12 February 2010
28 Shevat 5770
Once again, my student has become my teacher. Earlier this year, I received a beautiful email from an alumna of Gann, who reflected on her Gann experience in light of her first year of college. She wrote:
“. . . (only) after making new friends in college, (have) I realized how intellectual my friends from Gann are. The vast majority of my peers at Gann were so much more interested in their studies and moreover the world around (us) outside of our Gann bubble. This seems ironic since people are constantly worried about how Jewish day school is a bubble – most of the people I know here didn’t go to day school yet they are more confined to their bubbles. I find here that people are really interested in getting good grades but that’s it. I think that Gann instilled in each one of my classmates the desire to do something more, to get involved and to make change, and that is something I really miss about the environment at 333 Forest Street . . . I feel like Gann taught me that I can make a difference and I truly miss being in a place where there were so many people around me constantly challenging me to push myself and make a difference.”
This alumna’s capacity to articulate the meaning of her Gann education sheds new light for me on the well-known phrase that B’nei Yisrael say at the end of this week’s parsha, “na’aseh v’nishma” – usually translated as “we will do and we will hear/listen/understand” (Exodus 24:7).
The plain meaning of this phrase, na’aseh v’nishma, is translated in the JPS Tanakh as “we will faithfully obey” and represents B’nei Yisrael’s acceptance upon themselves of all of the laws that Moshe teaches them, including both the overarching principles of the 10 Commandments as well as the detailed rules outlined in Parshat Mishpatim. But this phrase is most well known for what seems to be the reversed order of the two verbs. Shouldn’t the text read “nishma v’na’she” – we will listen to all of the laws that God is telling us to do, and we will obey God and observe them? How can B’nei Yisrael obey first and listen second?
One way to interpret this phrase is as a proclamation of blind faith and obedience to God in the context of the newly formed covenantal relationship: we will obey God even before we even know what God asks of us. Another way to interpret this phrase, which I have always found compelling as an educator, suggests that B’nei Yisrael will not wait for a complete rational explanation and understanding of every rule before they obey: we hear what God expects of us, and, although we may not completely understand the details or rationale, we will obey. The spiritual and educational message behind this reading is one of the core principles of experiential learning: there is only so much we can understand of a rule, concept, or value until we actually apply it. Learning happens through doing.
Reading this phrase, na’aseh v’nishma, after receiving my student’s email, has given me a new perspective on this second interpretation of na’aseh v’nishma. There is so much to digest in her email about the power of a Jewish High School education and how it prepares students for the “real world.” But what stands out to me in light of “na’aseh v’nishma” is her “realization,” her new awareness and understanding of the meaning and significance of her Gann experience. She is describing things that I, as an educator and Head of School, think and talk about with students all the time. In fact, I suspect that she “heard,” “understood”, and even took the time to reflect upon Gann’s mission and values while she was still a student. But it seems clear from this email that, once she was living independently as a college student, choosing classes, making new friends, and making choices about the person she wants to be in the world, did the meaning and power of her Gann experience sink in (“nishma”).
So much learning takes place in our classrooms and within the “four walls” of our school and our community. But, often, it is outside our walls, in the world of “na’aseh,” that our learning and our experiences move from our heads down into our hearts. I am so proud of and grateful to this alumna for being my teacher by sharing with me and all of us what she has learned about herself and about Gann.
Rabbi Marc Baker