11 April 2014
11 Nisan 5774
Last Sunday I had the privilege of attending an extraordinary event celebrating Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ (CJP) president Barry Shrage’s 25 years of leadership. The event, which I thought lived up to its aspirational name, “Bring Learning to Life,” launched a new, community-wide emphasis on adult Jewish learning.
One of the highlights of the day was the opening d’var Torah, given by one of our very own Gann Academy students. After quoting from the Torah’s account of the Passover story, Claire Shoyer ’15 argued for the importance of deep and sophisticated Jewish learning:
“Education is emphasized in the observance of Pesach because we need to go beyond going through the motions. . . . As a high school junior, what I love about my classes is that we don’t just learn facts and figures—we question and challenge and debate. In history, we don’t just learn what happened or to whom it happened; we explore why events might have happened and what we can learn from this about ourselves and our world; in science and math, we don’t just want to understand how the world works—we want to understand why the world works the way it does. So, too, in Jewish learning and living. Rather than just going through the motions of being Jewish, I am able to actually think about the things I do because I’ve been educated; because, for me, my Jewish learning has been as sophisticated, engaging, and deep as my other high school studies.”
As I listened to Claire speak, I was inspired by her eloquence and passion and was reminded of my own personal Jewish journey. By the time I encountered the rigorous study of science and humanities in high school, my pediatric Hebrew school education simply could not compare or compete with the depth and rigor of thinking that my high school teachers expected of me. Sadly, I came to believe that our tradition did not have much to say to the kinds of intellectual, moral, and spiritual questions with which I wrestled as a young adult. Only years later, when I traveled to Israel for intense adult Jewish learning at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, did I encounter the kind of meaningful and sophisticated Jewish learning that Claire called for in her d’var Torah. Only then did I realize that, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, our tradition has an important voice to contribute to the “conversation of humankind.”
One of the reasons why Jewish high school education is so crucial is that for our students, during their formative adolescent years of questioning and wrestling with what it means to be human, to be American, to be Jewish, to be themselves, Judaism’s voice is an essential part of the conversation.
One of the phrases we use at Gann when describing our educational philosophy is that we want our students to “do the intellectual heavy lifting,” to own their own learning rather than be passive recipients of teacher-transmitted information. As Claire described so beautifully, this concept applies to Jewish learning, as well, and reminds me of a teaching about Passover that I recently encountered.
In the Passover Haggadah we read the well-known passage in which four different children (sons, traditionally) ask four different questions about the holiday and get four different answers. The rasha (wicked son) asks what appears to be a simple question based on a line from Exodus 12:26, “Mah haavodah hazot lachem—What does this service (ritual, worship) mean to you?” For the rabbis of the Haggadah, this question indicates the child’s negativity to the extent that parents are instructed to respond harshly to the child.
Rabbi Sacks’ recent article offers several interpretations of why this question is problematic, the last of which addresses the challenge of contemporary Jewish life and reminds me of Claire’s d’var Torah. The word “avodah” in the child’s question means “service or ritual” but also means “work” or “hard labor.” Rabbi Sacks brings an interpretation that the problem with the wicked child is that he regards Jewish practice as a burden, a hard labor, and not as something that is meaningful and uplifting.
Yes, Rabbi Sacks suggests, Jewish learning and living are hard work and demand a lot from us. And this is precisely what makes it meaningful and valuable. Rather than meet the challenges of Jewish learning and living by trying to “lessen the burden,” we need to expect more from our children and ourselves—intellectually, morally, spiritually, Jewishly. I will end with Rabbi Sacks’ powerful charge:
“What we need in Jewish life today is not ways of making Judaism easier. What costs little is valued even less. We need to find ways of showing how Judaism lifts us to greatness. When that happens people will not ask, Mah ha-avodah ha-zot lakhem, “Why all the hard work?”
Neither an athlete going for an Olympic gold medal nor a scientist trying a new line of research ever asks that question; nor did Steve Jobs at Apple or Jeff Bezos at Amazon. The pursuit of greatness always involves hard work. The real challenge of our time is to rediscover why Judaism, because it asks great things from us, lifts us to greatness.”
I wish us all a Passover filled with joy and celebration, as well as meaningful and inspiring intellectual and spiritual “heavy lifting.”
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher v’Sameach,
Rabbi Marc Baker