9 November 2012
24 Cheshvan 5773
As I watched President Obama’s victory speech early Wednesday morning after a long election night and election season, I was excited when he, perhaps unintentionally, alluded to a famous rabbinic teaching in Pirkei Avot. Little did I realize that this teaching would also provide a beautiful introduction to the next day’s memorable and meaningful Limud Clali (community learning session) at Gann.
In President Obama’s words, “This country has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military in history, but that’s not what makes us strong. . .” I immediately thought of the famous questions of Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot, Chapter 4, Mishnah 1: “Who is wise? אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם . . . Who is strong? אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר . . . Who is rich? אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר …Who is honored? אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד” While the President’s answers to these questions differed from Ben Zoma’s, the Mishnah and the President’s speech redefine these common adjectives.
The definitions of these four words typically ascribe characteristics to people who, by virtue of these characteristics, have power over other people. Our tradition and our President turn this on its head and suggest that for a person or a nation to be truly worthy of these descriptions is not to assert power over others but rather to stand before oneself, others, and the world with curiosity, humility, reverence, responsibility, and service.
It was precisely this stance toward others and the world that inspired me during Wednesday’s Limud Clali, led collaboratively by Gann teacher Rabbi David Jaffe and Gann senior Elie Lehmann. Both of them travelled this summer to Ghana on separate service programs with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). They briefly described what they saw, learned, and did as volunteers in Ghana, but the ikar (essence) of their program focused on the ethical dilemmas involved with trying to help people in developing countries. Much like Ben Zoma, their dilemma turned the concept of helping on its head. There are many things that we, as well-off, well-meaning Americans, might want to do to improve the lives of others. However, this very act of helping could, in fact, disrupt, disempower, even endanger the people and their communities. They challenged us to wrestle with this complexity. Rabbi Jaffe asked our students, “We want to help, but there are so many ways it can go wrong. Is it worth it?”
What ensued was a thoughtful, caring, and nuanced conversation about the nature of helping others and our role in the world. Through their actions this summer, their reflection and learning, and their teaching and leadership of the Gann community, Rabbi Jaffe and Elie modeled the spirit of President Obama’s and Ben Zoma’s words. Who is rich and strong? Those who are careful, reflective, and humble about how they use their money and their power. Who helps? Those who have the patience, empathy, and compassion to help, and, therefore, empower others on others’ terms, not just our own.
We are blessed to have people in our community striving to live out these values.
Rabbi Marc Baker