To Observe

by Yoni Binus

In a 5th-grade science class (or it could have been Social Studies or Art given our interdisciplinary curricular model) students were asked to observe an object that was placed at their desk. Very carefully phrased, the assignment was to merely make observations about the object, not guess what it was, not name it, not make assumptions about its function. Questions were allowed—but only those that clarified the directions. Objects were placed on desks and the observing began.

Last week, we observed Rosh Hashanah. While the words observe and observation come from a Latin etymology (ob=toward, servare=to attend or watch), it was actually the Jewish people who introduced “observance” as a term related to engaging with a holy day. You may be familiar with the term shomer shabbat, which refers to someone who follows the mitzvot (commandments) associated with Shabbat. Shomer can mean “someone who watches over” or “guard.” So, it makes sense that we use the word shomer when it comes to maintaining or “guarding” a holiday by observing the mitzvot.

This observance/observation duality is one of those classic word issues which makes English such a difficult language to learn. The rules are sometimes erratic; Latin or Greek roots can be the same, but meanings of words far apart; there are oh so many exceptions when it comes to English grammar. But I find American English’s defiance of its own rules to be, well, just downright American in its own way. It’s the wild west before uniform law came to town. It’s the rebellion from The Crown. It’s determinism (and I’m trying to stay out of political fray here—but even our constant fight over the story of our past and claiming and reclaiming the truth of our good, our bad, and our ugly fits this narrative.) The world in which we live, to say the least, can be chaotic.

Both observance and observation can help our kids make sense of this world. As we dive into STEAM at Heilicher, we ask students to learn how to observe without assumption, how to withhold judgment while first noting what they can see, smell, hear, taste, and feel. This is how we begin the scientific inquiry process. With observance, students make meaning of life on a deeper level. The added dimension of Judaism, its thought and practice, its history, and its ritual, are the great connector for our students, our families, and our people. It is a little known passageway that connects observation and observance in a way that most students around the globe don’t get to access.

As we observe the welcoming of the New Year this season, may we recognize the profound roadmap that Judaism provides us. May we feel connected to each other, to our past, and to our own whole selves. May we remind ourselves to observe, in the ways in which it is meaningful to us, and make observations so we can be a part of bettering this world through eyes of hope and inquiry, rather than assumption and judgment.

Have a wonderful New Year!

Photo: First grader Myra B. observes and explores ritual objects associated with Rosh Hashanah.

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