30 October 2009
12 Cheshvan 5770
Learning should be scary, but for the right reasons—not because of unproductive anxiety produced by high stakes tests, competitiveness, fear of failure, and rejection. Instead, learning should be scary because to be a learner in the deepest sense of the word is to be what Robert Kegan calls an “evolving self,” a human being who grows, changes, develops, transforms. Learning requires us to leave our comfort zones, question our preconceptions, and be open to new ways of understanding reality. It requires us to embark on a journey without absolute clarity of our destination, take risks, stay open to where we will end up and to what we will learn along the way. And this journey challenges us to discern which parts of ourselves and our lives we will take with us in order to maintain continuity with our past and which parts we will let go. Learning is scary—and exhilarating.
In this week’s parsha, Lech Lecha (“Go forth . . .”), when Avraham (then Avram) accepts God’s command to leave behind his birthplace, his family, his homeland, we find not only the birth of the Jewish People, but also the birth of the “evolving self.” The “blessing” that Avraham will bring and will be to the world includes even more than the introduction of monotheism and bearing witness to the One God; Avraham will be a model of life-long learning, of the human capacity to break out of the confines of our social-familial-historical contexts, and to take responsibility for the meaning and purpose of our lives and our world. Later in the parsha, during what is known as Brit Bein Habetarim (the Covenant Between the Pieces) in Genesis 15, God foreshadows the enslavement in Egypt and the Exodus, informing Avraham that his descendants will also experience a collective “lech lecha” – thus will be born a “community of learners”. I think our Torah is teaching us that to be a learner and a community of learners is what it means to be Jewish and, dare I say, what it means to be human.
For me, high school is such a rich and magical time, precisely because our students are such evolving selves. During these formative years, children’s hearts and minds are cracked open, ripe for the process of growth and transformation. They are in pursuit of self-understanding, longing to make meaning of their world and their place in it. Our mission is to challenge, nurture, and inspire our students during this remarkable period of their lives by facilitating their exploration and evolution as Jews and human beings. At Gann, we do this by helping them develop the skills and capacities to analyze, interpret, and construct meaning of their world and by exposing our students to a wide range of texts, ideas, experiences, and people, such as this week’s line-up of guest speakers: former Israeli Knesset member Effie Eitam on Wednesday and, on Thursday, Rabbi Capers Funnye, an African American rabbi and cousin of First Lady Michelle Obama. Rarely have two speakers challenged and inspired our students in such different ways!
Most importantly, we, as educators and adults, model for our students what it means to be identities-in-process. I want our students to understand that, while this quest to know ourselves and make meaning of our world can be scary, we all are on the journey of “lech lecha” together.
Rabbi Marc Baker