2 March 2012
8 Adar 5772
On Tuesday morning I asked my alternative minyan a “check-in question,” a simple, open-ended question that prompts students to reflect and share stories and ideas. Since we were on vacation for Rosh Chodesh Adar, and we are approaching Purim, my question was in the spirit of the Talmudic injunction “Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha – When the month of Adar begins, we should multiply in our simcha (happiness/joy).” “What is something in your life that brings you joy?” I asked.
The first student raised her hand. “Coming back to school after vacation and seeing my friends,” she shared. As we went around the circle, many students talked about friends and family. Others mentioned skiing, snowboarding, and other recreational activities. Two students described the joy of performing in front of an audience. The sharing was a nice way to start the day, but what impressed me most happened after we finished going around the circle. One student raised his hand and observed, “I noticed that, as each of us shared what makes us happy, we seemed to smile and actually get happy as we spoke. It seems that the very act of sharing what makes us happy itself makes us happy!” This was such an astute observation and a beautiful Adar kavanah (intention)—we can elevate the simcha in our lives by taking even a few moments each day to stop and acknowledge out loud something that brings us joy.
What a coincidence then, that on my way across the country to attend the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) conference, I picked up the latest Independent School magazine and found a feature article entitled “Schooling for Happiness.” The author, a veteran head of school, described his journey to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan for a weeklong workshop entitled, “Educating for Gross National Happiness (GNH).” The purpose of the trip was to explore how Bhutan’s educational system could “enhance the material and spiritual health of current and future generations.” After sharing stories and lessons he learned from Bhutan, the author reflected on our country by quoting one of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign speeches. Kennedy criticized measuring our country’s success purely by a Gross National Product that, in his words:
“. . .does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. . . It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
The author quoted this speech because his take-away from his Bhutan experience was about the effort to “humanize a traditional educational system.” Part of that process of humanization is recognizing that relationships, joy, and positive quality of life are essential foundations for learning and for national productivity.
The month of Adar and the holiday of Purim also remind us that simcha, joy, is a core value and an essential habit of mind and heart that we need to cultivate in our children and in ourselves. However, we learn from the Purim story that a simcha of materialism, frivolity, and over-indulgence can erode the character of a nation. On the contrary, the mitzvot of Purim teach us that when our simcha emerges from meaningful and giving relationships, from compassion and generosity toward those less fortunate than we, from telling and celebrating our story, and from recognizing the blessings in our lives, then this kind of simcha is one of the spiritual pillars of the Jewish People and of the learning environment we strive to nurture in our school.
Shabbat Shalom and (an early) Chag Purim Sameach,
Rabbi Marc Baker