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There's an on-going discussion - more like an argument - among educators about the nature or purpose of tests and how to grade them. Concerning the latter, they are two schools of thought: grade objectively or grade on a curve.
The principle behind grading on a curve is relatively simple: follow the bell. That is, just like a bell, there will be a few high grades at one end, a few low grades at the other, and the rest will be bunched in the middle. So, regardless of the objective results of the test, give say the top 5% of the class an A, and curve accordingly. You can use percentages here, grades below the curved A depending on how close they came to the curved A.
The argument against curving the grade is also simple: it doesn't reflect what the students have really learned or how well the teacher has really taught. A student could have mastered only twenty-percent of the material and gotten an "A." And in such a case, has the teacher really done his or her job? What has the student really learned?
Grading objectively compares a student's performance against an inflexible, universal standard. External circumstances (how good is the teacher, what's the classroom like, etc.) don't affect its value, its testimony to what the student knows. Grading on a curve compares a student's performance against that of his or her fellow students. Its value is relative and will vary depending upon the circumstances.
When it comes to Torah and mitzvot (commandments), some things are graded objectively, and some things are graded on a curve. In general, Judaism discourages us from ever "grading" or "judging" another Jew, perhaps because we can never truly know what the curve should be. For instance, when judging another's actions, one must take into consideration their situation, extenuating circumstances, etc. Someone who's business requires them to be "in the streets" faces more challenges than one who can remain all day in the study hall. Someone who has not spent years immersed in Torah study may not have the resources to answer challenges to his observance. And there may be other factors, ones even the other person may not know about, that have limited his objective scale.
In such a case, if one finds oneself grading the other person, grading on a curve is not only justified, but mandatory.
But when it comes to grading ourselves, that's a different story. Then we should use an objective standard. Even though there may be extenuating circumstances, we should be objective in our assessment. If our Jewish knowledge is a "C," then we should give ourselves a "C" and then do something about it, put in more effort, get some tutoring, go to some Torah classes, buy books to study, do what it takes to "raise our grade."
Similarly, if our mitzva observance is a "B-" we must be objective and realistic in our self-assessment. How else can we improve? Did we focus on the prayers? When it came to that mitzva, did we rush through it or take a short-cut or - whatever?
Judaism is a school of life, and a school for life, with many subjects and constant testing. Sometimes we need to grade on a curve, and sometimes we need to be graded objectively. But one thing is certain: as long as we put in the effort, we can never fail!
At the end of this week's Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, we are commanded to "Remember what [the nation of] Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt... You must not forget."
We are also commanded by G-d to remember the holy day of Shabbat: "Remember the Shabbat day to sanctify it."
The commandments to remember Amalek and Shabbat apply in every time and in every place. Thus, to fulfill our obligation, more is required than an occasional reflection on these concepts. Our awareness of Amalek and of Shabbat must be so all-encompassing that it fills our entire beings.
When the Jews learned of these mitzvot (commandments), however, they were perplexed. They couldn't understand how it was possible to incorporate both remembrances at the same time. Aren't the concepts of Amalek and Shabbat antithetical?
When a Jew remembers Shabbat, he reminds himself that G-d created the world and continues to sustain it each moment. Remembering Shabbat brings him to an awareness of G-d's sovereignty over the entire universe.
Remembering Amalek, by contrast, leads to a vastly different perception. The nation of Amalek recognized G-d as the Creator of the world and its Supreme Ruler, yet intentionally rebelled against Him. When we remind ourselves of Amalek and his rebellion, it causes us to want to destroy him - a concept that is antithetical to G-d's Kingship over the world and His ongoing involvement in creation.
Consequently, how can G-d expect us to keep both Amalek and the Shabbat day in our minds simultaneously?
To explain, the spiritual source of Amalek and Shabbat is in the realm of holiness, despite the wicked behavior that Amalek manifested. If G-d hadn't endowed Amalek with the power to rebel, he would never have been able to do so. How is the Divine source of Amalek revealed? By nullifying what he stands for and obliterating his name. When we remember Amalek, his roots in the realm of holiness are brought to the fore, and our remembrance of Amalek no longer stands in contradiction to our remembrance of Shabbat. In truth, both remembrances serve the function of revealing G-dliness.
Remembering the Shabbat leads to a revelation of G-d's unity, reminding us that G-d not only created the world but continues to involve Himself in its day-to-day existence. By contrast, the revelation of G-dliness that occurs when we remember Amalek is achieved by nullifying his intention to rebel against G-d.
Thus, although the thrust of each remembrance is in an opposite direction (one leading toward sanctity and the other toward punishment), they are both means by which G-d's Divine Presence is revealed. Each remembrance is but a different method of introducing sanctity into the world.
Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Volume 19
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Freely adapted and translated
18th of Elul, 5739
To the Sons and Daughters of Our People Israel, Everywhere, G-d bless you all,
Greeting and Blessing:
Reflecting on the coming new year, and on the preparation which it calls for, one becomes aware that each new year has a dual dimension: one is the general significance that each new year shares with all new years - as a new year; the other is the special significance, which is related to the specific features of the particular year, whereby it is distinguished from the others. It is on the special significance of the coming new year that we shall dwell here.
The special significance of the coming year is that it is the seventh year, the year of Shemitah, which the Torah designates as a "Shabbos to G-d," a "Sabbatical year dedicated to the Almighty."
At the same time it should be noted that although the distinction of the coming year in respect of Shemitah is primarily connected with the Land of Israel, and with the holiness of the Holy Land, where all the laws of Shemitah are in force - above all the Shemitah ("release") of our land, fields, vineyards, etc., from any agricultural activity -
However, a Jew, wherever he is, is expected in his everyday life, especially in his spiritual life, to transform his environment - his home as well as his surroundings - into a (spiritual) "Land of Israel." In other words, since the Land of Israel is a "land on which G-d's eyes rest continuously, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year" - a similar atmosphere of G-dliness must permeate every Jewish home and all around it, to the extent of breathing the very "air of the Land of Israel"... wherever a Jew is.
The essence of Shabbos is holiness - a day permeated with holiness, which, first of all expresses itself in the cessation of all weekday activities: In regard to the Sabbatical Year, Shemitah - in all agricultural activities, in the field, vineyard, etc.; in regard to the day of Shabbos - cessation from any kind of work, both in the house and in the field, as it is written, "You shall not do any work."
Needless to say, one does not stop at not doing what is forbidden to do; together with this, it is necessary to actively fill the day of Shabbos, and to do this in a way that "brings pleasure (Oneg) into the Shabbos" - by way of the Torah and Mitzvoth (commandments). And through all this G-d's blessings, both spiritually and materially, are brought down, not only in the day of Shabbos, but also in all the days of the week.
To put it another way: The general purpose of a human being is, as written, "A man to toil is born" - toil, do useful work, and to achieve good results. Shabbos cannot contradict this purpose, G-d forbid. On the contrary, the "toil" of Shabbos is the true and purposeful kind of toil, which our Sages call the "toil of Torah" namely, the fulfillment of the Mitzvoth, including the Mitzvah of learning Torah in a manner that leads to action, and the "toil of prayer."
Therefore, come Shabbos, when a Jew is free from weekday activities, it is filled with Mitzvoth (even the ordinary activities of eating, drinking, sleeping become a Mitzvah - the Mitzvah of "Oneg (pleasure of) Shabbos" with additional time for Torah study, for more devout prayer, with appropriate preparation that prayer calls for. And this is, as mentioned above, the true Oneg Shabbos (aside from the pleasurable anticipation of the reward and blessings that come with the observance of Shabbos).
The same is true of the Year of Shemitah: both in regard to the Jew's Shabbos-like conduct during this year, utilizing the "released" time from work for additional Mitzvoth, Torah and prayers; as well as in regard to the influence of the Shemitah Year throughout all the "week" - years of the cycle.
Since both the Shabbos day and Shabbos year remind us that G-d is the Creator and Master of the world, and of all that is in it, including man, it is certain that He provides every Jew and all Jews with the fullest capacity which is necessary to keep the Shabbos, and to keep the Shemitah in the fullest measure.
In practical terms: Since we are at the threshold of the new year, a year that is a "Shabbos to G-d," a year that is associated with holiness and blessing and pleasure, it calls for a corresponding preparation in terms of a firm resolve to fill each day of the coming year with matters that contain these qualities, and in all three areas of Torah, prayer and charitable acts, all to be performed with pleasure.
It should also be emphasized here that in view of the fact that the Shemitah Year - in respect of the prohibition of agricultural work - begins already a month earlier, in the month of Elul, it follows that also the special conduct that the Shemitah Year calls for should likewise begin in the month of Elul, with emphasis on action, which is the essential thing; namely, to put into effect the higher level of Torah studies, more meticulous observance of the Mitzvoth and greater devoutness in prayer. And this will bring even more blessing and prosperity in their wake, now and throughout the entire coming year.
And may this be the preparation for the imminent fulfillment of the Divine Promise of the true and complete Redemption, when all the Mitzvoth, including also those of Shemitah, will be carried out, with joy and gladness of heart.
With esteem and blessings for a Good and Sweet Year, both materially and spiritually,
What are some special ways to prepare for Rosh Hashana, the "Day of Judgement?"
The entire month of Elul, in which we now find ourselves, is a month of account-taking for our deeds of the past year. We increase our good deeds and try to be more meticulous in our observance of those mitzvot that we already perform.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman (known as the Alter Rebbe) taught that during the month of Elul G-d is like a "King in the field."
The Rebbe shared this parable numerous times with various explanations including the following:
A king has been traveling through his kingdom and is ready to return to the capital city and his palace. Before returning home, the people of the surrounding cities and villages come out to greet the king in the field outside the city. There, in the field, whoever wishes can approach the king. The king greets each of his subjects with a smiling face, and grants his request.
The people then follow the king. But once the king is inside his palace, and in his private apartment, it is no longer possible for just anyone to come to him.
It is only when the king is in the field that everyone can approach the king, pour out their hearts to him, and ask for their needs.
When we say a Jew is "in the field," we mean that he is occupied with simple, mundane matters. When we say he is in the "city of the king," on the other hand, we mean that he is occupied with holy things, with Torah and mitzvot.
When a Jew is "in the field" he may feel that he is far from "the King's palace." He must remember that every Jew is as precious to G-d as an only child born in a father's old age. Even though he is in the field, doing work unfit for a king's son, he must not forget that he belongs to the King of Kings.
The month of Elul comes to remind us that even though a Jew is occupied with mundane matters, he must never forget that he is the King's own child, and that the King is close to him, smiling upon him with a glowing face and fulfilling all his wishes.
He used to enumerate their praiseworthy qualities... (Ethics 2:9)
Each of the students of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai possessed a quality in which he surpassed all others. As a teacher, Rabbi Yochanan did not push them all in a single direction. Instead, he appreciated their uniqueness and endeavored to give each the opportunity to develop his own potential. This concept can be applied on a larger scale. Each person possesses a particular virtue in which he surpasses all others, even the leaders of the generation. He (and those who help him in his growth and development) should not seek universal conformity, but should strive to cultivate this unique gift.
(Sichot Shabbat Parshat Matot-Masei, 5743)
...Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Chananya - Happy is she who bore him (Ethics 2:9)
Why does the Mishna ascribe happiness to Rabbi Yehoshua's mother? Because she was to a large degree responsible for his greatness. When Rabbi Yehoshua was an infant, she would hang his cradle in the House of Study so that he would become accustomed to the sweet singsong of Torah study. As he matured, the influence of his formative years played a large part in shaping his sagelike character.
It is not incumbent upon us to complete the work, and he is not free to desist from it (Ethics 2:16)
A person is never required to do more than he can. On the contrary, G-d gives each person a mission which he can fulfill without having to face challenges which he is unable to overcome. Even if at times a person feels daunted by the task facing him, he must know that "he is not free to desist from it" and must persist. Even when he does not naturally feel joy in his Torah service, he should persevere; such full-hearted dedication will lead to personal fulfillment.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe, 5741)
The National Assembly opened at Wormeise, Germany, on December 15, 1544, when one of the participants proposed to banish the Jews from all parts of Germany for their part in circulating forged coins. All parties at the assembly, both Catholic and Protestant, voted in favor of the proposal.
It appeared that sentence had already been passed against the Jews of Germany when suddenly an unexpected defending counsel appeared. This was the new Director of Trade Guilds in Germany, the Minister Wolfgang Schutzbar, who was highly respected by all the princes and ministers of the government. When the moment came to make the final decision concerning the Jewish problem, he rose from his place and said: "Honored lords and friends, I cannot give my consent to your decision to banish the Jews from Germany. His Majesty the Emperor is not only the Emperor of Germany but also the Holy Roman Emperor. He is the ruler of the whole of Christendom and it is his duty, as such, to permit the Jews to live in the Holy Roman Empire of the German people in memory of that man whom all the Christians regard as their saviour and who was of Jewish seed. Other kingdoms do not resemble the Holy Roman Empire of Germany, which has the duty to suffer the Jews to live in it. Therefore, noble lords, I beg you to let this matter alone, for His Majesty, the Emperor, will not desire or be able to ratify such a decision."
The short words of Minister Wolfgang made a deep impression on those assembled, who listened to him and took back their decision to expel the Jews.
The following day, Rabbi Yosselman of Rotheim, who had been at the Assembly, and the rabbis and lay leaders of the community of Wormeise, went to the house where Minister Wolfgang was lodging. They asked for an audience with the minister. The minister greeted them cordially.
"Sire," began Rabbi Yosselman, "we have come to express our deepest gratitude to you for your gracious speech in favor of our Jewish brethren at the meeting of the National Assembly. Through it you delivered us from a bitter fate. And although it is clear that His Majesty would never have ratified such a decision, for he is gracious to us and protects us, nevertheless such a decision would have caused us many hardships and troubles. We therefore pray you to accept this gift as a token of our gratitude."
"I don't know what you are talking of," said the minister, shrugging his shoulders in astonishment. "Did I make a speech yesterday in favor of the Jews at the National Assembly? Indeed I have already heard the same thing from a number of people. I did not take part in yesterday's meeting at all. Being ill, I was obliged to stay at home. My family and the servants will bear witness that I did not move outside the house yesterday for even a minute."
On hearing these words Rabbi Yosselman and those who accompanied him were dumfounded. "Noble sire," replied Rabbi Yosselman, "Permit me to contradict you. I myself was present during the discussions, and myself saw how you defended my brethren the Jews, how you stated that it was the duty of the Holy Roman Empire to allow the Jews to live within its borders. Sire, have you a twin brother who resembles you in every particular?
"This is all very strange and puzzling," said the minister. "I have no twin, and none of my brothers is at present in Wormeise. The matter must be investigated. Perhaps it was some kind of swindler - but that cannot be. The princes and ministers would have detected a fraud at once. All of them know me well."
Suddenly Rabbi Yosselman's eyes sparkled as if the puzzle had been solved. "Noble lord and my dear brethren," he said. "Know then that G-d performed a great and wondrous miracle for us in His mercy. The Holy One, blessed be He, sent us Elijah the Prophet in the guise of the honored minister who was absent from the meeting to save us from the fate of expulsion. You must know, dear brethren, that such miracles happened of old and are related by our sages in the Talmud. This miracle also proves to you, sire, how great your worth is in the eyes of G-d, for certainly the prophet would not have appeared in the form of an unworthy person.
"Therefore, I pray you, sire, accept this modest gift as an expression of our gratitude." The minister was deeply moved when he took the gift from Rabbi Yosselman. The Jews bade him a warm farewell.
The story spread quickly, making a great impression. People in those days did not believe in miracles easily, but here was a fact that could not be denied. All the princes and representatives of the classes saw and heard Minister Wolfgang making his speech in favor of the Jews. On the other hand, the members of the household bore witness that he had not left his house all that day. There could therefore be no other solution to the puzzle than that proposed by Rabbi Yosselman.
A group of chasidim were once sitting together, drinking in the words of a couple of elder chasidim. The informal discussion came to consider the question, How will the world look when Moshiach comes? One of the elder chasidim said: "When Mashiach comes, a Jew will get up in the morning to get ready to pray - and his prayers will well forth spontaneously. Throughout the day likewise, every spare moment will be utilized for the study of Torah and for the service of G-d. And everything will come so naturally and simply, without any effort."