This week’s parshah focuses on the importance thinking in the Jewish tradition. Parshat Toldot recounts the story the family of Rivka, Yitzchak and their twin children Ya’akov and Esav. Despite being the younger of the two children, Ya’akov emerges as the future leader of the Jewish people because he is recognized to be more thoughtful, contemplative, and strategic. Ya’akov inherits his thoughtful habits of mind from his mother Rivkah. It is she who, concerned about the two twins wrestling in her womb, goes to “inquire” of God.
This week we celebrated our schools annual Poetry Festival. We celebrate poetry because poetry helps us become better thinkers and inquirers.
The educational philosopher and psychologist Professor Kieran Egan teaches that poetry lies at the root of human thinking and therefore deserves a formative place in the curriculum.
Egan rejects Piagetian notion that young children only think concretely and are capable of the more sophisticated forms of thinking usually associated with poetry only later in their maturation. Egan asserts that, “The central fact of our minds is their poetic nature.”
Egan cites researchers such as Howard Gardener and Ellen Winner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education to explain that,
Human children are equipped with some specific intellectual capacities that reach their peak in our early years… For example, our ability to generate appropriate metaphors reaches its peak by age five, and declines thereafter” (“The arts as ‘the basics’ of education”, 8)
According to Egan, the linguistic practices that are inherent in poetry are not advanced cognitive developments, but are, in fact, “the true basics of education.” Many elements of poetry, such as forming images from words, understanding abstract notions, and appreciating the moods and emotions that different cadences and rhythms can convey, are fundamental to the way the human mind works and makes sense of the world.
The poet Ted Hughes likens poetic thinking to fishing. If we do not learn this way of thinking, “then our minds lie in us like fish in the pond of a man who cannot fish.” Hughes draws further on the metaphor of fishing to evoke the practices of patience, close observation, and “concentration on a small point,” that we use when we read and write poetry.
This Shabbat may we all find opportunities to contemplate like Ya’akov, to ‘inquire’, like Rivkah, and to enjoy the poetry that surfaces when we let our imaginations go fishing.