Thursday, March 29, 2012

You Don't Know Anything!

#BlogExodus: Learning and Teaching

How did I never make the connection before? We make such a fuss about the Passover Seder being an important, entertaining, but most of all educational event for the children...why? Because we want to transmit the essence and implications of its story to the next generation? Sure, that, too.

But as I reflect on the relationship between teaching and learning, on the hackneyed but inescapable truth that we teach in order to learn, that our students are our best teachers, well, really, why this hullaballoo over the Passover Seder? 

Why else?  It's because this is the lesson we adults most need to learn, ourselves. Think about it: what could be harder than transforming an experience of slavery into a source of strength and integrity and compassion; of internalizing qualities like humility, gratitude, and hope; of freeing ourselves and one another from the shackles that limit and distort us; of bearing up under the responsibilities of freedom? There's work enough for a lifetime-and-a-half.

I've been teaching two different Introduction to Judaism classes this year, nearly simultaneously: one at a synagogue, another at a liberal arts college. You know, the kind of course where each session's topic could become a year-long course. Thanks to my students and their need for a nodding acquaintance with some three-to-five thousand years of Jewish history (depending on where you start counting), I can now reel off a lot more dates in connection with specific historical events than I could have a month ago. I also have a much better idea of how I might teach all of Jewish history in an hour, next time. 

It's funny. Teaching can simultaneously humble us, highlighting all the things we don't know (or have forgotten); and build our confidence, reminding us of how much more we do know than when we first began learning.

This week, in a session on Israel and Zionism, one of my students asked, "What is the definition of Zionism?" My first thought was, "OMG! What is the definition of Zionism?" followed immediately by, "Duh! How could I have not looked that up before tonight's class?" But once I was through with my ritual moment of panic and self-flagellation, I realized that I actually had an answer, and that while it might not match the dictionary definition (though it came fairly close!), it was a legitimate and more nuanced definition than Merriam-Webster could offer (though perhaps not quite as nuanced as this definition). Oh, right. I'm a rabbi. I do know something about this stuff.

My older daughter, all of five years and eight months, has recently taken, from time to time, to shouting at her younger sister (almost four years old), "YOU DON'T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT LIFE!" My husband told me last night that he's decided to have a talk with our older girl exploring what exactly she knows about life and whether she know what's most important in life (like, say, kindness to her sister). Which led to a rousing, if brief (due to practical considerations, not for lack of material), conversation about what we think is most important in life. When we teach, we are required to both review and push the boundaries of what we know.

Thank God, truly, for our students, our children. Think of all the information and insights we'd never gain without them, the blind spots we'd never even know we have, the convictions we might never discover in our own hearts. The Passover Seders we might not fuss over, were it not for them.

This post is part of a Passover project, #BlogExodus, the brainchild of ImaBima.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Narrow Places of Mitzrayim, or Where Do You Get Stuck?

This was the question I asked my Sunday school students as we sat around a table in the social hall having our snack of graham crackers and green grapes.* I explained that Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, also means “narrow places,” and I asked them to think about where in their lives they feel the oppression of Egypt, when in their lives they feel constrained or stuck.

“School,” said one, just as our prescient congregational president/resident Sunday school teacher simultaneously said, “And ‘school’ doesn’t count!” (I shushed Mr. president/teacher.)

“Practicing violin,” said the other, with a sideways glance at her mother, enthusiastic proponent of violin lessons, sitting nearby.

This led to an interesting conversation about whether aspects of our lives that ultimately benefit us (the one child does aspire to a high school diploma, and the other loves performing violin, which she does beautifully, thanks to the despised practice sessions) could be compared to the biblical Mitzrayim, a site of bloodshed, suffering, and degradation for our biblical forebears. (The answer: No. And yes. Of course. Try it yourself, and let me know how your conversation goes.)

But the reason I asked my students this question, the reason I’m writing this in the first place**, is that I had been thinking about this question—“What is our Mitzrayim?”—during my entire drive from Jackson to Greenville on Friday afternoon. (I live in Jackson, Mississippi, I serve the congregation in Greenville, Mississippi, 110 miles away. A more coherent introduction to me and my crazy life in another post.) I was thinking about this question in conjunction with the Trayvon Martin shooting, and also, especially after reading my friend Beth's thoughtful (and poignant and brilliant) blog post, in conjunction with the shootings in Toulouse and the guilty pleadings of three white teenagers in Jackson, Mississippi to the racially-motivated killing of James Craig Anderson, a black man.

So much hate. Is hatred our Mitzrayim?

But, why the hate?

We learn from the Passover Seder that each of us must feel each year as if we ourselves left slavery in Egypt, as if we ourselves experienced the redemption. No formal commemoration, this. Not even a reenactment. This is real, Jewish tradition teaches us. Every year, we feel the oppression. And then we experience the release. We are meant to put ourselves, as nearly and as truly as possible, in someone else’s shoes sandals.

And that, in fact, is the problem. Because we can’t actually, truly walk in another person’s shoes, can we? Not simply by attending a Passover Seder. It’s the stuff of fantasy and undercover spy stories and psychological studies, the idea of experiencing another person’s reality.  

Nevertheless, it is our obligation to try, each year at Passover, and, I would argue, every day of the year: You shall welcome the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, the Torah repeatedly exhorts us. Love your neighbor as yourself. Do not do to others what is distasteful to you. We are all created betzelem elohim, in the image of God. Put yourself in the other’s shoes.

Because when we don’t, it leads to injustice. The other remains other: distant, alien, threatening…. When we can’t put ourselves in another’s shoes, it opens the door to hatred.

As I drove and thought, the flat Mississippi Delta plains stretching out in every direction from under the wheels of my car, I thought a new question, a terrible question: Do people, my people, the people of my own congregation, whom I love, want to put themselves in The Other’s shoes?

Now, I am not completely na├»ve. I know that none of us always wants to put ourselves in another’s shoes. It’s hard work. The Torah wouldn’t constantly command us to do it if it were easy. Even when we want to do it, when we mean to do it, we often fail. And I know there are plenty of people out there who make bad choices, even wicked choices, who through some sad injury or perversion lose all contact with their yetzer tov, the good that God put in them, and intend ill toward others.

But I suppose I’ve always assumed that people of good will, even when we are failing to do the right thing, even when to do the right thing is difficult or unpleasant, in some part of our being, want to do it. In some corner of our consciousness feel indignation when injustice is brought to our attention, and want to do something to correct the injustice, to change and heal the world.

Beth, in her blog post, wrote, “I began to fear, not for the first time, that perhaps I have too much faith in humanity.” When I read that, I felt terribly sad for Beth, but the closer my wheels took me to Greenville, the more I began to wonder the same about myself. I began to wonder when, and even whether, people, even good people, truly aspire to walk in another’s shoes, aspire to recognize The Other’s basic humanity, especially when that other is of a different race, or class, or creed.

When I arrived in Greenville, I got ready for our Shabbat service. During the service, I shared some of these thoughts and questions with my congregation. And then, after the service, I had a conversation about all of this with a good friend, a good person, a person I have known and loved for many years, and suddenly, vividly, I saw how good people can become resigned to others’ otherness, and to hatred, and injustice. Good people can become embittered and worn down by a lifetime of slights, and insults (even as it is also a lifetime of blessings and friendship—for don’t we all too often remember the bad and forget the good?), and outrage, personal and communal.

This then, is our Mitzrayim: our failure to walk in another’s shoes. Or even worse: our failure to want, or even to try, to do so. It’s perpetuating the cycle. It’s holding us back. We’re stuck, as long as we stay here.

My religious school students don’t know this yet, which is perhaps, given their youth, appropriate. My congregants…some know it, some believe it, others not. Myself? I think I, like the rest of us, have my work cut out for me.

I have finally taken the big leap into the blogosphere partly thanks to Ima on (and off) the Bima's #BlogExodus initiative. Yes, I am a few days behind on the #BlogExodus schedule. So we're starting off on the right foot! More about myself and my blog another day.

*Wow, I had entirely overlooked the alliterative quality of our snack til this very moment! I guess I was having a great day. A gimel-ish day. A yom gadol, perhaps. But I digress.
**Aside from imabima, that is.