by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education
Last week I taught a group of 7th graders and parents from Congregation Shalom in Chelmsford. It was our standard, 90-minute education program where students learned about the biblical origins of mikveh immersion, the halachic (Jewish legal) construction of a mikveh, and the many reasons why people immerse, among many other things.
The morning program started off somewhat slow. That can happen. It’s a Sunday, students are in a new place…and did I mention it’s a Sunday? Why weren’t we all still in bed?
About 5-10 minutes into the program, and faced with the sleepy eyes of my 7th grade audience, I made a decision I’m not always able to make, and one that educators everywhere are faced with:
“Will I do the thing I thought I was going to do right now, or will I do what the moment demands of me?” I realized, felt, and possibly witnessed in a series of psychic visions, that if we sat in our chairs any longer, I would lose them. We needed to get up and start learning in the space. It turned out I was right. As soon as we got moving, we started to really enjoy learning together. We ended the program with a powerful (and unplanned) discussion about whether mikveh immersion, or any mitzvah (commandment) or Jewish ritual, can be performed without a reason, or kavannah (intention).
Let me take a few steps back: As educators, we are in the business of planning. What are the objectives of our time together? How will we achieve those objectives? How will we measure if we’ve succeeded? We plan, refine, and plan some more.
Personally, I like the safety of knowing what’s going to happen. I think students like to know too, so I make a point to share the plan right away. I also plan for the unknowable. I tell them: “What makes this program what it is, is what you (the student) brings to it.”
Seeing this written out, I’m reminded of an often-discussed, riddle-like response God gives to Moshe when he is presented with a daunting mission to free the Israelites from slavery.
Moshe asks God: “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13). Here, Moshe is preempting a situation in which the enslaved Israelites will need to know the plan. Who is this God who will save us? What is this God all about?
God famously replies: “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” He continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh (I am) sent me to you'” (Exodus 3:14).
Though this has been translated many ways, one literal translation is “I am who I am.”
I believe God is alluding to the unknowable. Moreover, the message seems to be that God is beyond time and expectation; throw away what you think I will be, I am who I am, without beginning and without end. In Hellenistic Greek, this understanding comes through even more clearly. The Hebrew was translated into Greek, “Ego eimi ho on” understood to mean “I am the Being.”
Moshe had the right idea. He was planning ahead, thinking about the Israelites who would need more than a magic show to convince them to risk their lives to flee from Pharaoh. In asking for a name to share with the Israelites, Moshe wanted to be prepared, and he wanted to be able to manage expectations. Unfortunately for him, God said, “Sorry, you might have to wing it some of the time, there really isn’t a way to wrap me up in a neat package.”
I can’t help but feel that there is some (slight) parallel between the skeptical Israelites and a group of 7th graders on a Sunday morning. Like Moshe, who eventually shows up with wondrous signs to convince the Israelites of God’s powers, I have my choice activities that I know the students will enjoy. I know how to get them engaged. But to create an environment where new ideas can be shared, and new understandings are possible, we have to be willing to change course, pause in an uncomfortable silence, and go into the fray without knowing all of the answers.
I’m not always able to ask myself (while in the middle of a class), “Will I do the thing I thought I was going to do right now, or will I do what the moment demands of me?”
So I’ve set up a reminder for myself, and everyone else. At the beginning of every class, I tell the students, “Your questions, your comments, and your curiosity are what make this program awesome.” It’s a statement that establishes a scary truth: not everything in the next 90 minutes can be planned, and the unplanned parts are sometimes the most important.
I’d like to call this the unpredictable joy of learning. The moment where the right answer isn’t on the tip of my tongue is one that terrifies me, but it’s one that leads to some of the most powerful learning moments I’ve ever had. Whether inside or outside the classroom, I hope all of us have the opportunity to venture into the terrain of the unknown, and see what happens.