Live the Questions

Words of Torah, funny anecdotes about my students, rants about education policy, and observations on politics, progressive Judaism, activism, and culture will all make appearances on this blog. Each post will end with a question for the reader; please respond if you feel moved.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Thoughts on Systemic Change and Parshat Vayechi

This shabbat I was struck by the coincidence of two encounters, one with a fellow Department of Education colleague and one with the Torah portion. In Parshat Vayechi, Jacob blesses Joseph's sons Ephraim and Menashe. Joseph assumes that Jacob wants to give the "right-hand" or primary blessing to the elder son (Menashe) and positions his sons in front of his blind father so that Jacob's right hand will rest on Menashe's head. However, Jacob crosses his hands and lays his right hand on Ephraim's head, giving him the primary blessing. When Joseph tries to correct him, Jacob acknowledges that what he has done is unconventional, but that it's correct, and that he made a deliberate choice to bless Ephraim.

At shabbat lunch, I spent a good deal of time ranting about the New York City Department of Education with several other teachers and one DOE administrator. All of us complained of powerlessness in the face of such a huge bureaucratic system; we all griped about feeling that our hands are tied due to mandates that dictate our priorities, methods, instructional values, and materials, even when they run counter to what we understand to be solid educational choices. The most high-profile example, of course, is the growing emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing due to the No Child Left Behind legislation. What was most disturbing to me was that the DOE administrator had the exact same complaints as the teachers; he also felt totally powerless to make choices different than those dictated to him by legislation, the central DOE offices, etc.

All of this made me admire Jacob greatly. Old, infirm, and blind, he was presented with a situation in which the system of primogeniture had been literally laid out before him. He was expected to behave in a certain way, to uphold certain societal norms and priorities, and all he had to do was stretch out his hands right in front of him. The system "set him up." No one could have blamed him had he blessed Menashe with the right-hand blessing even if it had been destined for Ephraim.

But he didn't. He crossed his hands, and with that simple act, he bucked the system, transformed his grandsons' fates, and ensured that the future would turn out as he wanted it to, not the way that the system had ordained. Jacob took a seemingly-inevitable fulfillment of his obligation and transformed it into an active choice in which he was able to envision a new and different future. He did have to defend his decision against Joseph's questions (and implicit condescension toward his dying father), but his decision was ultimately upheld.

How many times are we presented with choices that we think have already been made for us, situations when we could easily abdicate our responsibility by saying, "That's just the way the system works. I can't do anything about it"? Let's hope that we can be encouraged by Jacob's example and cross our hands every once in a while. Let's hope that we can all find the strength to stop taking the system and our own powerlessness for granted and instead find the situations in which we can make a bold moral choices that affirm our visions of the world.


  • At 8:03 PM, Blogger ALG said…

    Hear, hear! Thanks for sharing this, General Anna.

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