Friday, January 22, 2016

Beshalach 76 - Questions and Discovery lead to Song and Faith by Allan Katz

The climax of the Exodus from Egypt was the splitting of the Red Sea and the prophetic song at the sea – shirat ha'yam which the Israelites sang expressing gratitude, trust and total belief in God- Hashem. The midrash notes that no one before ,had broken out in song when saved by a miracle performed by God and now since the singing of the song , God's presence in the world had become more established. So what was different about the miracle of the splitting of the Red sea? Miracles in the past, like those performed for Abraham and the Israelites in Egypt were performed to save people or get them out of trouble. The splitting of the Red sea was different. The route taken out of Egypt most probably raised many questions. There was a shorter route - the route they came to Egypt, which also meant that they did not have to cross the Red Sea. After travelling 3 days and reaching Succot , they back-tracked and started moving in the direction of Egypt . This encouraged Pharaoh and his army to pursue the Israelites as they seemed to be now trapped between the Sea, wilderness and an army going after them.

It seemed that God was putting them into trouble so that He could perform a miracle which would glorify and sanctify His Name in the world. Previously, miracles were performed to get people out of trouble, now God put the Israelites into trouble so that He could perform a miracle. After the witnessing and experiencing the miracle at the sea, the Israelites gained a flash of insight, a deep understanding of how God conducts the world, how all apparently unrelated and contradictory phenomena meld into a coherent, merciful, comprehensible whole. They saw and heard how every note, instrument and participant in the symphony of creation plays its role and the result is song. The Israelites came to the realization that their purpose in the world and the purpose of the creation was to create a partnership with God in order to glorify and sanctify His name by the way they live their lives in this world. At the sea the suffering of the Egyptian exile, their hopelessness and helplessness when surrounded by Pharaoh, the sea and the wilderness and the deception that led Pharaoh to pursue them took on a new meaning as being part of the Divine plan.

When one has unanswered questions and doubts and then one expereiences a flash of insight and deep understanding about one's purpose and relevance in the world, it not only touches the mind but also the heart and soul. When the understanding is both intellectual, intuitive and comes from revelation and discovery, the knowledge is understood also in an emotional way. And this leads to faith –emunah and deep trust in God.

The process of discovery and not telling, leads to both intellectual and emotional understanding. This cornerstone of authentic education is played out again in our parasha with the miracle of the 'manna from heaven '. The manna was covered with a layer of dew and did not become noticeable until the sun melted the upper layer of dew, whereupon people saw something of the likes that they had never seen before. Their reaction was one of surprise – ' mun hoo ' what is it ? and they guessed that it was some type of food. Moses informed them that it was indeed food that they would receive every day except for the Sabbath.

'Education is not a filing of the pail, but lighting the fire of learning' – Yeats and that is how the Torah instructs parents and teachers to transmit the message of the Exodus from Egypt. We do this by creating an environment that promotes discovery, curiosity and the asking of questions. The questions of the 4 sons from the Pesach seider are examples how learning and discussion is driven the curiosity and questions of children. And we can help them by sharing our questions and focusing on even deeper questions and the ideas and values behind them.

Things today are going terribly wrong with pre-school education with the focus more on academic readiness like reading, writing and arithmetic at the expense of intellectual skills.' “Young children enter the classroom with lively minds–with innate intellectual dispositions toward making sense of their own experience, toward reasoning, predicting, analyzing, questioning and learning,” says Dr. Lilian Katz. “But in our attempt to quantify and verify children’s learning, we impose premature formal instruction on kids at the expense of cultivating their true intellectual capabilities – and ultimately their optimal learning.” In this respect we can learn from the Finns, who don’t begin formal reading instruction until around age 7, have to say about preparing preschoolers to read: “The basis for the beginnings of literacy is that children have heard and listened … They have spoken and been spoken to, people have discussed [things] with them … They have asked questions and received answers.” It is all about relationship and conversation – encouraging young children to use and hear complex language , paying close attention to their thought processes and finding ways to make children think aloud. Preschool years should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening.

The Torah is also referred to as a song – 'write down this song for you'. A song is not only an expression of gratitude and joy but an expression of faith and trust. If we want the Torah to be a song for ourselves and our children, our learning and living should be focused on discovery and making meaning in our lives, being of service to man and serving God. The focus for kids should be on what they are learning and doing and not on how well they are learning and doing.

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