Monday, April 2, 2012

Pesach, Matzah and Maror: The Essence of Jewish Education

Every Sunday morning, a student studying in Orot's M.A. program for Educational Counseling hitches a ride with me from Yad Binyamin to Elkana. During the ride, conversations often turn towards the material that he's studying. (While Orot's B.Ed. program in Elkana is for women only, men also study in separate classes towards M.A. degrees.) It's been interesting to watch as the trajectory of our conversations has shifted over the course of the year.
At the beginning, my "tremper" complained bitterly about the program. "It's so theoretical! I deal with real kids every day. I need to know how to handle the kids in the real world, and not delve into arcane psychological theory." And yet, as the year has progressed, his complaints have grown more tempered, and his appreciation for the program has grown. This morning he told me that he's already enlisted three friends to register for the program for next year.
What changed? I can tell you categorically that the program didn’t suddenly shift orientation due to his complaints. Rather, his appreciation for the material slowly matured. While he at first failed to see the significance of the theory to his work, over time he began to appreciate that while the theory of counseling might not directly impact on his counseling specifically, it allowed him to gain a broader, deeper appreciation for his work.

The "Obilgation" of the Three Symbols: What Obligation?
As we near the conclusion of Maggid and can almost taste the matzah in our mouths, we recite a famous statement from Rabban Gamliel, which is actually a direct quote from the Mishnah in Pesachim (116b):
רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל הָיָה אומֵר: כָּל שֶׁלּא אָמַר שְׁלשָׁה דְּבָרִים אֵלּוּ בַּפֶּסַח, לא יָצָא יְדֵי חובָתו, וְאֵלוּ הֵן: פֶּסַח, מַצָה, וּמָרור.
Rabban Gamliel used to say: Anyone who did not speak about three things did not fulfill his obligation. And they are: Pesach (the Paschal lamb), Matzah, and Maror.

While his statement which obligates us to mention each of these three critical elements during the Seder seems clear, it's actually anything but. What "obligation" does one fail to fulfill should he not mention the three elements? Where do we find such an obligation? Not surprisingly, the answered to this question is mired in dispute.
According to Ramban (see מלמחות ה', דף ב' בדפי הרי"ף), one who fails to mention these three elements does not properly fulfill his obligation to eat the three foods on the night of Pesach. While the Torah commands us to eat, Rabban Gamliel adds that eating is not enough. One must also speak about them, understand them, and place them in the context of the story. Others, including Ra'avan, disagree, explaining that one who fails to mention these three foods does not completely fulfill the obligation to tell the story of יציאת מצרים.

A Critical Educational Lesson
Yet, when we take a step back, both positions seem to be two sides of the same coin. According to each position, Rabban Gamliel was expressing a critical idea.
On the first night of Pesach we confront two very different types of mitzvot. The first is academic: והגדת לבנך – "and you shall tell your child" the story of the Exodus from Egypt. At face value, telling a story is a theoretical exercise, as we recount the historical tale of our ancestors' exit from slavery. (Anyone who has ever been stuck in a boring history class can attest to just how irrelevant names and dates can be.) The second type of Mitzvah is action-oriented. More specifically, on this night we are commanded to eat, whether we taste the simplicity of the matzah, the bitterness of the Maror, or the richness of the Korban Pesach.
According to Rabban Gamliel, if we allowed these two elements to remain separate and disconnected, we would fail both in our telling of the story and in our eating of the food, as we neglected to focus on the critical connection between the learning and discussion and the tastes associated with that story. Rabban Gamliel reminds us that Chazal designed the different elements of the Seder to complement each-other. The study and action go hand-in-hand, each building upon the other to create a complete educational experience.

Rabban Gamliel's Lesson in the Real World of Education...and Parenting!
Education is a tricky thing. On the one hand, in the purest sense, learning is an academic, intellectual pursuit. It can be dry and theoretical, conducted in the sterile, antiseptic Ivory Tower, devoid of any real-world meaning. At the same time, practical education without underlying thought, analysis and study leaves students with a shallow, peripheral understanding of the material. Without the deeper meaning, contemplation and reflective analysis academic study demands, a student's understand is cursory at best.
In the world of Chinuch, the same holds true. If our students can analyze and parse complicated tracts of Gemara but don’t see any connection between their Torah studies and the music that they listen to or the movies that they watch, then their Torah education is sorely lacking. At the same time, if through fantastic experiential programming we've instilled in them a passion for spirituality and love of Judaism but they can't read a line of Rashi, we've also failed them.
On the night of Pesach, Rabban Gamliel reminds us that our children's education must be comprised of both academic knowledge and practical meaning. It must combine the story of יציאת מצרים together with the tastes of the Pesach foods. Only when we, as parents and teachers, combine these two critical elements together, can we rest assured that we have indeed fulfilled our educational obligation to our children.