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WHO WAS THE BEST TEACHER IN HISTORY?

Friday, 23 March, 2018 - 12:00 pm

Two elderly ladies had been friends since their 30s. Now in their 90s, they still got together a couple of times a week to play cards. One day they were playing gin rummy and one of them said, "You know, we’ve been friends for many years and, please don't get mad, but for the life of me, I can't remember your name. Please tell me what it is."

Her friend glared at her. She continued to glare and stare at her for at least three minutes. Finally, she said, "How soon do you need to know?"

As we begin this Passover season, I’d like you to consider this simple question. Every day we are bombarded by millions of pieces of information, all clamoring for our attention. So why do we remember some things and forget others? What makes something stick?

Contrary to what we might imagine, scientists tell us, memory is not like a filing cabinet, where each piece of information arrives in a simple package and gets dropped into place.

It’s more like Velcro. If you look at the two sides of Velcro material, you’ll see that one is covered with thousands of tiny hooks, and the other is covered with thousands of tiny loops. When you press the two sides together, a huge number of hooks get snagged inside the hoops, and that’s what causes Velcro to seal. There isn’t a single point of attachment, like a button and buttonhole. The connection is distributed through space, with many different points of attachment, all pulling together to make the velcro work.

Your brain hosts a truly staggering number of loops. The more hooks an idea has, the better it will cling to memory. Your childhood home has a gazillion hooks in your brain because it triggers associations all over the place. The huge variety of colors, sounds, smells and experiences that you had there – all are hooked to an association with that home.

A new credit card number, on the other hand, has one hook, if it’s lucky.

Great teachers have a knack for multiplying the hooks on a particular idea. A teacher from Egypt named Moses once designed a message so powerful, tapping into so many different aspects of emotion and memory, that now, 3,300 years later, his students still remember it vividly and celebrate it around the world, the Passover Seder.

In describing the first Seder, the Bible tells us that just as the Jews were about to leave Egypt, Moses assembled the people and spoke to them about the duty of parents. He told them to educate their children about why freedom matters, and how it was achieved. Tell your children the story of the exodus, said Moses, and explain how we were commanded to create a society that was the opposite of Egypt: one based not on wealth or power, but on justice and compassion; a society where a loving G-d is sovereign, and every citizen is created in His image.

But do not teach this lesson in a boring way, Moses cautioned. Each year, re-enact the drama of slavery and liberation. It should be a vivid, multi-sense experience: Eat matzah, the unleavened bread of affliction, and taste bitter herbs until tears well up in your eyes at the bitterness of oppression. Encourage your children to question, probe, investigate, analyze, explore. Follow the rituals with animated discussion and singing.

With this set of instructions, Moses put lots of hooks into the story of the exodus. He could have treated it the way other classroom ideas are treated: as an important but abstract bit of knowledge, like the definition of “truth.” Instead, he turned it into an experience, with hooks galore: the sounds of intergenerational singing; the burning taste of bitter herbs; the despair of feeling like a slave; the excitement of a child scrambling in search of a hidden piece of matzah. The Seder experience puts so many hooks into our people’s memories that, one hundred generations later, it has not been forgotten.

In 1947, David Ben-Gurion appeared before the United Nations Commission to argue the case for the creation of the State of Israel. He asked his listeners the following questions:

Three hundred years ago, a ship called the Mayflower came to the New World. Its arrival was a great event in the history of England and America. I would like to ask any Englishman sitting here on the Commission: What day did the Mayflower leave port? I’d like to ask the Americans: Do they know what date the Mayflower left port in England? What kind of food did they eat onboard?

Ben-Gurion paused for a moment and continued:

More than 3,300 years ago, before the Mayflower set sail, the Jews left Egypt. Every Jew in the world knows which day they left: Passover, the fifteenth of the month of Nisan. Everyone knows what kind of bread they ate. And we still eat that matzah every year, on the anniversary of our departure. And we sit down and tell the story of the exodus to our children and grandchildren in order to guarantee that it will never be forgotten. We conclude the evening with two statements: This year we are slaves. Next year, free men. This year we are here. Next year in Jerusalem, in Eretz Yisrael. That is the nature of the Jewish people.

Ben-Gurion understood the enduring impact that the Passover Seder has.

It teaches by allowing its participants to relive the exodus, by making it our own personal, family experience.

That is how we forge a connection between our ancestors, ourselves, and our children.

Thus, the great message of the Passover Seder is not only about the Seder itself, but about Judaism as a whole. It demonstrates that the best way for Judaism to be passed on is for each generation to experience its traditions first-hand.

So celebrate Passover. But also observe Shabbat – not with words alone, but with the light and warmth of candles, the sounds of song, the smell of freshly-baked challah. Fill your home with that delicious fragrance.

Tell stories from the Torah, and encourage your children to debate them.

Raise a sukkah in the springtime, letting your children lift and build outdoors with you. Socialize with other Jewish members of your community, showing your children how Judaism grows stronger through the connections we form with others. Set lots of hooks throughout your practice of Judaism; make the memories stick, so that our tradition will last.

Let us link our Seder to all those of the generations of Jews who preceded us. Each of the four cups we raise is not only a re-embrace of the past, but a future commitment. The story we tell is not yet done.

It began with our ancestors long ago, and it continues with us and our children here, now. It is our turn to create “hooks,” to make sure the memories stick by living our story in all of its depth, ensuring it will never be lost.

SHABBAT SHALOM AND A HAPPY AND KOSHER PESACH,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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