Turn it and turn it for everything is in it

I am in love with the stories in Breisheet (Genesis). Like many other texts that I love, I have visited them over and over again, even when we are reading another portion in synagogue simply because they are so rich. In the Mishnah known as Pirkei Avot (often translated as Ethics of the Fathers, but more literally understood simply as Chapters of the Fathers), a disciple of Rabbi Hillel’s known as Ben Bag-Bag said the following:

“Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.”

Mishnah Pirkei Avot 5:22

I can’t tell you how many times I have been a classroom and heard students say, “We already learned this,” or “I’ve done that before,” or “We did the same thing in Ms. So-and-so’s class.” Does that make us bad teachers? Why are we often asking children to revisit words and concepts that they have already learned? Why does our tradition insist on revisiting the same texts each year, in the same pattern, over and over?

It is not uncommon for modern research to “discover” something that has long been practiced in Judaism. One such piece of wisdom that modern educators know is that in order for students to learn in ways that stick, they need to link new information to prior knowledge. Making these connections creates webs of knowledge and understanding, and it is considered best practice in education to begin lessons by activating prior knowledge for learners, priming the pump for learning new material.

Our tradition is built on this model. We return to the core text each week and each year, activating prior knowledge and preparing our minds to link it to new understandings. We turn it and turn it, because new insights grow as we grow. Two quick stories relating to this:

1. I was recently at an accreditation information session run by the Virginia Association for Independent Schools (VAIS), held at a Franciscan high school in Richmond. Chatting with my neighbor, a teacher of Bible at that school, he remarked on how jealous he was that our students were learning to access biblical texts in the original Hebrew. He teaches the texts in Latin, and said that he has always felt slightly removed, as if a layer or membrane were between him and the true meanings of the words.

2. I recently heard a Middle School student make a connection between the fraught sibling relationship in a Shakespeare play, the fraught sibling relationship between Isaac and Ishmael, and the fraught sibling relationships in her own family (yes, that really happened). She further remarked that she hadn’t “gotten” that the story of Isaac and Ishmael was about the same theme when she had learned it in 2nd grade, and that reading it again she had noticed some new things.

When you think about these stories together, it is quite remarkable that our students are gaining the skills they need to access the text in the original Hebrew, allowing them to grow in their relationship with Torah for the remainder of their lives. They will always be able to link this prior knowledge to new experiences and new understandings, creating the potential for a life of learning that most people could only dream of.

What texts and stories do you love? Do you share them with your children?

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Sameach,