January 13, 2023 - 20 Tevet 5783 - Parashat Shemot 5783 / פָּרָשַׁת שְׁמוֹת
Dear Beit Rabban Community,
Last week we concluded the book of Bereishit with Yaacov’s death and his last words to his children. This week we start the book of Shemot, which opens up with the ominous description of the rise of a new Egyptian leader who did not know Joseph, and presumably had no memory of his country’s allegiances to the Israelite tribe.
I spent the beginning of the week at the annual Jewish day school conference, the Prizmah Conference, back for the first time since the pandemic. The wonderful collection of day school leaders that this conference brings together have so much to share and discuss, but fundamentally we all grapple with the same questions: how is this work in service of the Jewish future, what do we want for our children, how do we help them achieve these things?
I read a beautiful thought shared on Sefaria by Joe Septimus, a friend and Torah scholar, about Birkat Yaakov, Jacob’s blessings to his children. Yaakov meets with each child to share unique last words. These "blessings" are not consistently positive in the way you would expect from a blessing. Furthermore, they seem more descriptive of reality than blessings for the future. Scholars have long debated why this is the case, and Joe shares a beautiful thought of his own. What greater blessing is there for a child to know themself, to see themself as they are, including their inherent talents and struggles? What better gift is there from a parent than to help a child achieve a deeper level of self-understanding? Maybe this is the greatest blessing Jacob can give, especially as the transition looms to a time where Yaakov’s name, his reputation, and his influence are no longer relevant. He is preparing them for the time when there is a new leader who does not know their tribe- a time when they have to stand on their own rather on the reputations of their forebears.
This takes me right back to the ultimate goal of Jewish education. We invest in our children for so many reasons with so many intended outcomes, but primarily we do so our children can be the best possible stewards of the future of our people and our planet. It is easy to obsess over what it takes to equip them with the right tools and skills to succeed in this lofty responsibility. What will the future need from its leaders- what technologies must they master, what dispositions should they internalize, and what do we need to teach them now so they are ready then? These seem like unanswerable questions to me. How can we possibly know what the unknown future will require- what if we make big bets on particular skills that become obsolete before our children fully grow up? There has got to be a higher-level set of strategies that will transcend the particulars of a future we cannot possibly anticipate.
I had the great privilege of joining two very special gatherings at the Prizmah conference. I organized one of these gatherings for my professional coach Jane Taubenfeld Cohen, a giant in the field of Jewish education by all accounts. About a dozen or so of her current coaching clients (more like family members) gathered together to share what we love about Jane. Despite this being something akin to her worst nightmare, it was incredibly inspiring to the rest of us as leaders in Jewish Day schools. We spent a couple of hours sharing what we appreciate about her. The overarching story told was about an educator who invests in each of her students distinctly, who does not give them all the same thing but gives each what they uniquely need. It is a story of a person who cares for each of us as human beings, who conveys confidence in each of us, and who pushes us to reach higher than ostensibly possible. And we all know that she will come with us wherever we go- she is not invested in us because of the particular position we inhabit, she is invested in each of us as her students no matter how our lives unfold. Similarly, I had the great pleasure of joining a Pardes retirement celebration in honor of Dr. David Bernstein, the director of a yeshiva I attended for two years after high school, Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem. David had a big impact on who I am and how I think, and I often tell a particular story about him. When I was 19 he asked me to his office to share some very pointed rebuke- he did so in a way that was direct, clear, and in no way mean. It was the first time that I had been so deeply challenged and was able to accept the feedback without shame because I understood that he cared about me. I think of this story all the time because I want to love my students in the way he loves his- one that is so deep that it also requires you to hold a mirror up to them and ask them to delve a little deeper into who they are and who they want to be. I shared this story at the gathering and then heard so many more stories of students who David took the time to see as individuals, who he challenged and encouraged, and who he did not give up on when others might have.
These two gatherings were the most inspiring highlights of the conference for me. They remind me of what I am doing here- what we are all doing in the realm of education. It is about our potential influence on each child, for better and for worse. Our ability to affect a person in their critical years of early development is so powerful. When we choose to do that in intentional ways that are loving and honest children can carry that with them for decades to come and pay it forward to so many others. When we are not careful, we can easily affect them for the worse, or miss the holy opportunities to see a child in their time of need or a moment with the potential for long-lasting impact. I believe that the most powerful of all these opportunities for impact are those that help a person advance their own self-understanding.
How do we prepare our children to be the best possible stewards of the unknown future? We follow in the footsteps of Yaakov, and for that matter the footsteps of Jane and David. We help each person discover their unique talents and challenges. We help each person better understand themself, and help set them on a lifelong path of honest self-discovery. Equipped with this sort of self-understanding, and with the memories of people who loved them deeply enough to help them achieve this, they will be prepared to navigate all the things we cannot possibly begin to imagine.
Wishing all a healthy and rejuvenating Shabbat,