27 March 2009
2 Nisan 5769
Riding the wave of Exploration Week, students and teachers returned on Monday for two intense weeks of learning before Passover break. On Sunday morning, Gann parents, alumni parents, and future Gann parents gathered for our annual Parent Day of Learning, sponsored by the Gann Parent Association, when parents and a number of Gann teachers come together to learn from one another. We are blessed to have so many parents and teachers in our school with wide ranging knowledge, talents, passions and skills, and it is always inspiring to see parents modeling their commitment to life-long learning. Tuesday morning, our Student Council inaugurated a new group of officers with a symbolic and emotional passing of leadership from this past year’s officers to next year’s. On Wednesday, former CIA agent and Gann grandparent, Carlos Luria, regaled our students with movie-like stories of his growing up in Hamburg before World War II, and about the life and work of a CIA field officer. And today, we welcome 22 visitors from the Ironi Hey High School in Haifa, who will stay with Gann families for the week while they visit Gann and Boston.
On Sunday’s Parent Day of Learning, I had the pleasure of preparing for Passover with all of the participants by learning several texts about “The Four Questions,” which I described as the pedagogical heart of the Passover Seder. We are instructed by the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud that, before we begin telling the story at the Seder, we must somehow spark the curiosity of everyone at the table. “Mah Nishtanah,” the formulaic four questions that so many of us recite rather than ask, were originally intended to be back-up questions, in case the children at the table did not have the level of knowledge or sophistication to ask their own questions. In the Mishnah, the Four Questions seem to be intended stimuli to generate real questions. Ironically, when we codify and institutionalize the same stimuli on an annual basis, they often cease to stimulate curiosity, wonder, or even interest.
So why are questions so essential? On a practical level, questions serve an important pedagogical function. The charge to parents and educators to somehow inspire our children, each other, and ourselves to ask questions is one way to keep us interested in the story. In class, for example, questions can keep students engaged, stimulate their curiosity, to wake them up, intellectually and emotionally (and sometimes physically too!).
But true curiosity and the capacity to experience wonder not only wake us up intellectually; they also can open us up spiritually. They not only open our minds; they open our hearts. It is only when we open our hearts that we are ready and able to experience the presence of God in our lives, and the deep and transforming, spiritual power of our stories. To paraphrase one of our parent’s comments on Sunday, “the story may stay the same from year to year, but our questions are different. We approach the same words, the same texts, the same songs, the same history, but from an entirely new place.”
As we and our children evolve from year to year, so do our questions – about the Passover story, Judaism, our world. Only if we take the time to ask these questions will our seder experience and the stories themselves evolve as well. The founders of Gann Academy understood this when they wrote one of our early tee shirt slogans: “A New School for an Ancient People.”
The haggadah is a model for Jewish education and for Jewish learning and living today. We keep our tradition alive by bringing our tradition to life for our children and ourselves. And we do this by discovering and rediscovering the authentic questions to which our stories and our tradition can offer a variety of answers.
This is what we strive to do as teachers and students at Gann. And this is what we are charged to do at the Passover seder. As we prepare for this year’s seder, may we discover our questions, and may they bring our past to life.
Rabbi Marc Baker