By Deborah Rapoport
A math teacher once asked a fascinating question in a workshop of mine: Why were her struggling students only able to solve word problems when the subjects of the problems had the same names as they did? When the problems were written about other people, her students found the math impenetrably abstract.
Each of us has experienced difficulty grasping an idea or understanding the experience of another when we have not experienced it ourselves. In education, we understand that in order to grasp a concept, we have to establish a personal connection. On a neurological level, it is only when we can envision ourselves in a situation that regions of the brain involving the body are activated. Thus, deep, transformative learning is only possible when the experience engages us on a personal and physical level.
We see this distinction in Parshat Vaera when Hashem sets out to show Pharaoh “that I am Hashem” (Shemot 8:15) and “there is none like Me throughout the earth” (Shemot 9:14). To demonstrate His mighty presence in order to force Pharaoh to release the Israelite slaves, Hashem turns the waters of the Nile to blood and sends forth frogs, lice, wild animals, pestilence, soot that produces boils on the skin, fiery hailstorms, swarms of locusts and darkness so thick Pharaoh could not see.
Despite the most dramatic demonstration of Hashem’s power known to mankind, Pharaoh remains unconvinced of His supremacy. It will not be until later, when Pharaoh orders the death of all first-born Israelites and instead is faced with the death of his own first-born son that he will truly understand and free the Israelites. Until that point, the plagues will not affect him in a deeply personal and permanent way, so he will remain unchanged.
Hashem’s approach has been repeated throughout history by leaders who have tried to motivate people to modify their behaviors to achieve a social goal. As we observe with Pharaoh, objective facts, logical arguments and even reversing the force of nature won’t effect change.
It is not until we are able to see ourselves in a concept and feel personally connected that we can achieve a somatic appreciation for what that concept means. Whether it’s a math problem or a conceptual understanding of the Divine, an appreciation for our democracy or the joy of sitting shoulder to shoulder around the table with laughing friends and family, once we view our relationship with those concepts in new and personal ways, our appreciation for them will be forever transformed.
Deborah Rapoport is head of school at Ohr Chadash Academy.