The holiday of Sukkot, which we celebrate next week, is unique in that it is the only holiday specifically associated with joy. While nearly all Jewish holidays have an element of joy associated with them (even Yom Kippur!), it is only Sukkot that is singled out by the Torah as a day on which we are to be joyful. The Torah tells us three times that Sukkot is joyous, and this disproportionate emphasis was detected by our sages, who termed Sukkot zeman simchateinu – the season of our joy. Our rabbis, however, were perplexed as to why Sukkot was flagged for extraordinary celebration. We can find an important lesson about education in their confusion.
The Torah was given to the Israelites in anticipation of their becoming an agricultural nation. As farmers, it would have been obvious to the ancient Jews that Sukkot was a time of joy: The harvest, which began in the spring, was finally over, food was now in storage, and the entire nation could look forward to the wet winter months when they would relax and enjoy the fruits of their labors. If you questioned biblical Israelites as to their happiest holiday, they would have said “Sukkot” without hesitation.
Similarly, today, if you ask students what the happiest time of the year is, they will certainly respond: The end of June! The season of work has ended, and the time of leisure has begun.
When we live in a particular context, it is clear which are the times of joy, sadness, and anxiety. Today, each of us in our professions knows the crunch times and the recreation times: accountants know tax season; parents know the beginning of school; teachers know report card time; we all know winter vacation.
But Jews who lived after the time of the Bible in urban societies could not understand what would have needed no explanation to their ancestors, and what would have been simple to an uneducated biblical farmer was impenetrable to the wisest urban Rabbis. They could not figure out why Sukkot was the season of joy because they did not understand the mind or the culture of the farmer.
This contextual conundrum is central to being an effective educator. As teachers, we must be aware that each of our students lives in his or her own personal “society,” in a unique intellectual and emotional world. Only scholars who worked to understand the ways of biblical society were able to figure out the riddle of why Sukkot was a time of joy. So too, only educators who endeavor to study the unique context of each student will be able to understand, and then to educate, each student in a way that is meaningful to him or her. This is what we mean by the Akiva Whole Child approach to education: Focusing on the Whole Child is the way that we understand the distinctive assumptions, background, learning style, and passion that each child brings to school every day.
By educating the Whole Child, Akiva maximizes the progress of all our students and builds a singular environment filled with learning and joy.
Best wishes for a chag Sukkot sameach, a joyous Sukkot holiday.