In this week’s Torah portion we are introduced to the first Israelites—Abraham and his family. Abraham and these early Israelites go down to Egypt because there is a famine in the Land of Canaan/Israel; when they get to Egypt, Abraham is afraid that he, being a male, will be killed, and his wife, a female, will be allowed to live. While Abraham and the Israelites are in Egypt, God strikes Pharaoh and his house with plagues, whereupon the Egyptians send the Israelites out of Egypt back to Canaan with their leader. The Israelites leave with great wealth that they acquired while in the Land of the Nile.
If this story sounds familiar, that is because it is nearly identical to the story of the Exodus that we celebrate and discuss every Passover. Like Abraham, the later Israelites (Jacob and his children) end up in Egypt because of a famine. When in Egypt, Pharaoh decrees that all of the boys—the males—are to be killed, and the girls allowed to live. God strikes the Egyptians with (10) plagues, and the Israelites exit Egypt for the Promised Land with great wealth, given to them by the Egyptians as payment for their years of slavery.
Our ancient and medieval sages detected this repetitive narrative pattern and called it “Ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim—The experiences of our ancestors are repeated by their descendants.” In other words, we should expect to re-live the lives of our predecessors: History repeats itself. This observation is instructive to us as parents and educators.
As parents, we can often see our behaviors imitated in our children: “You eat just like your father!” “You sit just like your mother!” There are more profound examples as well: We see our children replicating our work and study habits, our social patterns, and our manners. This can be inspiring and also frightening. While it is wonderful to see our children imitating our good habits, we wonder—why must they copy our bad habits as well? Ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim is an advisory to us that we are always setting examples for our children, establishing patterns that will inform their entire lives.
At Akiva, our teachers not only teach our students content, they take the time to establish positive patterns that will benefit our students for their entire academic careers and beyond. Our teachers take the time to show students how to organize their time and their thoughts, establishing good mind and study habits. When you walk into an Akiva classroom you will see the daily learning schedule written on every whiteboard; you will see our teachers making conscious and explicit transitions from one topic or theme to another; you will observe our students carrying out their tasks from problem solving, to reading, to art, to clean up and dismissal, in regular, rehearsed, and known routines. These patterns will benefit our children in arenas well beyond the walls of Akiva, establishing virtuous cycles that will lead to success in all their endeavors.