AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.

Jewish Education: Heirloom or Gift?

Posted by: SKass

June 13, 2011

(My remarks to the 10th Graduating Class of the Pardes Educators Program)[i]

Sarah Kass

When I was asked a few days ago to step in for AVI CHAI’s chairman and say a few words to you on behalf of the foundation, I began to think about what I might say to young people about to enter the noble profession of teaching.
My first thought was to speak to you about the McKinsey report on education.  The report concludes (1) that nations thrive when they have excellent schools; and (2)  those thriving nations have excellent schools when those nations make sure their best and brightest go into teaching.  And I thought in that context to say to you that our Jewish nation will therefore sleep easier tonight knowing that you—among our nation’s best and brightest–are going to be teachers.
Then I thought I might say something about how not only are you getting to be teachers, you are getting to be teachers at the dawning of a revolutionary age.  I thought of telling you to imagine what it must have been like to have been sent forth to teach in the 1440’s, in the age of Gutenberg.  In those days, the printing press had begun a revolution, not only in the access to information, but in the functioning of the human mind.  “Why should I remember what you’re telling me when what you’re telling me is written down in my book?”  1440’s students must have asked their young hotshot teachers.  I imagined reminding you how this here age of Zuckerberg is even more revolutionary—both in terms of the amount of information it makes available and in the ways it is consequently transforming the human mind.   Your students will be thinking, “Why do I need school when there’s Google?  Why should I do my own work when there’s Facebook?”   I thought of saying how you will not only be experiencing the timeless magic of teaching, you may even be participating in the reinvention of the contexts and modes in which it happens.
Then I realized what I really wanted to do here was ask you a question.  So here it is. My question for you  Pardes Educators is, “How will you bring forth the fruit you have taken from your  sojourn in this orchard, in this Pardes?”  How will you carry your fruit, your Torah learning?
It just so happens the coming days offer us two very different examples of bringing forth fruit.  In two weeks time, in Parshat Shlach, we read the story of the spies who scout out the Land of Israel.  When they come back to tell of their travels, we are told the spies show the fruit to the People of Israel (Bamidbar, XIII: 26):

.וַיָּשִׁיבוּ אֹתָם דָּבָר וְאֶת-כָּל-הָעֵדָה, וַיַּרְאוּם אֶת-פְּרִי הָאָרֶץ

For these spies, the fruit is but a souvenir, a showy object, an artifact.  Indeed, the real story for these spies—how the Promised Land is not so promising—entirely drowns out the fruit.  Carried as a mere artifact, the spies’ fruit have no sticking power.  As a mere artifact, their enduring sweetness cannot possibly compete with the day’s more provocative headlines.
With Shavuot, Chag Habikurim–the Festival of the First Fruits—a day away, we can recall a very different mode of carrying fruit.  We are told in Devarim XXVI, when the People of Israel come into their land they are to bring their first fruits as a gift to God:

.וְלָקַחְתָּ מֵרֵאשִׁית כָּל-פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר תָּבִיא מֵאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ–וְשַׂמְתָּ בַטֶּנֶא; וְהָלַכְתָּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם

In so doing, the text goes onto indicate, the people are to recall both their history and their purpose.  The bringing forth of fruits as a gift rather than as an object  invites the remembering of who we are as a people, why we go forward as a people, and what our mission is.   Most significantly, the text goes on to say, bringing forth fruit as a gift, inspires great joy (XXVI: 10-11):

וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת-רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתָּה לִּי, יְהוָה; וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.  וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל-הַטּוֹב, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ–וּלְבֵיתֶךָ:  אַתָּה, וְהַלֵּוִי, וְהַגֵּר, אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ

Carried as a gift, the fruit is not a quaint artifact easily overshadowed by what’s way more current and oh-so-hip.  Rather carried as a gift, the fruit inspires gratitude.  And gratitude, in turn, inspires the desire to give more.
After your years at Pardes, you Pardes Educators are going forth with lots of fruit.   The question is, will you bring it forward as the spies did– as an inert souvenir –or will you bring it forward as a living gift?  Knowing this place where you have learned, and the people with whom you have been blessed to study, I am confident that you will carry forth your fruits—your Torah learning—as a great gift.   What sets you Pardes Educators apart  is not only that you are among the best and the brightest, and not only that you are going into teaching in revolutionary times.  What sets you apart is that you have been to Pardes, a place where Torah study is never approached as a survey of artifacts or as the unveiling of an heirloom,  but where it is joyfully celebrated as a living gift.  You have tasted the fruit of this orchard, of this Pardes, and so you will carry it forth as a gift that keeps on giving.
We celebrate you.  We are grateful to you.  And we look forward to the day when your students begin to give to others the fruits you will be giving to them.

[i] This text is based on remarks delivered in Jerusalem on June 6, 2011. These Pardes Educators, like the nine classes of Pardes Educators who have come before them, will be teaching Judaic studies at Jewish day schools across North America, after having spent two or more years studying at The Pardes Institute.

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