There is a great deal of research about the types of questions that teachers ask when studying a novel or piece of literature. Unfortunately, too many teachers ask factual questions: When did the character live? How many brothers or sisters did she have? What was his profession? Literal and factual questions are important because they lay a foundation for a discussion, but they are also limiting. Due to time constraints or the digressions that are common in a classroom, teachers often don’t “get to” interpretive or evaluative questions. Interpretive and evaluative questions can include: How do you think the character felt? How might the ending change if x y or z happened? What do you think the antagonist would have done in a different situation? Interpretive and evaluative questions are critical for developing emotional intelligence in our students. They cultivate an ability for students to develop empathy and think about the “real world relevance” of their learning.
This week’s Parasha, “Vayetzei” includes one of the more iconic moments in the Bible. In the process of fleeing his home, Jacob lies down to sleep and dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder. The Ben Ish Chai, a 19th century Rabbi from Baghdad wrote a powerful parable about this Biblical story claiming that the dream of a ladder hints at the power of empathy. According to the Ben Ish Chai, “there once was a ladder that had ten steps. The top step of the ladder would always mock and laugh at the steps below it, saying ‘I am higher than you and better than you.’ One day a man walked by and heard the top step mocking the lower ones. Immediately he walked over to the ladder and flipped it upside down. As expected, the step which had mocked the others and now found itself on the bottom, was immediately quiet.” The lesson of this parable is clear. When we are humbled we act in kinder ways. When we know how others feel, we are more likely to treat them with kindness and respect.
The cultivation of empathy starts in the classroom with students being asked questions that probe into the inner workings of the psyche of characters in their books. It continues through experiential programs that have our students out in the world meeting students from other parts of the world, serving meals to those who are less fortunate, and interviewing grandparents as a part of class projects. There is a Jewish Tunisian saying that I love about the power of speaking with others: “Anshed mizrarab umah tanshidishi tabib” which translates to “Ask the person to whom it happened, not the doctor.”
I sometimes think of The Divine as a Being or Spirit that is able to contain all of the multitudes of opinions, beliefs, and perspectives in the world. Indeed, I believe that the world becomes more holy, the more we listen to others who are different than us and the more we are able to hold other’s experiences. I’ll end this week’s blog with a quote from one of my favorite books. The memoir When Breath Becomes Air by the late, Dr. Paul Kalanithi. “In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. The doctor sees one the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”