On the Tongs at the Twilight of Creation

from Pixabay

By Arielle Levites

According to the rabbis (Avot 5) in the twilight of creation, just before the first Shabbat, God created ten miraculous objects.

Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight, and these are they: [1] the mouth of the earth, [2] the mouth of the well, [3] the mouth of the donkey, [4] the rainbow, [5] the manna, [6] the staff [of Moses], [7] the shamir, [8] the letters, [9] the writing, [10] and the tablets. And some say: also the demons, the grave of Moses, and the ram of Abraham, our father. And some say: and also tongs, made with tongs.

These objects are woven into some of the foundational moments in our people’s story: Noah’s rainbow, Moses’ staff, the well that followed the Children of Israel through the desert. But this list of items includes one object not quite like the others. In addition to all of the extraordinary objects that would help God demonstrate that there was a sacred plane beyond everyday experience, we have … the first tongs.

I love this mishna because of the strange detail of the tongs and what it says about how the rabbis understood God as the ultimate planner. The list of items suggests that the rabbis imagined a God who saw the whole future of the human world unfold and asked: what will they need that I should set them up with now? God is a fan of, what we call in education, backward design. In the inclusion of the tongs we also see the kind of mundane details that, to me, epitomize a Jewish way of caring. It’s not about only the grandiose and magical but also the ordinary, technical details that humans need to thrive. In the ancient world, tongs represented a crucial technology, one the enabled one of the most important advances in human achievement – metal work.

I think about this detail from my own vantage point, as a scholar of Jewish education, as well. Many people, in these pages, write about the extraordinary and inspirational. I write about tongs. As the executive director of CASJE (Consortium for Applied Studies of Jewish Education) at The George Washington University, I think about tongs every day, in the sense of the so-ordinary-as-to-be-almost-invisible tools and infrastructure the Jewish community needs to effectively design for the learners of today and tomorrow. For many people it’s hard to imagine why tongs belong on a list of wonders but from my vantage point I see why we need both miracles and tools.  

Education research is a form of disciplined inquiry, a systematic way of studying learners, teachers, curriculum, the educational triangle where they meet, and the larger context in which educational choices play out. Like all scientific research, indeed all human technology, education research has limits. It can’t answer all questions and can only approximate the complexity and dynamism that happens when people learn. It can only speak to what can be observed and measured. Yet there is a lot education research can provide: most crucially and fundamentally feedback on whether we are meeting our own goals for the work we do. Education research seeks to be the tongs of Jewish education, a readily available technology that should be viewed as indispensable for our practice and planning and our ability to realize our highest aspirations for Jewish life and learning.

Most of the wonders of the twilight of creation had a very specific and time-limited purpose: Balaam’s talking donkey, Korah’s pit. They were, as far as we know, for one-time-use only. Perhaps only three of these wondrous objectives haven’t yet been exhausted: the words of Torah on the tablets, demons and the tongs.

There are a lot of demons in this world, problems whose solution lies beyond the scope of our current human knowledge. We don’t control the movement of the stars or the tides of the ocean. We haven’t yet controlled the rapacious appetites of viruses. And certainly we need miracles to sustain us and our people’s wisdom to guide us. But there is a place for tongs in all of this. There is so much that we do have the tools to, if not solve then to, at least, improve or ameliorate. Sometimes those tools are deceptively simple, like a cotton mask.

In this pandemic every Jewish educational leader has necessarily needed to engage with research evidence and guidelines for best practice to navigate decisions about openings and closing, adapting to distance learning and attending to the social and emotional needs of their learners. We have seen Jewish educators demonstrate their capacity to be good consumers of research. Why can’t we give them better data and tools, not only to guide them through this pandemic, but to improve the everyday teaching and learning that is ultimately at the heart of the work they do?

The Yom Kippur piyyut KiHinei KaKhomer reminds us that much of our fate is not in our own hands. It evokes the image of God as the ultimate shaper of human life using the metaphor of skilled artisans, like the metal worker, wielding specialized tools. Our educators are shapers of our community and our future in the day-to-day work they do. As we think about the magic that we ask Jewish educators to provide for our learners, let’s not forget to ensure they have the tools they need to continue to make decisions based in the best human knowledge can offer to guide them, so that they can continue to tell the story of the wonders Jewish tradition has to offer.

Arielle Levites, PhD is the Managing Director of CASJE (Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education) housed at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development.