11 May 2012
18 Iyar 5772
As I walked through the school one afternoon this week, I saw a photography class sitting outside the photo lab, critiquing each other’s pictures. Quietly, one of the students showed me her photograph of a collection of objects on what appeared to be a kitchen table. “I’ve taken and developed about 15 or 16 pictures,” she told me, “and my theme is things that remind me of my grandmother.” I was moved by this student’s choice to use her photography project as a way to explore her past and connect with the life of her grandmother.
Later that day I spoke with another student, who told me about her film class’s field trip to NewBridge on the Charles, Hebrew Senior Life. She explained to me that she and her classmates interviewed and filmed some of the residents as part of an oral history project. Their teacher shared with me the goals of their visit. “On a technical (film-making) level, they learned to respectfully adapt a person’s story using the documentary technique. In terms of Jewish identity development, they interacted with an older generation in order to create multi-generational bonds and mutual appreciation.”
When I asked the teacher if he thought the visit was successful, he shared how moving the experience was for him. “Seeing the level of respect our students showed for their subjects and the genuine interest the residents had in our project, as well as the profound stories they told us about their lives, was awe inspiring. On top of that, the gratitude that both the residents and the students felt just to be able to talk with each other in that way was obvious and made the whole endeavor worthwhile.”
Both of these encounters reminded me of a well-known teaching from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), which we traditionally read each Shabbat during the weeks between Passover and Shavuot. In the first Mishnah of Chapter 3, “Akavia ben Mahallalel says, ‘A person should pay attention to three things and (if he does) he will not come into the hands of sin: Where do you come from? Where are you going? And, before whom will you eventually have to give a reckoning?’”
In the Mishnah, Akavia ben Mehallalel answers his own three questions: “You come from a drop of semen; you are going back to the earth; you stand before the Almighty.” According to him, these questions should remind us of the fleeting nature of life and of our own smallness, which keeps us humble and helps us avoid the pride and self-centeredness that often can lead us astray.
The student’s photography project and the video production class’s field trip to NewBridge suggest alternative answers to Akavia ben Mehallalel’s three essential questions. Perhaps, these questions are teaching us that, in order to be our best selves, we need to feel connected to our past, our heritage, our roots. We should not be, as one author put it, “orphans in history,” living only in the present moment, but rather we should see ourselves as part of a larger narrative. The unfolding story of our lives is interwoven with the story of our family and the story of our people.
If we look carefully at our past and at the lives of the people who have come before us, we should be inspired to ask the Mishnah’s second question of ourselves and each other, “Where are you going?” What are your aspirations for the future, for the person you aspire to become and the world you want to create? And, as we live our lives as the bridge between the past and the future, we ask the third question to remind ourselves of the values and principles by which we live each day. We stand before thousands of years of lessons learned and an ever-evolving ethical and spiritual tradition.
These three essential questions illustrate the power of a Jewish education, especially as our children are coming to understand themselves and their place in the world. The opportunity to learn and grow as people with the guidance of Jewish values and in the context of tradition and community can have a lasting impact on the intellectual, moral, and spiritual people they are becoming.
Rabbi Marc Baker