Lag B’Omer and the Purpose of Education

8 May 2015 
19 Iyar 5775  
  

Shalom Chaverim,  

We welcomed new parents to Gann last night during our new parent orientation for our incoming ninth grade, the Class of 2019. As I shared with them, the fact that it took place on the night of Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer (the period of time between Passover and Shavuot), was poignant. One of the traditional explanations for Lag B’Omer highlights an underlying principle of Judaism and Jewish education and a central pillar of Gann’s Jewish educational mission.  

According to the Talmud (Tractate Yevamot 62b), the great Jewish sage Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 students who died during the time period of the Omer “because they did not act with kavod, respect, toward one another.” This is one of the explanations for why we practice some of the laws of mourning during the time period of the Omer. Because the students ceased dying on the 33rd day of the Omer, Lag B’Omer, it has become a semi-festive day on which people traditionally get haircuts and stop their mourning practices.  

One must imagine that Rabbi Akiva’s students were academically accomplished and intellectually creative, carrying the torch of rabbinic textual interpretation and helping to shape the future of Judaism as we know it. I can picture the vibrant culture of debate between them, seemingly an emblem of the rigorous ideals of the Jewish intellectual tradition and our Western academic tradition, as well.  

So, why does the behavior of Rabbi Akiva’s students warrant such a harsh punishment, and what does this teach us about the goals of education and the nature of a learning community? 

 On a simple level, we learn from this text that being a mensch is more important than being an accomplished scholar. Knowledge and skills without interpersonal ethics are not only incomplete but also dangerous. We know this too well from our tragic history.  

 The example of Rabbi Akiva’s students also teaches us something about the kind of culture that pervades in certain learning communities. The competiveness of a culture that values the pursuit of and acquisition of knowledge and academic performance can erode one’s fundamental respect, compassion, and empathy for one’s fellow learners. Those of us who participate in the building and sustaining of communities, especially those of us with high academic standards and who value the pursuit of excellence more broadly, need to be vigilant about the culture in which that pursuit of excellence takes place. We and our students shape that culture through our words and actions, about which we must be mindful and intentional.  

 Finally, I’d like to interpret the problem with Rabbi Akiva’s students as not only  a behavioral or cultural one but also as a problem with their underlying beliefs and assumptions about learning, a misguided vision and goals of education. One of Judaism’s core values is kavod habriyot (human dignity), which stems from the belief that all human beings are created B’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image). We have been put on this earth to serve as co-creators, builders, repairers of the world who promote life and maximize human dignity. Learning, including the acquisition of knowledge and skills and the refining of our intellectual capacities, should be in service of this broader Jewish and human goal. Perhaps Rabbi Akiva’s students’ behavior was indicative of something deeper and more problematic—a fundamental misunderstanding of “the why” of education. 

 We are living at a time and in a society where we desperately need to engage in conversation about the purpose of education, especially in high school. Is this just a race to nowhere and a competition to get into the best colleges in the country? As David Brooks has written and spoken about both in his TED talk and, more recently, in The New York Times op-ed “The Moral Bucket List”, we need to ask ourselves whether we are more concerned with “resume virtues” or with “eulogy virtues”, with external success or with inner character. While these should not be mutually exclusive, I think we can see from Rabbi Akiva’s students that the trappings of this dichotomy are not new to our time and society.  

When we revised our Mission Statement last year, we chose to conclude it with five bold words: “. . . where human dignity will flourish.” This is the ultimate purpose of the vibrant Jewish future that we hope our students will create and the better world we hope they will build.  

 Shabbat Shalom,   

Rabbi Marc Baker  

 

 

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