7 February 2014
7 Adar I 5774
A favorite part of my job is seeing the countless ways our students are engaged each day, alive with learning and pursuing their passions. Last weekend I joined the packed house at Brookline High School to watch our boys’ and girls’ varsity basketball teams play their hearts out against Maimonides. The next day I travelled to an elementary school in Milton to watch two of our four robotics teams compete in a qualifying competition. On Tuesday, I saw off our Mock Trial team, which went on to win its final competition of the year.
Yesterday, as I was walking the school and observing classes, I witnessed one student presenting to her class about the significance of “sight and seeing” in Romeo and Juliet. I encountered other students in lively one-on-one conversations with each other, all in Hebrew. In one classroom a student stood at the Smartboard in front of the class sharing a PowerPoint presentation about the role kashrut (kosher rules and values) plays in her family’s choices about what they eat and do not eat. In a history class I heard a full-class discussion about the social implications of the industrial revolution. An English class wrestled with the witches’ “equivocation” in Macbeth, and a math class grappled with word problems.
Most striking to me was that our students and their learning were at the very center of the classroom. Rather than doing what Roland Barth, in his book Learning By Heart, calls “sit ‘n’ git,” (passively receiving a fountain of information from a talking head teacher), our students were doing the intellectual heavy lifting in the classroom with the same drive and determination that they applied to competing in the gym, in the courtroom, and on the robotics field. Seeing these students in action fires me up everyday!
This reminds me of the powerful image of this week’s Torah portion opening: the menorah and the mitzvah, the commandment, to light a ner tamid (eternal light) in the mishkan (tabernacle). On Tuesday I shared with our students a beautiful teaching about the significance of the kindling of this light. In a midrash (Shemot Rabbah 36:3) the rabbis associate this mitzvah with two lines in the Book of Proverbs: “ner mitzvah v’Torah or—the commandment is a lamp and the Torah, or teaching, a light” (6:23) and “ner Hashem nishmat adam—the soul of a person is the lamp of God” (20:27).
Building upon these verses, the rabbis comment that “anyone who does a mitzvah is as if she is lighting a candle before God and sustaining, igniting, bringing her own soul to life.” This teaching is powerful and profoundly relevant for high school education and Jewish education today.
First, the rabbis take the commandment to light the menorah in the tabernacle, which was reserved only for the kohanim (priests)—the spiritually elite by birth—and make it accessible to any person who does any mitzvah. We need not, should not, wait for someone else—perhaps, priest, rabbi, teacher, or parent—to mediate our learning nor our spiritual lives. Each of us has the power in our own hands to kindle the flame ourselves through even the smallest of our actions.
Second, in this midrash the notion of mitzvah, commandment, shifts from being an externally imposed obligation to a spiritual opportunity. When we fulfill that which we are required to do, we are not merely doing what we’ve been told to do but, instead, are igniting the sparks of our souls, activating and motivating ourselves.
So many high school students are, in the words of Denise Clark Pope’s book, “doing school”, just as so many Jews do Judaism. We have to get into college. It’s what our parents or our grandparents have always done. Unfortunately, I am concerned that just doing school or doing Judaism will not sustain the ner tamid of lifelong learning nor build a bright, vibrant, Jewish future.
We need to educate, to inspire, to empower a generation of Jews whose learning is driven by their passion, curiosity, and creativity, and for whom Judaism—Jewish learning and living—is alive as a source of meaning in their lives. We need our students to be on fire because they will light up our community and our world.
Rabbi Marc Baker