Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 105

April 8, 2022 (7 Nisan 5782)

Focused Praise

Dear Friends,

I hope this correspondence find you doing well, in good health and good cheer. We hope that you will be able to join us this Shabbat for our hybrid services at 10:30AM, which will take place both in person as well as on our new Zoom prayer link. We continue to build our in-service attendance each Shabbat, and we are grateful for your participation, in whatever manner works for you!

In this week’s bizarre Torah portion of Metzora (מְּצֹרָ֔ע), we read of the rituals surrounding one who contracts leprosy and how the afflicted, through the intervention of the priests, can eventually transform back to a state of ritual purity. Our rabbinic tradition invokes a word play on the term מְּצֹרָ֔ע to suggest that the illness was due to the sin of lashon hara, or evil speech. In opposition to the phrase, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” the teaching is clear, words are important!

By inference, if “evil speech” is prohibited, it stands to reason that “good speech” is encouraged. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, of blessed memory, suggests we can find a model of what he refers to as focused praise in Mishna Avoth 2:11.

In this well-known text, Yochanan ben Zakkai, who we often introduce to students as the founder of the “rabbinic revolution,” praises his students by describing their unique gifts. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is described as “a plastered well that never loses a drop,” suggesting that he was gifted with superb memorization capabilities. Shimon ben Netanel is referred to as the “man who fears sin,” pointing to the reverential and spiritual nature of his learning. A third student, Elazar ben Arach, is likened to an “ever-flowing spring,” indicating that he had a creative mind constantly giving rise to new interpretations of ancient texts.

As I was at the Leffell school, this past Sunday, proctoring an ACT exam (and feeling badly for these students undergoing multiple hours of standardized testing, which we never had in Canada), I was thinking about how unnerving it must be for youngsters to prepare for, and to take these exams, which clearly only represent a thin slice of who they are as walking, talking, caring, loving human beings. Furthermore, the tests likely only tap in to one level of their intellect.

Similar to Yochanan ben Zakkai, Howard Gardner, a Harvard professor, outlined a multiple intelligence theory in 1983 in a book called Frames of Mind. Gardner suggested that there are eight types of intelligences, which I would add, we can recognize in all our friends and relatives.

Each of us has immense skill sets. Some of us excel at visual-spatial intelligence (experts in interpreting graphs, maps and videos). Some excel in linguistic-verbal intelligence (those of you who are great readers and storytellers). Some consider themselves logical-mathematical thinkers and can grapple with calculus and geometry. Others in our community embrace bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, musical aptitudes, interpersonal wisdom, intrapersonal awareness and even naturalistic intelligences (those who understand nature and the environment).

Both Gardner, a twenty-first century Jew, and Yochanan ben Zakkai, a first century Jew, offer us the opportunity as a community to recognize the beauty and diversity of intelligences and use our words wisely to recognize the amazing nature of us all being created in the image of God.

As we enter Shabbat and begin preparing for Passover, I pray that through words of focused praise, we can continue to recognize and accentuate the amazing gifts of all with whom we come in contact, so as to make their days brighter, as we make our’s brighter too!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD.
201 562 5277

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