28 October 2011
Rosh Chodesh MarCheshvan 5772
Wednesday was an emotional day for our community as we bid farewell to our friends from the Ironi Hey High School in Haifa, who spent the week with our stateside juniors for our annual mifgash (encounter). After living with our students, touring Boston, and traveling to Camp Yavneh for a two-day retreat focused on American and Israeli Jewish identity, the Ironi Hey students gave a presentation about Haifa and their school. They answered questions about Israeli society and shared their perspectives on American Jewish identity. To conclude their presentation, four girls sang a moving rendition of the popular Hebrew song “Amen”, which Israeli singer Liora performed at the Eurovision song contest in 1995.
I facilitated two discussions with the Ironi Hey students and was impressed by their level of curiosity about Gann and about American Judaism. One student observed, “You have shown us what it means to be Jewish in America, and this has changed our perspective on Judaism.” Over the past two years, thanks to the generous support and encouragement of CJP and the hard work of our educators and their partners at Ironi Hey, our relationship with Ironi Hey has transformed from a nice annual visit to a genuine educational encounter.
As I think about the transformation of the depth and quality of this program, I am reminded of a teaching from Pirkei Avot, which the Sefat Emet (19th century Hasidic master) associates with the generation of Migdal Bavel (the Tower of Babel) from this week’s parsha.
That generation, Sefat Emet teaches, fulfilled the statement in Pirkei Avot 4: 11: “Kol kenesiah she’hi l’shem shamayim – sofah l’hitkayem; v’she’einah l’shem shamayim – ein sofah l’hitkayim (Any community or gathering of people, that is for the sake of heaven will ultimately endure; but, any community or gathering of people that is not for the sake of heaven will not ultimately endure).” This is a simple but stark reminder that the power and value of community or collaboration between people are not unity for unity’s sake. The value and sustainability of a community are determined by the greater purpose for which that community is formed and in which it is engaged. Our relationships endure when they are l’shem shamayim, when we are bound together by a shared pursuit of truth, a sense of meaning and responsibility, positive core values and aspirations, and a commitment to something larger than ourselves. When our relationships are not l’shem shamayim, when they are purely social, when they serve our own self-interests, or, worse, when they are for a negative or harmful purpose, they will not endure. This, according to the Sefat Emet, is why people of the generation of Migdal Bavel lost their ability to communicate with one another and were scattered across the earth.
I believe that the emotion in our students’ goodbyes after only one week with their new Ironi Hey friends is in part because their connections have deepened from purely social to intellectual and spiritual. They had fun together, for sure, and they wrestled together l’shem shamayim – with what it means to be Jewish and what their responsibility is to the Jewish People and our future.
As we begin a new month today and refocus during this first full week of school after the holidays, may we recommit ourselves to our sacred work and may we be bound together by learning and shared pursuits that are l’shem shamayim.
Chodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Marc Baker