Monday, January 9, 2012

Group work? Oh no! / Parshat Va'era

When my kids were young, they hated and dreaded “group work.” This meant that four kids would be assigned a project, and all share the grade it earned. Most often, the children in my kids’ group would leave it to my kid to do all or most of the work and earn them all an “A.” It was not a happy experience because the teachers did not organize group projects to foster responsibility and genuine collaboration between the students.

Most of us grew up in schools that required us to work by ourselves, and considered collaborative work “cheating.” We studied alone, wrote papers alone, and did projects alone. How many times did we hear the teacher’s mantra, “I want to see your work alone; no one else’s”?

Yet real life -- outside the classroom -- is group work. Collaboration generates more ideas, enhances creativity, and invites the best in everyone to come to the fore. Every engineer, physicist, physician, nurse, musician, politician, and educator will tell you that collaboration is an essential part of his or her work. And consider this too: what is family life, if not a collaborative effort?

The story of the Exodus -- as it is commonly recalled -- spotlights Moses as a unique and singular leader, possessing abilities beyond those of most mortals. Moses is leader, prophet, and co-redeemer of Israel. He is even Moshe Rabbeinu, the quintessential rabbi, in the minds of the Talmudic Sages. Who else fits that description?

What is more, we think of the Exodus as a tale of independence. In fact, it’s a tale of interdependence: between people, and between God and Israel. It’s a tale of collaboration and cooperation. Sometimes there is trust; sometimes not. Sometimes the relationships are marked by love and sometimes by anger.

Maybe Cecil B. DeMille didn’t get it quite right. This week’s parashah, Va’era, chronicles Moses’ first audience with Pharaoh as well as the first seven plagues. I can still see Charlton Heston in my mind’s eye (and on the screen if I pull the DVD off the shelf), rod in hand, robust and self-assured, standing before Yul Brenner and demanding the freedom of the Hebrew slaves. Charlton Heston didn’t have a speech impediment. But Moses did (Exodus 4:10-16). That is why John Carradine, as Aaron, stood at his side to serve as his spokesman. But in The Ten Commandments, Aaron did little more.

I want to suggest that Aaron did a good deal more. The drama begins when Aaron cast down his rod in the presence of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and it turned into a serpent (Exodus 7:10). Neat trick, but easily replicated by Pharaoh’s sorcerers and magicians. Aaron’s rod/serpent then swallows their rods. Also very cool. Note that Moses stands by watching the action.

From here we move to the plagues. Picture Charlton Heston extending his rod and threatening the pharaoh of Egypt. Then consider these passages. Who initiates the plagues, Moses or Aaron?
And the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: Take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt -- its rivers, its canals, its ponds, all its bodies of water -- that they may turn to blood; there shall be blood throughout the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and stone.” Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded: he lifted up the rod and stuck the water in the Nile in the sight of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the water in the Nile was turned into blood… (Exodus 7:19-20).
Apparently, Aaron was instrumental in turning the Nile to blood. Now consider the second plague:
Aaron held out his arm over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt. (Exodus 8:2)
And the third plague:
Aaron held out his arm with the rod and struck the dust of the earth, and vermin came upon man and beast; all the dust of the earth turned to lice throughout the land of Egypt. (Exodus 8:13)
God alone initiates the plagues of wild animals and pestilence. Both Moses and Aaron together initiate the plague of boils -- this is the first time Moses steps into this role. Finally, Moses initiates the plagues of hail and locusts, the only two he initiates alone.

It appears that Aaron’s role is far greater, and more significant, than he is usually credited with having. Moses and Aaron’s collaboration is an excellent example of group work as it should be. Together, they helped God bring the entire Israelite nation out of Egypt. It wasn’t Moses alone. It was a “group work.” This is what schools and universities are beginning to teach our children. This is what some of us need to learn to do, or to do better.

You’ve heard the expression “lone wolf?” Well, it’s an oxymoron. Consider this (from a website about wolves): “Wolves are an extremely social animal. They exist as a social unit called a pack. Wolves travel and hunt in a group and perform almost all other activities in the company of fellow wolves.”

There’s a lot we can learn from wolves: we are stronger, more creative, and more productive together. Many corporations have learned this and foster collaborative work environments. Many families have learned this and foster stronger, closer relationships. It’s not always easy. Working with people, like living with people, is fraught with all sorts of challenges. We have to learn to listen more than we talk, affirm others before expecting them to affirm us, consider ideas that initially sound off-the-wall, and above all be patient. But when we bring our best ideas and personality traits to the table, we bring out the best in others. Win-win.
I've heard that many universities are doing an excellent job at organizing and supporting "group work" experiences. Hopefully, schools and universities will continue to improve their efforts to foster constructive group work and prepare their students for a lifetime of productive collaboration.

My youngest son just this minute called from college. His first week of classes has gone well, but they’re going to assign group work in his engineering class. He’s apprehensive. I'm hoping he's pleasantly surprised.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


  1. On the other hand, the Sunday Review section of the New York Times has an article supporting quiet, individual work. Probably the answer is - as it so often is - balance and moderation

  2. Perhaps it depends on what the work is? Some projects lend themselves to collaboration, and some things are best done alone. I'm not advocating that EVERYTHING should be done with others -- I sure couldn't do that. But I know people who eschew working with others thinking that it will deem the outcome somehow inauthentic, or not truly theirs. That's more what I had in mind. Thanks for writing.