25 March 2010
10 Nisan 5770
One of the most meaningful aspects of Exploration Week is what Jewish mystical interpreters of the Torah might call “the space between the letters.” Of course, Exploration Week is about unique and creative programs, opportunities to learn about and give back to the world in new, more in-depth ways, and developing our capacities to see the world through new eyes. But Exploration Week is also about students and teachers just being together. In many ways the whole week is Shabbat-like, with learning and relationships taking on an entirely different quality, in different time and space. In this different, dare I say “sacred”, time and space, the potential for meaningful and reflective conversation and “exploration” of ourselves and the world just seems to happen more naturally and spontaneously.
I experienced this, most profoundly, yesterday morning in my office with a group of students who chose “Prayer and Schmooze with Rabbi Baker” as their Exploration Week tefillah (prayer) option. In preparation for Pesach, I figured I would throw out a light question to this group of students from grades nine through twelve, who were together as a group for the first time, at 8:10 in the morning: “Do you believe that God took us out of Egypt? And what do you mean when you say you believe this or don’t believe this?”
What ensued was inspiring, both in process and substance. The students shared deeply and humbly their beliefs and their unanswered questions, in ways that were genuinely respectful both of each other and of our tradition. Even those who question and struggle with traditional theology did not do so cynically, but rather generatively, as if to say, “I struggle, but I am part of this process and this community.” They really listened to each other, building upon each other’s comments and responding to each other’s concerns. This caused individuals and the group to delve more deeply into our ideas and beliefs, probing, clarifying, and, perhaps, even evolving in our understanding of our own positions and tradition.
For me the most salient moment came when a ninth grader respectfully corrected my interpretation of his beliefs. Earlier, he had said in a remarkably articulate and sophisticated way that he has trouble believing that God actually took the Israelites out of Egypt with miracles and wonders. To paraphrase him: “I tend to trust science (the laws of physics to be specific) to explain historical and natural phenomena because my intuition tells me to trust things I can observe over and over again more than things I have never witnessed with my own eyes.” Later, after several students had fleshed out their beliefs about God and the Exodus, I referred to this student and overconfidently declared that he “did not believe that God took the Israelites out of Egypt because, for him, science is a more compelling way of understanding the world than religion.” At this point, the student gently interrupted me and said, “Actually, it’s not that my inclination toward science causes me not to believe; I just believe differently. I believe in a different interpretation of what it means that God took the Israelites out of Egypt.”
I stood corrected, on many levels, as my student became my teacher. Most obviously, he reminded all of us that there are spiritual and intellectual options besides the stark bifurcation of science and faith. It does not have to be “do I or do I not believe,” but rather “how do I believe, and what does faith mean to me?” He modeled for all of us our school’s mission to develop “knowledgeable, sophisticated, passionate” Jews who combine intellectual integrity and authentic questioning with a search for meaning and respect for and connection to our tradition.
The student was teaching me an even more powerful and humbling lesson, one that every educator and parent should take to heart, especially on the eve of the Passover Seder: You did not really listen to what I said. You heard me and then put my beliefs into your own preexisting categories. You need to listen more carefully.
The capacity to listen is the heart of both pluralism and education. The ability to understand, to teach, and to love a child or any person, begins with the capacity and the patience to get beyond our projections, prejudgments, and preconceptions, to open our minds and our hearts, and to really listen to what the other is saying, feeling, believing. May we be blessed this Pesach to listen more deeply and more carefully to our children, to each other, and to ourselves.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher v’Sameach,
Rabbi Marc Baker