box would leave us with two alternatives: stay home or go to shul in the rain.  Each of those alternatives results in a desirable outcome and an undesirable outcome.  Staying home would leave us dry but davening b’yichudus.  Going to shul would get us tefila b’tzibur but leave us drenched.  We’ll do a lot better when we think outside of this box.

We habitually do think outside of that box and put on our Shayne Coats.  It’s a “no brainer.”  But that’s a misnomer.  We had to use or brains to anticipate rain on Shabbos some time in advance or we wouldn’t have a Shayne Coat available.  We thought about eventualities and prepared for them, and that’s why there was an alternative available outside of the box.

Parents have asked me about two situations that arose in schools and wondered why the mechanchim and mechanchos hadn’t prepared for these situations so that there would have been an out-of-the-box alternative available.

Before I describe these situations, let’s look at what happened when it rained on Shabbos and we were limited to alternatives inside the box.  In each alternative, we had some benefit and some loss.  If we chose the benefit of being in shul we suffered the loss of being dry.  If we stayed home we got the benefit of staying dry but lost tefila b’tzibur.

In the two cases brought to me by parents, there was a beneficiary and a loser because the solutions were limited to what was in the box.

The first situation involved a bochur who one day forgot to bring his hat to Yeshiva.  He was told he may not daven with the minyan because the school requires post bar-mitzvah boys to wear a hat at davening.  Those were the only alternatives.  Let the boy have the benefit of tefilah b’tzibur and the school loses it rule or maintain the rule and the boy loses tefila b’tzibur.

What additional alternative becomes available when the mechanchim think outside of the box?  Lend the boy a hat.  Now, the school rule is met and the boy gets to daven b’tzibur.

The second case involved an elementary school girl who came to school on the first day after Pesach with nail polish on her fingers.  She said her parents were very busy and didn’t have a chance to take it off.  The school rule is that nail polish is prohibited.  The in-the-box choices were either send the child home or let her stay in school with the nail polish on her fingers.  Sending her home meant her missing material and a day with her friends.  Letting her stay meant the school had to sacrifice its rule.

Had the hanhala thought outside of the box, they would have provided nail polish remover and helped her take the nail polish off.  She could have stayed in school and the rule would have been intact.

Notice that in order to apply the out-of-the-box solution in each of these cases, the schools would have had to apply the Mishna in Tamid (30a) Aizeh hu chacham? Ha ro-eh es a nolad.  And, the schools would have to be holding with the attitude that chinuch is not about punishing children who fail; it is about helping children succeed, and about modeling the middos they want children to display, such as rachamanus (preventing suffering and embarrassment) and vatranus (avoiding win/lose situations) by creating situations in which everyone remains whole.

Just like we buy Shayne coats so we’re not left with either getting wet or staying home, schools and parents will see more nachas when they prepare for their children’s errors and help them through them.