16 May 2014
16 Iyar 5774
At Tuesday’s Hakhel, our student-run morning assembly, I was inspired by two different examples of student leadership.
First, we heard from one of the leaders of our student Yachad group. Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, is an organization promoting inclusion for children and adults with disabilities in the Jewish community. Our students showed a moving video about a campaign asking people to end the use of the “R” word and to raise awareness about how hurtful it can be to people with disabilities and their loved ones. The video powerfully illustrated how we have the power of speech and how this power, even the use of one word, can damage the dignity of other human beings. Our students implored their community to be mindful of our language and, in doing so, to live out our core Jewish values of shemirat halashon (guarding our tongue/speech) and kavod (respect) for every person.
After the Yachad leaders invited our students to pledge not to use the “R” word, our Student Council president posed a question to the student body about a different kind of pledge. “Should we recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of Hakhel each week?” he asked his peers. “If so, should we sing Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem, as well? Should we do one and not the other? Both? Alternate?”
Over the past several years, different Student Council presidents have instituted different customs based on their preferences. This year, however, our new president wants to engage our students in a more educational and democratic process. He explained that next week we will have a “Debate Midrash”, a time-honored Gann tradition that fosters dialogue, discussion, and debate among students about important issues and that gives students the opportunity to take a stand on value or policy dilemmas put before them. The school could simply mandate the saying and singing of each of these in the name of mission-driven educational goals of instilling pride in both America and Israel. Instead, we are allowing, actually expecting, our students to wrestle with what it means to be Jewish Americans and with how to live out these two aspects of their identities.
Both of these moments of student leadership illustrated different ways that our students are working to live out the values they learn each day, whether about the power of speech and human dignity or about citizenship and the democratic process. As I watched our students speak confidently to their peers and call them to action, I was reminded of the opening of this week’s Torah portion, the last of the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus). “Im B’chukotai telechu . . . If you follow My laws (chukotai) and (if you) observe and fulfill My commandments (mitvotai), then I will bring rains in their season…,” God tells B’nei Yisrael. In his commentary on these opening words, Rashi quotes a midrash that addresses the seeming redundancy in the text: Why does the Torah need to tell us both to follow God’s laws and to observe God’s mitzvot? Are these not two different ways of saying the same thing?
In fact, according to the rabbis’ interpretation, the phrase “following” or “walking in” my laws (b’chukotai telechu) means that we should study the Torah. “You should diligently study Torah in order to observe, fulfill my commandments.” While this might seem like a linguistic stretch, this reading illuminates the essential Jewish notion that learning and doing are profoundly intertwined, deepening and reinforcing one another.
Great education is not simply the acquisition of knowledge or the act of engaging in theoretical conversations—the knowledge, skills, and values our students learn must move from their heads to their hearts and their hands, calling them to live lives of purpose, responsibility, and action. At the same time, our learning and striving to understand the deeper meaning behind our actions challenge us not just to go through the motions but rather gain intellectual and spiritual insight into what we do and why we do it.
Rabbi Marc Baker