Leaders, Citizens, and the Fragility of a Nation

4 March 2016
24 Adar 1, 5776

Shalom Chaverim,

Last weekend many of our students traveled to Washington, DC, for the Junior Statesmen of America (JSA) Northeast Winter Congress. This event and JSA, more broadly, are laboratories for high school students to learn about and practice the complex and messy works of politics and democracy. Students learn to argue passionately for their positions while respectfully engaging with people, ideas, and perspectives that are different from theirs. Our JSA Club also brought its passion for democracy to the whole school this week by hosting mock Republican and Democratic primaries.

On a different note, thanks to the initiative of our Environment Club and one of our biology teachers, this week was “Water Week”. Each day during lunch, classes, and Advisory, students discussed the theme of water throughout human history and in the Jewish tradition. We had multiple opportunities to learn about water through different modalities, such as a documentary about the bottled water industry, a visiting tide pool creature exhibit set up by the New England Aquarium, and a guest public health speaker addressing the tragic situation in Flint, MI.

One teacher shared a poignant reflection with me about her students’ learning and their intellectual and moral development. “During our advisor group activities about water, my students expressed gratitude for the chance to rethink their narratives, to understand our society in new ways, and to realize their own agency in the world. I saw so many students waking up to the idea that they are not meant just to react to the world.

This comment captures the power of educational experiences like JSA and Water Week, which push our students to deepen their understandings of our society and our world and to assert themselves as empowered actors in the world, even in matters as complex as water and our political system.

I can’t help but see these experiences and this teacher’s comment through the lens of both the current presidential race and the dramatic story in last week’s Torah portion about the golden calf. Like many people, I am watching this primary season with interest, intrigue, and concern. This election is about so much more than policies and competing visions for our country. As individuals and as a nation, we need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves difficult questions about our values and the character of our society, about the quality of our politics and civil discourse, about leadership and citizenship.

On the surface, the story of the golden calf seems to be about idolatry. Yet, it speaks volumes to questions of leadership and followership. The Israelites were freed from Egypt, witnessed the parting of the sea, and stood and experienced God’s revelation at Mount Sinai. How much greater faith could they have had in their leaders, both God and Moses? What greater foundation could there have been for their acceptance of covenantal responsibilities and the building of a Torah-based, values-driven, Jewish community? Then, Moses goes back up the mountain to receive the remainder of the Torah and, when he is just a few minutes late returning, all hell breaks loose, and this faithful people falls apart.

The question I ask myself, especially in light of this election season, is: What could possibly motivate this newly redeemed, covenantal people to react in such a misguided way, to “elect” a golden calf as their leader, to rock the foundation and jeopardize the future of their entire enterprise?

There is so much to unpack in this story, its many-layered metaphors, and timeless teachings about faith and fear, leaders, followers, and community. This week I am focused most on the fragility of a democracy that depends on its leaders and, even more importantly, on the character of the citizens who elect those leaders. Our students will be those citizens. It is they who will shape the future of our country. So, it is our responsibility to help cultivate in them the habits of mind and heart that a strong, vibrant, democracy demands.

Many people commented to me that they found voting in Tuesday’s primary depressing in light of the candidates and the political climate. As some of our students voted for the first time this week, I was inspired by our sacred mission to “help them wake up to the idea” that they can be powerful agents of change in our society and our world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Marc Baker

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