14 September 2012
27 Elul 5772
As we conclude our second week of school and approach the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays), the energy and rhythm of our school and our community can be confusing and even frustrating. Let me explain.
We are just getting into the swing of the school year, developing relationships, and strengthening our academic habits of mind. At the same time, we are entering a period of several weeks in which we will cease working and close school for two days during each of those weeks (one day for Yom Kippur) to observe the holidays in whatever ways our families choose. We are bringing the year 5772 to a close, looking back on what we’ve done and the people we have been, reflecting and introspecting, celebrating, and, where necessary, apologizing and even regretting. We are also looking forward to a sweet New Year, 5773, aspiring and committing, hoping and praying, and imagining and envisioning the people we want to be and the world we want to create.
These spiritual paradoxes in a high school also manifest themselves practically in the form of work and, specifically, homework during this first month, which is a time for our students to regain their academic sea legs, to work hard and delve deeply into their learning. The month of Tishrei, which includes Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, leaves little time for work. In some ways it feels like one long Shabbat broken up by a few weekdays here and there. One can see why there is a well-known saying “acharei hachaggim – after the holidays,” which refers to the fact that nothing really gets started until the holidays are over.
During our faculty meeting this week, we discussed the challenges of this rhythm and reminded ourselves of our holiday homework policy. We spoke not only about the expectation that no homework be due nor tests be given on the day after a holiday but also of the general spirit of these weeks and the hope that our students will be able to enjoy and be fully present for these holidays rather than feel the pressure to work on assignments. I am grateful to work with colleagues and educators who are so deeply committed to their subjects and their students’ learning and who also want to understand and empathize with the rhythms of our students’ lives and support their Jewish journeys. We invite students and parents to be our partners in this effort and to contact their teachers or advisors with any questions or concerns.
At the faculty meeting, I was reminded that we all have a choice about how we view these next few weeks and that our perspectives on these days and this rhythm will depend on our underlying spiritual orientation to the world. If we focus primarily on productivity, material accomplishment, or what educators call “coverage,” meaning getting through all of the material, then, like Shabbat, these days might feel like a nuisance, an interruption, a burden. However, if we believe that there is a greater purpose to learning and life than productivity or “coverage,” including reflective living, pursuit of meaning, deep exploration, taking the time to ask questions, and developing intellectual, ethical, and spiritual habits of mind and heart, then these days are a meaningful way to start the school year. They remind us that there is more to life than school or work and that we, as Jews and human beings, are more than students, teachers, doctors, lawyers, professors. Standing on the Days of Awe in the presence of That Which Is Greater Than Ourselves reminds us that we are not the Masters of the Universe. We cannot control everything. We are not defined only by what we produce, what grades we get, or how much money we earn. More importantly, we are defined by who we are, the content of our character, and the difference we make in the world.
What would it mean to think of these holidays as part of, rather than a break from, our life curriculum? What will my learning goals and “essential understandings” be for the year? How will I assess myself? In what ways do I hope I will be different one year from now—intellectually, ethically, and spiritually? These are some of the questions I am asking myself as I prepare for the Yamim Noraim. What questions are you asking yourself?
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova u’Metuka—may it be a sweet, happy, healthy, and fulfilling New Year for each of us and our community,
Rabbi Marc Baker