23 October 2009
5 Cheshvan 5770
One of the concerns that I hear from people about Jewish high school is that our students are “in a bubble,” that they are “too sheltered” from “the real world.” How, these people wonder, are we preparing them for college and for “life after Gann”? Perhaps, we can glean some insight into these concerns and our educational mission from the construction of Noah’s ark, a paradigm of shelter from the real world and about what we are doing here at Gann.
Among the detailed dimensions of the ark he is to build, God instructs Noah to make a “tzohar” for the ark (Genesis 6:16), which is translated by the Jewish Publication Society as an “opening for daylight,” a window. This word is ambiguous, however, and there are two opinions in the Midrash about what it means: “There are those who say that it was a window and there are those who say that it was a precious stone that gave light to them.” (Genesis Rabbah 31:11) This debate has significant implications for our understanding of just how sheltered Noah actually was during the flood. Did he watch as the world outside the ark was destroyed while he and his family were safe and protected inside, or was he completely insulated from the natural world, without even a ray of sunlight, and, therefore, in need of a precious stone to act as the ark’s artificial light? What are the educational, moral, and spiritual implications of these two different interpretations?
The world “out there” can sometimes feel like it is falling apart—at the hands of natural disaster, moral corruption, environmental neglect. While this is the world that our students will navigate, and, hopefully, transform when they graduate, unmediated immersion in “the real world” (however we define that ambiguous term) is not necessarily the safest or most effective way to develop children’s intellectual, moral, and spiritual sensibilities. School can be a metaphorical ark, a shelter, or what I like to call a laboratory for becoming our best selves. Our laboratory is filled with precious stones in the forms of role models, Jewish teachings and values, and transformative learning experiences. These stones light the way for our students to learn and grow in a carefully constructed environment where it is safe enough to take risks and even to fail, without fear of their world being destroyed.
At the same time, high school is also a training ground. Our students need to look out the window at the world we live in, the world they will enter more fully as they get older. They need to see and understand their world because it is in this world where they ultimately must survive and, God willing, thrive. They also need to face this world and its brokenness in order to deepen their moral and spiritual sensitivities and, in the words of one of our partner organizations, Facing History and Ourselves, expand their “universe of obligation.”
Our mission, and, I believe, the art of great education, is to build an ark that has the right balance of windows and precious stones and to find the right balance for each student because, in the laboratory of learning, every child’s experiment is unique. Ultimately, our students will emerge from their ark as precious stones who will light the way for their world and our future.
Rabbi Marc Baker