Posts Tagged 'Chaye Sara'

Questions that Flow: Eliezer on Pedagogy

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi described “Flow” as the optimal place where we are behaving within our abilities while also being challenging enough to maintain our interest (See below graph). When people are in flow, they are completely immersed and engaged in one task, enjoying it to the point that they lose track of time. In other words, when people are in flow they do not realize that they are learning because they are having fun. Engaging Jewish educational settings are first and foremost safe spaces, and therefore they are the ideal places to encourage the sort of “productive discomfort” that emerges from feeling appropriately
challenged. For most teachers the default form of challenging the student is a question, quiz, test, paper, or project. It is aspirational these activities push the student to grow.

While many of these activities are used as evaluation, in the regular run of a class teachers often use questions to engage and involve students. This seems pretty obvious, but I have to admit it often misses the mark. One of my pet peeves is when a teacher asks a question under the guise of an invitation to participate, but the question is a closed question. It is some sort of trivia question because the educator only has one answer in mine. They will either guest it right and support the teacher’s arguement or present them an awkward response. If the answer is “Well that is an approach” or “that is not what I was looking for” why did the teacher ask the question. While someone might get the question right and feels good, others will get it wrong and feel anxious, worried, bored, or apathetic. Regardless, education that is solely driven toward data acquisition often misses getting or keeping students in flow.

If we are going to ask questions to engage them in class they need to be open questions that challenge their skill and get the students and the teacher in flow. I know for myself one of the best metrics of success in my teaching is that I learned something new in the lesson. That means I need to ask questions that evoke flow and do not trivialize the lesson.

I was thinking of this dynamic when reading Chayei Sarah, this week’s Torah portion. There we see Eliezer testing potential mates for his master’s son Yitzhak. There we read:

And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham’s house, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham. Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townspeople come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’—let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.” He had scarcely finished speaking, when Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel, the son of Milcah the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor, came out with her jar on her shoulder. The maiden was very beautiful—a virgin, no man having known her. She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up. The servant ran toward her and said, “Please, let me sip a little water from your jar.” “Drink, my lord,” she said, and she quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and let him drink. When she had let him drink his fill, she said, “I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.” Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels.

Genesis 24:12-21

Rebekah did not just “pass the test” she instructed Eliezer as to the standard of care. I think it is interesting how Eliezer believes that this test will be an evaluation. But the test is set up in a way that was not just right or wrong. Rebekah answered the challenge in her own way. His resolution that she is the right match for Yitzhak is not that she “got it right”, but that she did it her own way.

As an educators we want our students to be in flow. Are these question, quiz, test, and papers engaging? We learn from Eliezer that there can be right and wrong ways to respond to the challenges, but are there also ways to express themselves.

*Check out a set of principles, practices, and tools that supports inventive thinking in children ages 3-11 which can be found at “A Framework for Inspiring Inventiveness” 

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Equally Good Time

At the beginning of Chaye Sarah, this week’s Torah portion, we learn of Sarah’s passing away. We read:

And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her.( Genesis 23:1-2)

It seems strange that the text does not just say that Sarah was 127 when she died. On this Rashi quotes the Midrash which says:

The reason that the word “years” was written after every digit is to tell you that every digit is to be expounded upon individually: when she was one hundred years old, she was like a twenty-year-old regarding sin. Just as a twenty-year-old has not sinned, because she is not liable to punishment, so too when she was one hundred years old, she was without sin. And when she was twenty, she was like a seven-year-old as regards to beauty. (Genesis Rabbah 58:1)

Reaching the end of life makes one reflect about all of life’s stages.

This Midrash reminds me of 7 Years Old by Lukas Graham. Check out the video:

It is worth a reading all the lyrics of this song with the Midrash in mind. But for now I wanted to focus on:

Soon I’ll be 60 years old, will I think the world is cold
Or will I have a lot of children who can warm me
Soon I’ll be 60 years old

Once I was seven years old, my mama told me
Go make yourself some friends or you’ll be lonely
Once I was seven years old

With the passing of time we cycle through our ages, stages, wishes, and aspirations. The wisdom of our elders is that they see the lives that they have lived in hindsight. The beauty of our youth is that we do not know how much we will mess up along the way. It is noteworthy in the song that at the beginning and end of life we are motivated to not be alone. We should approach life with the childlike curiosity of a 7 year-old, the energy and purpose of a 20 year-old, and the well-tempered discipline and wisdom of an 100 year-old. Rashi also comments on the years of the life of Sarah, “All of them equally good.” We should all be blessed to live every stage of life equally full of good deeds and better company.

Test of Character: Camel and Champ

How do you know when you meet the one? In Chaye Sara, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about Abraham’s servant Eliezer’s mission to find a mate for Yitzhak. Laden with gifts, Eliezer goes to Charan. At the village well, Eliezer asks God for a sign. When the maidens come to the well, he will ask for some water to drink; the woman who will offer to give his camels to drink as well shall be the one destined for his master’s son. It seems as if the discovery of Rivka is a miracle. But was it?

We have to realize that the gifts Eliezer brought along to make the process smoother might have been the heart of the challenge. He needed to find a test that would ensure the the would-be-mate was not coming just for the gifts. Incentives can have an adverse impact on the desired outcomes. So the test itself had to prove motive commitment beyond fleeting avarice.

On this point I recall my first Shabbat as a Hillel Rabbi on campus. We had a huge Shabbat dinner for the first year students and their parents. In an wonderfully awkward interaction a father leaned over to tell his son to look around to find a mate. When the embarrassed son rebuffed his father’s urging, the father leaned back to impart some wisdom. He said in a loud voice, ” You know son, when you marry for money- it does not mean you do not need to work for it. ”

Eliezer needed to make sure that Yitzhak’s future wife was in it for the right reasons. So how did Eliezer know that this test would prove who was supposed to be the mate of choice?

The legendary UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” Rivka was a person of character. Being nice to the stranger might come with reward, but who was going to notice that she was nice to the camels? Wooden also said, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” The camel having just treked through the desert represents the voiceless in need. Rivka in her essence was more concerned with her character than her reputation.

All of this comes to explain why Eliezer would be interested in her, but why she would be interested? She was never into it for the riches, her motives were to be a good person. Abraham’s project of Judaism is a movement of character refinement. Rivka proves her commitment to this mission.

When I reflect on Rivka’s passing the test with the camel I have hope in Champ. Biden will be the first President who has a rescue dog in the White House. In the last four years we have learned that avarice and unchecked power is blinding. When it comes to character in leadership, it is not an important thing, it is everything.

From Lavan to Kristallnacht to Pittsburgh: A History of White Supremacy

Today is Kristallnacht which commemorates a pogrom against Jews throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938. The name Kristallnacht comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues were smashed. On one hand it is crazy to realize that is has been 80 years since this happened. In the larger context it is strange to realize that it has only been 80 years and it seems that this day finds it natural home in our collective Jewish calendar already riddled with antisemitism. It is scary to realize that every year we rehearse the “they tried to kill us, let’s eat” as if it is normal or at the least expected. Why do we introduce our children to Antisemites throughout history every year as if it is normative?

For me the most interesting example of this happens during Passover. Every year on the Seder we read, “Go and learn what Lavan the Aramean sought to do to our father Yaakov. A Pharaoh made his decree only about the males, whereas Lavan sought to destroy everything.”  Long before Hitler, Haman, or even Pharoah, there was Lavan who wanted to kill us all.

Given that today is Kristallnacht and the events in Pittsburgh two weeks ago where a White Supremacists went in and killed 11 Jews in a Synagogue I have grown curious at the long history of Antisemitism. That search brought me back to Chaye Sara, last week’s Torah portion. There we meet Rebecca’s brother Lavan. If we accept the premise set forward in the Hagadah that Lavan is paradigmatic Antisemite, what do we learn from Lavan about the origin of Antisemitism?

There we read:

Now Rivka had a brother whose name was Lavan, and Lavan ran to the man outside, to the fountain. (Genesis 24:29)

From this we do not see anything so horrible. Quoting the Midrash Rashi explains his running:

and Lavan ranWhy did he run and for what did he run? “Now it came to pass, when he saw the nose ring,” he said, “This person is rich,” and he set his eyes on the money. — [Gen. Rabbah 60:7]

Lavan is not being hospitable but rather interested in filling his pockets with wealth. This is obvious counter-distinction to his sister’s emulation of Avraham’s generosity toward strangers in looking after the needs of Eliezer and even his camels. Where Rivka was clearly in line with the hospitality of Avraham, her brother was running after his own interests.  On this the Or HaChaim has another opinion. He writes:

The fact is that Lavan was sincerely concerned about his sister’s innocence, suspecting that the gifts to her of the jewelry by a total stranger could have been the beginning of an immoral relationship between them. The Torah here describes Lavan as if he were a righteous person because it acknowledges his concern for his sister’s chastity. When the Torah states: “it was when he saw,” this shows that Lavan reacted first to what he saw and subsequently to what he heard. As long as he had not yet heard what transpired between the two he put an ugly interpretation on the manner in which he thought his sister had obtained the jewelry, suspecting Eliezer of seducing Rivka. ( Or HaChaim on Genesis 24:29)

At first glance Lavan is Rebecca’s brother. He even seems to be hospitable, but according to Rashi he really is just motivated by self-interest. According to the Or HaChaim Lavan is worried about a stranger taking advantage of his sister. On the surface this does not seem so horrible. This is not remotely at the level of many of the other Antisemites from our history.

And than I got to thinking about the meaning of his name.  Lavan means white. Here we are discussing the Rabbinic origin of Antisemitism and Lavan’s name means white. This demanded some exploration. My mind jumped to last summer’s White Supremacists’ Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. On the evening of Friday, August 11, a group of white nationalists gathered for a march through the University of Virginia’s campus. They marched towards the University’s Lawn chanting Nazi and white supremacist slogans, including “White lives matter”; “You will not replace us“; and “Jews will not replace us”. Their hate seems to spring from a fear that Jews who they define as non-white will replace Whites. On one level the fear of being replaced is in reference to white power, privileged, and money. On another level I cannot help read “Jews will not replace us” as a reference to Jared Kushner. This mob of white men are disgruntled that this Jew has replaced them in being married to Ivanka, the first daughter and their model of Teutonic blond beauty. The myth of the noble defender of our women’s honor against the raping foreigner is not something new that Trump has created. It is but a thin veil of valor to cover over the cowardice of xenophobia and the ugliness of hatred.

Image result for Jews will not replace us

Recently my wife sent me an amazing article Skin in the Game: How Antisemitsm Animates White Nationalism by Eric K. Ward.  There he writes:

American White nationalism, which emerged in the wake of the 1960s civil rights struggle and descends from White supremacism, is a revolutionary social movement committed to building a Whites-only nation, and antisemitism forms its theoretical core. That last part—antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism— bears repeating.

Ward argues that Antisemitism fuels the White nationalism which is a genocidal movement now enthroned in the highest seats of American power. Fighting Antisemitism cuts off that fuel for the sake of all marginalized communities under siege from the Trump regime and the social movement that helped raise it up.

To Ward’s conception Whites hatred of Ashkenazic Jews is a clear case of the narcissism of small differences, they are both white. Ashkenazic Jews are white just as Rivka was Lavan’s sister. Like Rashi these Whites Supremacists and Lavan are both in pursuit of the privileges and money they believe they are due. On another level we can read Or HaChaim’s understanding of Lavan expressing his paternalistic fear of preserving the sexual purity of his sister as an age-old slur of maligning a marginalized group as rapists. We can see that Whites Supremacists and the Rabbis’ reading of Lavan might argue that their hatred and violence is legitimate or even virtuous. We see from it origins White Supremacy is just an expression of self-interest and unfounded fear-mongering.

We All Stood Together: Rivka and Revelation

This weekend the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel is celebrating its 30th year. It is crazy to think that I did this program 27 years ago this summer. One of my memories from that summer was when Merle Feld a poet taught some of her poetry to the group. On of the poem’s “We All Stood Together” I still remember vividly. There in Jerusalem at the age of 15 we read:

My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him
I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me
It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one of my friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down
And then
As time passes
the particulars
the hard data
the who what when where why
slip away from me
and all I’m left with is
the feeling
But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute
my brother is so sure of what he heard
after all he’s got a record of it
consonant after consonant after consonant
If we remembered it together
we could recreate holy time
sparks flying

I was thinking about this poem specifically this Shabbat as we read Chaye Sarah, this week’s Torah portion. There we find Rivka giving water to Eliezer’s camels. There we read:

And the man was astonished at her, standing silent, [waiting] to know whether the Lord had caused his way to prosper or not. Now it came about, when the camels had finished drinking, [that] the man took a golden nose ring, weighing half [a shekel], and two bracelets for her hands, weighing ten gold [shekels]. ( Genesis 24:21-22)

Why did he give her braclets? And why two of them? And why specify ten units of gold? On these points Rashi said:

and two braceletsAn allusion to the two Tablets paired together. — [Gen. Rabbah (60:6), Targum Jonathan]

weighing ten goldAn allusion to the Ten Commandments [inscribed] on them. — [Gen. Rabbah 60:6]

This moment at the well was a moment when Rivka herself modeled for us the overlooked role of women at Sinai. This moment happened through acts of righteousness, but sadly the female contribution to revelation has been hidden in broad daylight. This images of Rivka and  Merle Feld  fill me with gratitude for the gifts of female voices to the world of Torah.

 


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