These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

ELS Summer 2019 Reflection

Posted on July 30, 2019 by Devra C. Aarons


This blog piece was written by Devra Aarons, alumna of the Summer 2019 Pardes Executive Learning Seminar.

I have vivid childhood memories of sitting in my family’s synagogue on Shabbat, just listening to everyone’s voices coming together during the prayers. Somehow the tune to “Vishamru” always felt big – like a symphony and a call to action all at once. I always wanted to stomp my feet and add more than my little childhood voice could offer. How could I be part of the bigger song?

It’s worth mentioning that I love to sing. We sang a lot of musicals in my childhood home or in the car. But in synagogue, I wasn’t always sure if my voice should be (or could be) heard.

During this summer’s ELS at Pardes, I was introduced to the idea of (by educator Tovah Leah Nachmani) of shalom not just meaning peace, but wholeness – shlaymut. Commonly shalom translates to mean peace, hello and goodbye. The word shalom comes from the root – shin-lamed-mem, which become shlaymut or “wholeness.” She went deeper and described the goal as “a symphony of difference.” Whoa, I thought, mic drop.

How many times have I imagined (mostly as a child) that peace means perfection? That’s not what you find in a “symphony of difference.”

As that day continued, I thought a lot about that idea. It really turned my head. As I do with any idea that really intrigues me, I asked myself, “How could I teach this idea? Could I find a way for my students to embody ‘a symphony of difference?’” I thought of the rain exercise – where everyone makes one noise – a clap, a snap or a click and then you increase the tempo. So that as the exercise progresses, it sounds like growing rainstorm made from many people making sounds together. Is that a symphony of difference? Is that what shlaymut, wholeness or peace could feel like?

Maybe. I tried it at our shared ending banquet dinner. I had hoped the group would get to hear and experience a symphony of difference. A new kind of peace from a shared experience. But my energy was too high and my idea was too jumbled. It just didn’t work the way I wanted to.

On the plane ride home, I kept thinking about it – how do I make it work? In my imagination, I am in a classroom – asking each student to make a sound. Just one sound over and over. A sound that is uniquely theirs. It would start slow, then get faster, build to a crescendo and then come back down slowly. Would that work? How would they describe it? Would that be shlaymut?

And then I thought of this feeling I used to get in the synagogue as a kid, hearing our whole congregation sign “V’shamru.” Everyone would sing. Some were loud and others were off-key, but everyone sang. I remember closing my eyes and seeing that prayer rise up into the rafters of our sanctuary’s ceiling. It was almost like the musical notes were rising up as a column of smoke – like the offerings in the Aron Hakodesh. I never felt it from just the Cantor seeing alone, only when the whole community sang together. It felt like an offering – a column of vocal music rising and winding its way up to G-d. Shared prayer = a symphony of difference. It is wholeness/shlaymut, peace.

As I reflect on it, the week at Pardes had a similar feeling. I think our collective thoughts (especially during a stirring chevruta conversation) rose like those notes of the V’shamru. When a class was really humming, there was shared energy. Torah/Talmud study is prayer. Even when our opinions differ, and maybe especially when we are in a deep debate it creates a symphony.

I feel that way when listening to live music. A good friend of ours is in a string quartet. A violin playing by itself is beautiful – it can bring me to tears. But to hear that quartet in action, it’s magnificent. But a symphony – with strings, horns, drums and more – I sometimes don’t understand how all those different instruments can combine to create the beauty of symphonic music. How do composers envision all those pieces coming together? It shouldn’t work together, but somehow it does.

My learning at Pardes helped me to articulate the classroom environments I want to cultivate. How many times have I walked into a classroom of new students – each with their own ideas, ways of learning, histories, families, beliefs and more – with the goal of creating a unified classroom? How to do this? This idea of a “symphony of difference” really helps me conceptualize a way to bring unity into my teaching environments. If we have a shared goal or shared learning – each person is contributing their instrument, their voice into our classroom. With this vision in mind, we can create a classroom of wholeness, of shlaymut.

Thank you to Pardes for creating that culture of difference and helping me to pray in a way that gave my voice meaning. I look forward to many more opportunities in the future.

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About the Author: Devra C. Aarons is the Executive Director of Contra Costa Midrasha, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she has engaged over 1,000 Jewish teens. Devra loves to incorporate yoga, food and art into her teaching. Find out more about Contra Costa Midrasha at: