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Monday, October 4, 2010


Dvar Torah For Day 2 Sukkot 5771.

For this morning’s Dvar Torah, let’s review the underlying reason for a simple halakhah that we have been observing when we wave the lulav and etrog. According to the Shulkhan Arukh, Rabbi Joseph Karo’s Code of Jewish Law, we hold the lulav in our right hands and the etrog in our left hands during Hallel, the waving, and the Hoshanot prayers. The reason for this according to the Shulkhan Arukh is that the lulav contains three separate commandments for us to perform, -taking possession of the palm branches, the myrtle, and the willows- whereas the etrog stands alone as a single mitzvah. Since the right hand is considered the stronger and more important one, and given the prevalence of righties in any population, it retains the honor of being the hand in which we hold the lulav branches, the myrtle, and the willow branches. Though I have no proof for this, I would not be surprised if the etrog is also reserved for the left hand because the etrog is a symbol for a person’s heart; the left hand and arm are closest to the heart, of course.

What is less known is a variation on this halakhic rule, the minority opinion that a left handed person should reverse this order, by holding the lulav bunch in the left hand and the etrog in the right hand. Underlying this minority opinion is the halakhic concept of azlinan batar yamin didei: a leftie holds the lulav in the hand that is the right, or stronger, hand, for him or her, and not in one’s actual right hand. Though this is not common ritual practice today, Halakhah records this opinion as a legitimate option for ritual practice.

Let me stretch your thinking based upon this somewhat obscure bit of flexible ritual law. This idea that a leftie’s right hand is what he or she considers the right hand to be points to an important insight. Like righties and lefties, we are all wired differently. Each of us has different learning styles, personality strengths, disabilities major and minor, and ways of perceiving and knowing. Though at times, every person has to conform to the culture and modalities of the majority of society and fit in with its rules, force fitting the individual like a square peg into a round hole often produces no positive results, and is in fact dangerous to that person and his or her community. At times, we all act like righties, and at times we lefties have to be allowed to behave like lefties.

This is particularly the case with education. President Obama’s Race To The Top, his challenge to states to improve their schools in order to get large federal grants, has certainly sent departments of education in numerous states scrambling to prove a number of things to the White House. Everyone is trying to show that they can test students more often, demonstrate student and teacher success and failure based upon standardized testing, and standardize teacher training more rigorously. As a teacher, I am all for tightening standards for teacher training and tenure, as well as for strengthening student performance in our nation’s schools, especially for the purposes of making our students more competitive with the rest of the world. But I am fearful and skeptical about a mad nationwide dash to secure federal education dollars that may sacrifice emphasis on students as individual learners. Asian schools, especially the Chinese, often force teach their students in a cookie cutter fashion that emphasizes testing and conformity. That may produce a lot of students who can answer test questions and spit back information, but is it really a mark of educational success? What about developing critical thinking skills and appreciation of the world as goals of education? What about character development, moral reasoning, and becoming a thoughtful, active participant in democracy? Most important, what about the student who either because he is learning disabled or she is just different, learns and thinks differently: the student whose left hand is his or her right hand? Now, we are not China. Whatever Marxist critiques exist of our education system as a feeder for the great, hungry capitalist free market monster that demands worker docility and conformity, we are way ahead with respect to respecting individuality and free choice. Still, we need to be careful that in our educational race to the top, we do not go over the top in deemphasizing the unique gifts of individual students and teachers, even if they do not fit the standard marks of success as they are now being defined. Surely, even Halakhah, which generally favors communal conformity over individual predilection, understands that sometimes an individual’s left hand is that person’s right hand; that is where that person’s strength lies. Our politicians and educators would do well to remember that wisdom as well.

Chag Sameach.

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