Science Class and the Two Names of God — By Ben

Photo by J Stimp

I am sitting at the entrance way of a Jewish high school arguing on my phone with the Rosh Yeshiva (principal). There’s a policy that if a student plays hooky from a religious class, they have to miss one of their secular classes. For some reason, the Rosh Yeshiva thinks my students regard my science class as some sort of reward. It’s not. I’m not that good of a teacher.

Despite that, I really don’t want my students to fall behind. One student, we’ll call him Abraham, missed the first test of the semester. So in order to make it up and not fall behind, I was planning on pulling him out of his other secular class to take my make up test, then he’d be present for my magnetism lesson during his second period. But the Rosh Yeshiva had other plans. By the end of the phone call he decreed I will only get to have Abraham for one class period that week.

Less than an hour later Abraham takes the test in the back of the science room as I’m giving a magnetism lesson to my first period. He actually finishes it rather quickly. This is good, now I can have him for the lesson. Then Abraham asks to go to the bathroom. I say fine but come back soon.

30 minutes later, five minutes before the end of class, Abraham returns with a Dr. Pepper. I can seldom remember when I’ve been this angry. I decide to give him a zero for one of his test grades. (For complicated reasons, I had given my class an oral test that was a game, and review, and a test grade. Then subsequently I gave them a written test over the same material. Abraham had missed the review/oral test AND the written test, so I was going to count the test he was taking and apply it to both grades. Make sense?) Point is, in my wrath of judgment, I decide to given Abraham a zero for that first oral test grade.

Then Coronavirus happens and the class goes on break for a while. Upon redesigning my science class in the world of Zoom, Abraham is much more on top of the material. He’s emailing me to make sure his work is right. He’s following up about things I taught in the class. He’s even making sure he’s fully prepared for the next test.

Then I send out an optional assignment to my class. Even with Zoom classes and email, several students hadn’t turned in assignments. A lot of these kids haven’t had to use email before and certainly never used Google Docs. So I decided to make an assignment that would knock out some missed grades. And if the kids had done all their work, they could get like 5 points on the next test. Abraham emails me with…

In your professional opinion, would you say that completing this assignment would be beneficial for me ?

To which I reply…

Of course, in my professional opinion it would be beneficial. However, of the students in the class who NEED the beneficence, you’re not really one of them. Basically your grade is a B.

Abraham is genuinely surprised at this. He responds…

So if i keep up my “ok” work that i’ve been doing, so u think i’ll pass ur class( for the year) because it’s not really an option to fail at this point

I’m a little confused as I’m looking at his grades, he’s been turning in all his work, he’s got a decent test grade… as long as he doesn’t bomb my next test he should pass just fine. Then I remembered the Zero I gave him.

The oral test had gone on last semester and that Zero had plummeted his first semester grade (which wasn’t great to begin with). That’s why Abraham had been so concerned and I didn’t realize it. Now I had a choice, hold on to my past decision, or make a change give Abraham’s new attitude.

What does this have to do with God?

We have many names for God in Judaism. Though He’s supposed to be the ultimate in Oneness, that doesn’t mean we’re able to conceive of what that means. So the way we interact with God is multifaceted. Think about it this way. Your father may be named George, and George may be a doctor. You probably call him Dad. Your mom may call him Georgy. His patients may call him Doctor George (or whatever his last name happens to be). All three names are referring to the same person, but the names imply a unique relationship.

The different names of God allow us to understand the nuances of our relationship with Him. That is… if we have a relationship with Him.

When God creates the world, the name for God in the Torah is Elokim (I’m not using the actual word, out of respect.) The word Elokim, denotes master or judge. The Rabbis say that when God created the world with the aspect of Elokim, it meant that he set up a system of rules and strict judgment. However, after the Torah’s first chapter, it briefly retells the story of creation again. This time it uses two names, Hashem and Elokim.

When we say “Hashem” we’re alluding to the holiest name of God that we’re forbidden to utter. It is represented by the letters י-ה-ו-ה. This name of God denotes kindness, mercy, and a personal relationship. My interaction with my student, Abraham, gave me a profound understanding of this dynamic.

Obviously, I have other kids in my class. Some of them show up, don’t make too much of a fuss, and they turn in their homework. Great. But I don’t know really anything about them. So when it comes to an assignment turned in late, or a test question not fully answered, without a deeper context, they’re going to be at the mercy of the rulebook.

However in the case of a student I have a relationship with, I can see what they are struggling with. If they have a hard time with the math but then I see they showed all their work, even though they didn’t give me the right answer I’m likely to give them partial credit. Or if they can’t pay attention in class, but they follow up with a bunch of questions by email, I know they’re trying to do better.

So in the case of Abraham, who skipped 30 minutes of my class and practically thumbed it in my face by strolling back with his Dr. Pepper, because he made the decision to have a relationship with me, I changed that Zero to the grade he made on his written test, saving his grade for the whole year.

The point is, it doesn’t matter what we’ve done in the past. What matters is the relationship we decide we want today for the sake of tomorrow. Without that relationship, we’re interacting with God as Elokim and we’re subject to laws, by laws, and the judgment by calculations they yield. But if we interact with God in a relationship, then it becomes Hashem and it doesn’t matter that we’ve flagrantly insulted Him in the past. He’ll be right there, bending every rule to bring us back.

The merit of this post is dedicated Shimon Zelig ben Nachum Aryeh HaLevi and Yehuda ben Israel Halevi. May their neshamas have an aliyah.

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