7 November 2014
14 Marcheshvan 5775
At our weekly faculty meeting this past Wednesday, I noticed that four students joined us in the Beit Midrash. Normally, students do not attend faculty-staff meetings, so my curiosity was piqued.
At the start of the meeting, a teacher handed the microphone to one of the students. Each of the students introduced him or herself and explained that they are representatives of Gann’s Environment Club and the Tikkun Olam Union, the umbrella club that oversees all of Gann’s chesed, tzedakah, and social action student clubs.
With clarity and confidence, the students launched into a PowerPoint presentation about the amount of paper we used at Gann last year, as they showed data on the number of photocopies made by each department. The information was impressive, organized into charts and graphs, but the most persuasive slide showed the relationship of the number of sheets photocopied to the number of trees needed to produce the paper and displayed pictures of the trees. Instead of asking us to think just about how much paper we used, they asked each department and the faculty as a whole to actually see how many trees we have chopped down. At the end of their presentation, like effective organizers and agents of change are taught to do, they gave us a call to action, including a concrete goal for a 20% reduction in photocopies, and clear suggestions about how to achieve that goal. “If we are going to address the issue of paper usage in this school, change has to start with you,” they challenged us.
In addition to being impressed by the substance of their presentation, their delivery, and the preparation that obviously went into it, I was amazed by the courage and conviction it took for them to request time at a faculty meeting to teach and lead us. They took the risk of speaking truth to power, and, in doing so, they challenged us to live up to our own values and to change our behavior in light of those values.
What a more perfect week for this “intervention” than the week of the Torah portion Vayera, which contains the famous story of Abraham arguing with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. While in other places Abraham models the virtues of faith (emunah) and chesed (loving-kindness), in this story he is a role model of righteous indignation and pursuit of justice, even in the face of power. Abraham challenges his own teacher, the ultimate Teacher (God), based on the very values of justice and righteousness that God has taught him and that God expects him to pass on to his future generations. In doing so, Abraham teaches us what it means to live in a covenantal relationship with God and with a sense of covenantal responsibility to build a better world based on our shared set of values and aspirations.
In our students’ presentation and their bold challenge to us (“change has to start with you”), I heard echoes of Abraham’s famously phrased challenge to his teacher, “Hashofet kol haaretz lo yaaseh misphat?! – will the judge of the earth not act justly?!” What greater moment is there for a teacher or parent? When our children not only learn about our values but actually internalize them and, ultimately, develop the holy chutzpah to take a stand and fight for them, their lives become blessings, and they become our covenantal teachers and role models.
Rabbi Marc Baker