A couple of years ago I began taking classes in continental Portuguese in order to be able to translate some historical documents I was working with. It was one of those great moments, as a teacher, to again be in the seat of a student. In the first session of the course, the instructor had her students write down their motivation for taking the class. Next, she had students write out their goal for the year, but also for the month and the week. The last two were to be updated as the students moved forward in the course.
I was struck by this very skillful use of an idea in learning theory known as the “zone of proximal development”. Developed by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, the idea of a zone of proximal development describes a sort of “sweet spot” where students have to push past their current knowledge and skills, but not so far that a student is set up to fail (for more on this concept, see here). In the Portuguese class, the teacher helped the students identify and pursue their zone of proximal development by having them set weekly and monthly goals.
This week’s parasha, ‘Ekev, alludes to a similar concept. In recounting God’s mercies to the Israelites while they wandered in the desert, Moses states, “…and your feet did not swell these forty years” (Devarim 8:4). The great medieval commentator of Spain, ibn Ezra, explains that the reason for this was that God “had them walk slowly”. Given that the wandering in the desert was for the express purpose of preparing the Israelites to enter the promised land, it seems that the lesson of this description is the same as the zone of proximal development. Namely, that on the way to one’s destination it works best when one gets there through appropriately measured steps.
As we set our sights on Rosh HaShana (the Jewish New Year) which takes place in just seven weeks, this notion takes on additional significance. Many of us have a sense of the ways we’d like to develop as people, habits we’d like to change or positive qualities we’d like to amplify. On the one hand, it is wise to lay out those lofty goals in front of us as we march forward through these coming weeks. But here is a question we mustn’t forget, “what is our next step to reach them?” As we move toward our big goals, what is our zone of proximal development?
I am still working on Portuguese and as I look back, I can see the steps I have taken thus far, which gives me an abiding sense of optimism as I continue forward. Each of us has the chance to begin a similar journey in terms of our personal development as we trek toward Rosh HaShana and the High Holidays. It is the moment to think big about our hopes and dreams for those days and to ask “what’s my next step?”