Sunday, April 5, 2015

Pesach- Shemini 75 - Learning is a Partnership

 The peak of the inauguration of the miskan – tabernacle was fire coming down from heaven as a pillar into the holy of holies, golden altar and then the outer altar causing the incense and sacrificial parts to go up in smoke. The   fire represented   God's love and approval of the children of Israel in the context of strictest form of justice – midat ha'din, not out of midat ha'rachamim – attribute of mercy.   In response to God's display of Love, the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu acting out of a great love and closeness to God, brought what the Torah calls an alien fire into the mishkan- tabernacle.  There are differences of opinion as to what their sin was that caused their death by a fire from heaven. Their sin was that they brought their own incense into the Holy of Holies or they offered the regular daily incense upon the inner altar though they had not been commanded to do so. They acted on their own accord without consulting with their father Aaron or Moshe and did not even discuss the issue amongst themselves. They were also guilty of rendering a decision, making a halachik decision in the presence of Moses their teacher which showed contempt for the Torah learning of the former generation and eroded the authority of the leadership. The Medrash suggests that they had a touch of arrogance  - when walking behind Moses and Aaron, Nadav remarked to Avihu – when will these two elders depart from this world that we may assume the leadership of the community? When people act out of a great love, even if it is a love of God and spirituality, there is often   a touch of arrogance, a love for oneself and relying only on their own thinking and wisdom. Leaders act out love but also out of a fear of heaven because of the responsibility they have for the community. Because of this, they experience God's help – 'si'ata de'sha'maya ' in their decision making.
 .                                                                                                                                                            The root of the sins of Nadav and Avihu could be their lack of understanding about the learning process.  Educators today understand that in order to promote student engagement in learning, learning has to be a partnership between teachers and students. In the process of learning students can question and challenge teachers while still appreciating their teacher's exceptional wisdom, knowledge and practical experience and see them as mentors and guides. From these discussions come clarity and new perceptions. In this way teachers can proclaim that they have learned a lot from their teachers but have   learned the most from their students. In the learning process, everybody is a student – Talmid. The teacher is considered a Talmid Chacham, a wise student who is always learning. When learning is a partnership, there is no generation gap there is no conflict between the present leadership and the younger generation.  And this also applies to Psak, rendering Halachik decisions and law. It is the questions that people – students ask and the discussions that lead to the making of law and practical halachik decisions. So people participate in the process of deciding the Halacha-law by virtue of their questions and input.

The Seider experience where we relate the story of the Exodus from Egypt is based on the idea, that learning is a partnership. It is the questions of children and their natural curiosity that drive the discussions and the acquisition of knowledge. We encourage them to suggest answers and the values associated with them. We focus on listening, using dialog questions to promote discussion. Deborah Meier, the American educationalist says that ' teaching is essentially listening and learning is essentially talking.' In this way we meet kids' needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness and support kids' love of learning, their intrinsic motivation and feeling self-determined and self-directed.  There is no generation gap because they have a voice, feel a sense of belonging, acceptance and are respected and cared about. This is because we have made learning a partnership. And a kid in school can become a learning partner not only with peers and people from other generations, but with the greatest Rabbis and teachers of the generation. An American Rabbi and educator at a girls school – Rabbi Shapiro encourages and helps his students share their learning and ask questions from the leading Rosh Yeshivas and outstanding Torah scholars. They are very willing to listen to kids share their learning and explore ideas with them. When children are given the chance they can construct meaning, share their own perspectives and use their own experiences as learning resources. Because learning is a partnership, the learning of each individual and each child is important. We pray that God will support our learning and give us a share in his Torah. Each child can find his place in the Beit Hamidrash – study halls of Torah. What gets in the way , is our focus on how well kids learn, ranking students, on testing how much they remember and give the answers we want  and using grades  - extrinsic motivation to drive learning. Instead the focus should be on ' what we are learning ', connecting to the learning and not how we are learning. Success and failure should not be experienced as reward or punishment but as neutral information and feedback. When learning is a partnership we encourage student engagement because learning itself becomes important, relevant and we so promote a love of learning.

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