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Adam Eilath

Last month I read a tremendous book, “The Obligated Self” by Mara Benjamin, a professor of Talmud and Jewish Thought at Mount Holyoke College. The book argues that by examining our sense of obligation to our children we can learn a great deal about what it means to be obligated to God. Benjamin argues that the modern Western phenomena that binds these two concepts together is that for the first time in history, becoming a parent is largely a choice as is the decision to feel a sense of obligation towards God.

In this week’s Torah Portion, we witness the Israelites beginning to accept not only a relationship to God but a set of rules and principles. God tells the Israelites: “If you obey my commandments faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be my cherished possessions.” A few verses later the Israelites answer: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.”

In Benjamin’s book, she discusses the obligation she felt during her early years of being a new parent and writes:

These shifts in my relationship to time, the material world, and my own autonomy comprised the becoming of an obligated self, a self radically bound up with someone else. In my child I recognized the one person for whom, I felt I could not walk away. In rational moments, I recognized this to be untrue: parents of small children can and do free themselves from the obligations of daily care and other substantive involvement by de facto relinquishing the claim to parenthood. I knew that. Yet I found it unthinkable that I would refuse the role into which my new child had, by the fact of her existence, suddenly put me. She exerted a gravitational pull, and my role was now to orbit her.

To be an obligated self was to be subject to the law of another; the Law of The Baby. The law could not be fulfilled in abstract but only in active, embodied, material actions: soothing, feeding, cleaning, comforting, distracting, smiling and wiping…

Nonetheless, I could not agree to the law before I was already subject to it. And once in place, I could only violate the law through inattention or frustration. I could not cast it off. I transgressed the law as often as I fulfilled it, leaving my crying baby or comfort seeking toddler to calm herself when I could not bring myself to respond. Nonetheless it was clear to me that there was a law, and the law applied to me by virtue of being my child’s parent.

The narrative of parental obligation resonates with me deeply. On the other hand, I cannot imagine being an Israelite and accepting the totality of the Jewish commandments from God based on the promise of being “a cherished possession.”

I witness parents at this school express their obligation to their children and teenagers on a constant basis. It’s reflected in the choices that parents make guide, feed, to nourish, to support, to comfort, and to discipline. Parents feel this obligation and as Benjamin writes, they “feel subjected to the law of another” and they can choose to transgress or accept that law.

Traditional religious archetypes often portray God in patriarchal and occasionally matriarchal language. I want to offer a reframe of the covenantal language from this week’s Torah portion based on Benjamin’s suggestions. Resetting God’s voice as a child’s voice, inviting us to enter into a relationship of obligation with us is beautiful. It is our children who come into the world and tell us, “If you ...listen to my voice and keep a covenant of respect and values as my parent, then you will be a cherished soul in this world.” When we hear our children calling out to us, undoubtedly we will answer as the Israelites did, “All that you have spoken to us, we will do.”

In partnership,
Adam Eilath

Adam Eilath

In many ways our children today live with a physical safety unparalleled in history. In spite of that, we are more cautious and anxious about our children’s physical safety than ever before. Indeed, many educators have written about the absence of children from public spaces and the decline in risk taking that the younger generation has experienced lately. Gever Tulley, the founder of Brightworks (a tinkering school in SF), writes: “We see a child climbing a tree and the first thing we think of is how they might fall and be maimed for life, when we might as easily say, ‘Look at how well Sarah is climbing that tree!’ When we protect children from every possible source of danger, we also prevent them from having the kinds of experiences that develop their sense of self-reliance, their ability to assess and mitigate risk, and their sense of accomplishment.”

This week’s Torah portion starts out with a story about safety. As the Israelites are leaving Egypt, we are told that God led them on a circuitous route to avoid an armed conflict with the Philistines. “The people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt” (Exodus 13:17). Interestingly, the next verse tells us that the Israelites “went up armed out of the land of Egypt.” Why were the Israelites afraid if they were armed? Why after all the miracles that God performed in Egypt, would the Israelites be afraid of war? Certainly the Israelites must have had some confidence as they transitioned from a powerless to a powerful nation? The message of this story is clear: physical safety does not always guarantee a sense of emotional safety.

Although I grew up with relative independence in Toronto, I was still shuttled to and from activities by parents and my friends' parents. Yes, we played alone at parks and disappeared for hours on weekends with our friends, but in the Jewish community where I grew up, our parents always had an eye or a neighbor's eye on us. When I was fifteen, my parents sent me to Jerusalem for a summer to swim with an Israeli team for two months. One of my host families gifted me a bike for the summer and I learned to make my way around Jerusalem on two wheels despite the heavy traffic and pretty complicated urban layout. Toward the end of my summer, my parents came to visit me and watch my final competition. I so distinctly remember the joy on their faces as they watched me bike down the street to meet them one afternoon. They were in awe of the small gang of biking teenagers that I spent my days with. There was an expression on their faces that said, “why didn’t we set him free a long time ago!?”

I love walking to the PJCC after school and seeing our middle school students sprawled out, doing homework, and enjoying unstructured time. I can clearly see the joy in their faces as they enjoy the freedom that they are given by the school and their parents. A true sense of emotional safety won’t be achieved unless our students develop confidence, become independent, and self reliant.

In partnership,
Adam Eilath

Adam Eilath

Israeli Economist and Nobel Prize Winner, Daniel Kahneman has coined the term “The Illusion of Validity.”  In his work, he describes his experience as a psychologist in the Israeli Army where he was a part of a group tasked with predicting which cadets would be most successful in officer training. He discovered that psychologists were unable to predict who would emerge as the strongest candidate in officer training and that at best his “ability to predict the performance of a cadet was negligible.” Despite this, when asked to repeat the task of predicting which officer would be most successful, the group of psychologists predicted a new group of candidates with the same level of confidence. Kahneman wrote, “the dismal truth about the quality of our predictions, had no effect whatsoever on how we evaluated candidates and very little effect on the confidence we had in our judgment and predictions.” Kahneman named this cognitive fallacy “The Illusion of Validity.” Kahneman continued to argue “We were required to predict a soldier's performance in officer training and in combat, but we did so by evaluating his behavior over one hour in an artificial situation. This was a perfect instance of a general rule that I call WYSIATI, ‘What you see is all there is.’ We had made up a story from the little we knew but had no way to allow for what we did not know about the individual’s future, which was almost everything that would actually matter.”

This week’s Torah portion continues to tell the story of the plagues that God inflicted upon the Egyptians. There is a commentary on one plague, darkness, that is particularly related to “The Illusion of Validity.” Rabbi Itzhak Shmuel Reggio, a 19th century Italian Rabbi writes that what actually occurred during the plague of darkness was not an objective darkness that descended onto Egypt. Rather, it was a “darkness of the eyes.” According to Rabbi Reggio, an Egyptian and an Israelite could have been standing side by side and the Israelite would see with perfect clarity, while the Egyptian would only see darkness. Reggio argues that this darkness was representative of the inability of the Egyptian people to recognize the harm they were causing the Israelites in slavery. I would venture to say that the Egyptians were plagued by “The Illusion of Validity”. They convinced themselves that their negative view of the Israelite’s was the “entire picture.”

We all suffer from some degree of “blindness.” There is always a part of the picture that we can’t see. As a teacher, I remember the unfortunate experience of dismissing class and watching a student leave only to realize that student did not speak once the entire class. In these moments, I would be so disappointed in myself as a teacher. But, it’s one thing to be aware of our blindness, it’s another thing to have confidence that we are seeing the whole picture when we are only seeing a part.

Schools are a fascinating case study for thinking about Kahneman’s work. Healthy school communities thrive when every member of the community: parents, teachers, students, and administrators, work to understand that “what they see is not all there is.” Kahneman writes: “True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes. You are probably an expert in guessing your spouse’s mood from one word on the telephone; chess players find a strong move in a single glance at a complex position; and true legends of instant diagnoses are common among physicians.” The lesson is clear, in order for us to see the full picture and not be plagued with blindness we need to abandon the confidence we have in our assumptions about one another and admit our mistakes. The more time we spend with one another and the more we learn from our mistakes, we will learn to see the full picture.

In partnership,
Adam Eilath

Adam Eilath

It’s a remarkable time to be at Wornick. Our lower school students are deeply engaged in their Mitzvah Shuk program and our school walls are filled with instructions and prescriptions to make the world a better place. 4th grade students are reminding us to be cautious in our speech and to not gossip about one another. 2nd grade students are gathering warm clothes for the “one warm coat program.” Our 5th grade students are engaged in the mitzvah of Leket (donating the gleanings of a field to those who are needy) and are volunteering at the PJCC justice garden. In 1st grade, our students are gathering books for children who don’t have access to books, and in 3rd grade our students are engaged in Hashavat Avedah (returning lost objects to their rightful owner). Our Kindergarteners are engaged in a particularly unique Mitzvah Shuk program. They are learning about the Jewish traditions of animal rights and are gathering materials for a local animal shelter. This mitzvah is particularly relevant as we witness the daily impact of fires in Australia on the animals and their habitat.

In this week’s Parasha we begin the book of Exodus and the story of Moses. One of my favorite analysis of Moses’ life story comes from the book Darkhei Moshe by Rabbi Moshe Halfon HaKohen, the former Chief Rabbi of Djerba in Tunisia. According to Rabbi Halfon, the story of Moses is the story of the birth of justice. He analyzes Moses’ first actions: leaving the royal palace, stopping an Egyptian from beating an Hebrew slaves, intervening in a disagreement between two slaves and stopping the exploitation and abuse of Jethro’s daughters at a well by a group of male shepherds. Rabbi Halfon explains that each of these actions can be seen as an evolution in humanity's understanding of what justice means, starting with the personal and moving to a more universal concept that is rooted in the idea that every individual on this earth is deserving of a just life.

I want to highlight our Kindergarten teachers for approaching the teaching of animal rights in a brilliant way. Over the past week, they have integrated the study of a “city” with the study of animal rights. Our Kindergarten students have been learning about public buildings like fire stations, police offices, and libraries and they have been going on walking tours to visit these sites. During these tours, our teachers have been guiding our students to notice the ways in which urban environments provide shelter to humans by protecting us from the sun. Students have become aware of the ways in which buildings provide shade to humans. It’s a fascinating way to approach the need for shelter for animals. In the same way Moses started with the personal and grew to understand the concept of justice as universal, our students are also building on their personal empirical experiences with shelter and developing a broader universal understanding that incorporates all beings.

It’s a beautiful thing to watch a concept “click” for a five year old. It’s magical to witness them all of a sudden understand that shelter is all around them in various forms. Albert Einstein wrote about moments like these. He reflected on his childhood and noted that one of his most powerful learning moments was when his father gave him a compass as a birthday present. He was fascinated by the fact that no matter which way he moved the compass, the needle always pointed north. In his autobiography he wrote, “The needle behaved in such a determined way and did not fit into the usual explanation of how the world works. That is that you must touch something to move it. I still remember now, or I believe that I remember, that this experience made a deep and lasting impression on me. There must be something deeply hidden behind everything.”

May we all be inspired by the Mitzvot that our students are leading us in, and may our good deeds grow from the particular to the universal, over and over again.

In partnership,
Adam Eilath

Mitzvah Shuk 1
Mitzvah Shuk 2
Mitzvah Shuk 3
Adam Eilath

Over winter break, I finished one of the more wonderful books I have read in some time. Family Papers, by Sarah Abrevaya Stein, a professor at UCLA, tells the true story of the Levy family whose story begins in Salonica and spreads throughout France, England, South America, Israel and South Africa. The book relies on thousands of letters written over hundreds of years that were found in safes in Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, and Jerusalem. It was a remarkable opportunity to be transported to another time where people migrated all over the world in search of opportunity, fleeing persecution, and trying somehow to keep their families connected through the only tool available to them at the time, the written word. I couldn’t help but think about my own family and the distances we have each travelled over the past few generations. I couldn’t help but think about how we went from living in one village to being spread across the globe with grandchildren and cousins on every continent. Somehow, although each family tree is different, the same tropes and themes are relatively consistent.

One of the most important Jewish Historians, Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, made a distinction between the terms history and memory in his famous work Zakhor. According to Yerushalmi, the term “history” is foreign to the Jewish experience. It is a Greco-Roman discipline (and word) created to record the past accurately. History, according to Yerushalmi, is cold, dispassionate, and arbitrary. “Memory,” on the other hand, is the traditional term associated with the past in Judaism. Indeed, the word history never appears in the Bible, however memory, and the command “to remember” is replete throughout our holiest text. Yerushalmi argues that the criteria for whether something fits into the Jewish memory is the extent to which it is meaningful, interpretable, and if it can be passed on from generation to generation. Memory is less concerned with accuracy and not concerned with embellishments. History, on the other hand, has no problem destroying a civilization’s core narrative or story for the sake of accuracy or scientific truth.

This week’s Torah portion depicts the dramatic end to Jacob’s life. With his children gathered around his death-bed, Jacob offers them each individual and collective blessings. In his closing words he says, “and let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.” The Italian commentator Sforno writes that with these words, Jacob wanted his descendents to feel linked to the past, so that their lives would be worthy of our forefathers. Jacob wanted his children to not only see their forefathers as historical figures but as people whose presence could be felt.

What is remarkable about the Jewish past is the way in which learning about it enhances our awareness of who we are today. By studying and learning about the Jewish past, we expand our memories beyond our personal experiences and include those who came before us. The more we read about the past, the more vibrant our identities become.

In partnership,
Adam Eilath

Mission Statement

Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School develops students who are socially and academically prepared to meet their full potential as engaged leaders committed to a life steeped in Jewish ethics and values.

About Wornick

Enrollment: 178
Grades: TK-8
Average Class Size: 14
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