Righteousness & STEAM

This week I walked a few guests around our school, and stumbled upon a wonderful project taking place in our new STEAMlab: a 7th grade Jewish Studies class was using the biblical texts that describe the dimensions of the tabernacle to create scaled models of the structure out of recycled materials. What I noticed about this was that the students were engaged, and had to use the text to complete their task. I remember reading that particular section of the Torah as a young student, and certainly found it much less interesting than many of the narratives we are reading now in Parashat Noach. By using the text as a guide for project-based learning, the teacher was able to bring it to life vividly and memorably.

In this week’s portion, the opening lines read:

אֵ֚לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃

This is the line of Noah.—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.—

Genesis 6:9

The Rabbinic tradition makes a big deal about the apparently redundant word B’dorotav (in his generation), using it to claim that had Noah been born in Abraham’s generation, he wouldn’t have been considered such a Tzaddik (righteous person). An earlier source found in Genesis Rabbah (Midrash dated to 300-500 CE) gives us an alternate read. The question it asks is, why does the text interrupt itself? It begins by saying, “These are the generations of Noah,” but instead of moving directly to listing his offspring as we might expect, it interrupts with, “Noah was a righteous man in his generation(s).”

The answer given is that it is only through his offspring that Noah can be considered righteous – it is the fact that he has children, and that they go on to re-populate the world, that conveys righteousness on their father. It is a powerful reminder of the impact of parenthood — many of us struggle to keep our own identities and senses of self-worth separate from the behaviors and actions of our children. At the same time, we know that they are our true legacy in the world, and that if we hope to have an impact, it is through their actions as well that our ripples will extend down through the generations of humanity that will come long after we are gone.

This is part of why Jewish day schools are important – they provide our children with the skills they need to access pieces of our heritage that will inform their outlook and choices as they navigate their lives. In a communal sense, it is through them that our own righteousness as a community will, at least in part, be transmitted. That is why I want our children to leave the school armed not only with outstanding academic content and skills, but also with a sense of meaning and purpose, and the knowledge that they can create positive change for themselves and others.

Ultimately, that is part of the learning that was going on in the STEAMlab this week – a connection with ancient wisdom was made through a modern lens, and students took steps towards lasting ownership of both tradition and modernity.

Shabbat Shalom,