30 Tishrei 5774
4 October 2013
Thank you to all of our teachers, parents, administrators, students, and staff who worked hard to make last night’s Back-to-School night a success. I want to share with you my opening remarks from last night’s event—some reflections on teaching and learning inspired by the story of the flood in this week’s Torah portion.
Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov,
Rabbi Marc Baker
Back-To-School Night 2013 Opening Remarks
Last night I watched my son struggling with his math homework. He was asked to figure out a word problem without being told exactly what tools or formulas to use. It looked like a stretch assignment, challenging him to be creative and to try different methods of problem solving. He sat, he tried, he failed, he struggled… and I watched as his frustration mounted. He scribbled out his work, and when it didn’t produce an answer, he finally crumpled up the whole piece of paper. Am I the only parent who has had this experience?
As I reflect on my son’s frustration, I am reminded of God’s frustration in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Noah. Here we have the ultimate, seemingly all-powerful Creator (after all, what is more innovative than creating a world out of nothing?) Who steps back, looks at His creation, doesn’t like what He sees, and concludes: “I am going to crumple up that paper.” God destroys the world with the flood and sends it back to tohu vavohu, to chaos. God, so to speak, scribbles out his work.
I have to wonder whether God is more frustrated with humanity and His world or with God’s self.
Most of us know the story. God goes on to save Noah, his children, and some animals, so they can reconstitute humanity and society. When they emerge from the teva, the ark, God makes a brit, a covenant, with Noah and all of humanity and commits not to bring another flood, not to destroy the earth again. Then, God sets a rainbow in the sky as an “ot ha brit,” a sign or reminder of this covenant.
I have always understood this covenant to represent a newfound patience and compassion for humanity. No matter how much we mess up, God will not destroy the earth because of our imperfections. Tonight, as I think about our learning community, I see other messages here, as well.
First, God learns. God reflects on His decision to bring the flood and realizes that He cannot keep doing this if He wants the world He created to exist. God creates, then fails, then learns, and then, as a result of this learning, God changes. This is a learning God.
Second, this covenant represents more than just compassion for humanity. Why did God bring the flood in the first place? God saw that creation was a failure, and failure could not be tolerated. It needed to be crumpled up, scribbled out. See that rainbow in the sky? Not anymore.
That rainbow and the covenant it represents teach us something about what it means to be human. We are endowed with creative capacities—we can take risks, we can pursue excellence, we can repair this world. We can—and will—fail, and, most importantly, we can learn, change, and grow. We can strive, stumble, fall, and then get up again, because the ground under us will not turn to water. It will still be there, firm and strong, to support us.
These are messages that we need to send our children if they are going to strive, learn, and grow in a changing, competitive 21st century world—if they are going to become the creators of a vibrant, compelling Judaism and a thriving Jewish future. Take risks, strive for excellence—academic, athletic, artistic, moral, spiritual, Jewish—solve problems, be creative. Be willing to try, and fail, and try again.
This is the kind of learning community we try to create at Gann. Our teachers, who are learners and risk-takers themselves, work so diligently to improve their craft of teaching. They are so passionate about what they teach and even more passionate about whom they teach—your children.
It is our teachers’ commitment to their students’ learning and their love of their students as ever-evolving, young Jewish human beings that create a culture where it is safe for children to pursue excellence, take risks, grow and change, sometimes even fail, and always learn in the process.