Weekly D'var Torah: What's the Point of Assessments?

Weekly D'var Torah: What's the Point of Assessments?
Leon Covitz, Director of Jewish Life and Learning

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What’s the Point of Assessments?

Currently, at Bernard Zell, there is much activity amongst the school’s faculty. Report cards, as you know, are being prepared and the entire staff is getting ready for parent-teacher conferences. If you go into the teacher workrooms you will see many of the faculty with their laptops open, papers on the desk and colorful projects neatly stacked up. We are encouraged to ask the question: what’s the purpose for assessments through assignments, projects, quizzes etc.? Why all the fuss? Secondly, who benefits (or does not benefit) from them, and are they for the teachers or the students, or both?

This week’s parsha, I believe, offers a few answers to the above questions. In Pirkei Avot - Ethics (or Chapters) of our Fathers  5:3 (also known as Massechet Avot) it is taught “Avraham was tested 10 times.” The tenth and final test is the one found in our Torah reading in chapter 22. It is, of course, when God asks Avraham to take Yitzchak to a place which He would show him, and where his beloved son was to be offered to God.

The Akeidah (binding of Yitzchak) was to be Avraham’s final assessment and assignment. For many years I have struggled to translate the first verse in Genesis 22:1, “It happened after these events that God tested Avraham.” The p’shat (simple meaning) of nissa is “tested” although it can refer to the mast of a ship that can be seen for miles. This can be seen as a metaphor for a good person whose righteousness is seen by everyone in their community. I see the “test” also being an assignment. Theologians, as well as commentators from both Judaism and Christianity, have been challenged by the idea that God needed to “test” Avraham. Does He not already know what is going to happen? I have struggled with this for many years until I began reading Midrash Beresheit Rabba 52A, which contains one of the earliest collections of midrashim.

From a historical context, this midrash appears to be a rabbinic response to the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) when many Jews were rejecting and converting out of Judaism. The rabbis were looking for biblical role models who could inspire the people. For them, the destruction of the Second Temple was a test for the subjugated Jewish nation living in Eretz Yisrael. In this midrash the rabbis saw this more than a test. So why was Avraham tested? Below is the midrash:

* The Lord tries the righteous, etc. (Ps. 11:5). R. Yonatan said: A potter does not examine defective vessels, because he cannot give them a single blow without breaking them. What then does he examine? Only the sound vessels, for he will not break them even with many blows. Similarly, the Holy One, blessed be He, tests not the wicked but the righteous, as it says,'

* The Lord tries the righteous. R. Yonatan said: When a flax worker knows that his flax is of good quality, the more he beats it the more it improves and the more it glistens; but if it is of inferior quality, he cannot give it one knock without it splitting.

* Similarly, the Lord does not test the wicked but only the righteous, as it says, The Lord tries the righteous. R. Eleazar said: When a man possesses two cows, one strong and the other feeble, upon which does he put the yoke? Surely upon the strong one Similarly, God tests none but the righteous, as it says, The Lord tries the righteous.

Notice that the sages, in the midrash, use images that are familiar for an agrarian public. Yet each proem contained a very important lesson. How does the potter sell his pots? He bangs the pots that will not break because they are the ones that will sound good and not crack. It is the same with the one who God assesses, according to the midrash. It is only worthwhile to test the one who will succeed and be able to be His ambassador.

So why does the merchant beat the flax? The more the merchant beats the flax the more its quality improves. Therefore God tests Avraham on many levels because it improves him as a person.

Why does the farmer place the yoke only on the strong ox? Rabbi Eleazar implies that God only tests those who can succeed in it. Perhaps, replace the word “test” with “assess.”

In my opinion, this is also why teachers have to give out assessments, tests, quizzes, creative projects and even homework. First of all, the Akeidah may be seen as an assessment for Avraham. Of course, God knows that Avraham would pass His final test. Alternatively, perhaps the assignment is for God. So why does God “test” the righteous? Because not only does He knows that they will pass, but they will be God’s ambassadors in the world. The tzaddikim—the righteous—are the ones who will model moral, ethical and religious behavior that will be integral to a society based on hessed and mishpat—acts of lovingkindness and justice—as Avraham did throughout his life. So perhaps the three midrashim can also reflect how teachers may see the importance of assignments, tests and quizzes as part of the assessment process. The teacher may see it as a way to show what has been taught in class, or that giving different assignments challenges the students even more. Finally, the teacher may give out the assignment because they know that the students have the ability to succeed in it. So please remember some of the reasons that may be behind assessments and assignments and enjoy your parent teacher conferences and finding out about your child’s progress. 

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