23 September 2011
24 Elul 5771
During hakhel (morning assembly) this past Tuesday, after the usual round of energetic student announcements about club meetings, sporting events, and tikkun olam (tzedakah and volunteer) opportunities, one student took the microphone. “Please join me in trying to reform the dress code,” she began. “I understand that there are basic principles guiding our dress code, and I do not disagree with them, but I believe there are ways to uphold these principles while changing some of the rules with which we disagree.” The student then explained what students can do to support her change effort.
It took courage and conviction for this student to make this announcement publicly in front of her teachers and administrators rather than to just circulate a petition among her peers. She showed political savvy in speaking first with the Dean of Students, and her announcement, while critical of a school policy, was earnest and respectful. This hakhel moment captured a critical aspect of our school’s educational mission, as well as a core principle of teshuva (repentence), about which, coincidentally, I spoke to the student body just minutes after this dress code announcement.
From an educational perspective this is the kind of civic participation that inspires so many aspects of our curriculum and that has defined our school culture. Preparing students to be responsible and engaged participants in and contributors to the Jewish community, American society, and the world at large means teaching them to stand up and take action when they see aspects of their community that they think are unjust, unfair, or less than ideal. This week I heard an NPR interview with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who quoted Pericles’ funeral oration for Athenian soldiers: “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.” This student has made our school rules her business and has invited her classmates do so, as well.
In the fifth chapter of Maimonides’ Laws of Teshuva, after describing what teshuva is and how to do it, he spends several laws on the philosophical concept of free will. “The freedom to choose,” he writes, “is in our hands.” Why does Maimonides include this philosophical principle with his Laws of Teshuva? I think he is reminding us that any efforts to improve ourselves must begin with a mindset, a paradigm, an underlying belief that we are in control of our lives. We have the freedom and the ethical responsibility to determine our path and our future. It is so easy and natural to forget this, to become reactive and cynical, to blame everyone and everything for the failings of our society or for our inability to be the people we want to be. So, Maimonides teaches us to start from the very beginning: the choice is in our hands.
I don’t know where our student’s dress code reform effort will ultimately lead. But, she has already given back to our community by modeling concerned citizenship, proactivity, and responsibility. As the High Holidays approach and a New Year begins, what a timely message this is for all of us.
Shabbat Shalom, and I wish all of us a Shanah tovah u’metukah, a sweet, happy and healthy New Year,
Rabbi Marc Baker