2 May 2014
2 Iyar 5774
Today is Step Up Day for a new generation of Gann students, the incoming freshman Class of 2018. This group of eager eighth graders from almost 20 different middle schools will begin to form their new community and get to know the school that will be their home for the next four years.
Our Step Up Day occurs during the period on the Jewish calendar between Passover and Shavuot, between the holiday of freedom and the holiday of covenantal responsibility. The timing is perfect because the theme I spoke to them about this morning is one of the most important themes with which adolescents must wrestle as they grow into mature, independent, young adults: freedom and responsibility. High school is a time of increasing freedom and independence, a time when students will need to make more choices than ever before— academic choices, social choices, ethical choices, Jewish choices.
With these themes of freedom, responsibility, and choices on my mind, I attended the annual Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) dinner on Wednesday night. Always an inspiring evening, the FHAO dinner highlights not only the importance of that special organization but, more broadly, reminds me and all of us of the sacred responsibility we have to educate a new generation of intellectually confident and morally responsible citizens and human beings.
FHAO chairman and Gann alumni parent Seth Klarman spoke about the moral complexity of the world in which we live and, yet, the responsibility we have to act, even in the face of that complexity. “Moral choices surround us,” he said. “If we let them, their sheer volume and persistence could be suffocating. There is so much violence and oppression in the world, so much misfortune and disadvantage, so many vicissitudes of fate. It’s hard to always know the best course of action, and, yet, we cannot do nothing, not in the face of such horror and such need.”
Seth’s words reminded me of the words of Rabbi Tarfon in the last Mishnah of the second chapter of Pirkei Avot: “He (Rabbi Tarfon) used to say: ‘You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to desist from it.” While in their context these words refer to Torah study, this Mishnah and Rabbi Tarfon’s words apply so powerfully to what can feel like the overwhelming responsibility to repair our world. We are confronted with so many moral choices of such complexity, and the brokenness and injustice are so vast—sometimes, the idea that we can actually impact the world feels futile, even silly. Sometimes, it feels as if we are powerless. Rabbi Tarfon honors that feeling by acknowledging that we cannot complete the task ourselves. Yet, this does not abdicate us of the responsibility to choose, to act, and to make our mark.
In this spirit, the final speaker at the FHAO dinner reinforced this message of moral agency. Former NBA player and now psychologist John Amaechi OBE spoke directly to and about the high school students in the room. “In a world filled with such poison, young people are the antidote.” He concluded his captivating speech with a reference to his own 6’9” stature. “Sometimes, I think people don’t recognize the power they have to impact the world,” he said. “You need to think of yourselves (as walking through the world like me): you are metaphorically massive. You are huge. You have to treat the world as if it is cardboard . . . so (when you act upon it) you don’t tear it.”
What a powerful message to all of us and, in particular to our children, who are emerging into adulthood with increasing freedom to choose and the power to make a difference. And what a reminder of how crucial our work is as parents and educators, possessing the power and awesome responsibility to raise up this next generation.
Rabbi Marc Baker