14 January 2011
9 Shevat 5771
We began this week in sadness with the passing of Debbie Friedman, one of the great songwriters and spiritual leaders of the Jewish world. In the coming weeks, we hope to plan a program that will help us remember and celebrate Debbie’s life and to educate our students about her contributions and her influence on liberal Jewish prayer and spirituality and on the Jewish community as a whole.
We also deeply felt the sadness and shock that our whole country felt about the shootings in Tucson, Arizona last weekend. On Monday morning we paused as a school to join the rest of the country in a national moment of silence. In a brief address I shared that, while it is hard to draw any conclusions from the acts of one disturbed individual, this event calls us to honor and preserve the importance and the fragility of our democracy.
As saddened as I am by this tragic and senseless event, our student and faculty announcements at hakhel (our community gathering) the next morning displayed our school’s passion and propensity for civil discourse, and I felt optimism and hope. One student, the founder and president of the newly created Junior State of America (JSA), invited students and faculty to attend and contribute to a series of debates in which students and faculty will debate each other about school and other issues. The JSA’s mission statement reads, “(Our mission is) to strengthen American democracy by educating and preparing high school students for life-long involvement and responsible leadership in a democratic society. . . Participants learn statesmanship as they engage in political discourse. They cultivate democratic leadership skills, challenge one another to think critically, advocate their own opinions, develop respect for opposing views, and learn to rise above self-interest to promote the public good.”
Several minutes later, after the students viewed a clip from one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, one of our teachers announced that next Monday, January 17, on MLK Day, we will have our annual “day on,” during which faculty members will teach a series of seminars about the life and legacy of MLK, focusing on his dedication to economic equality toward the end of his life. Our students will have the opportunity to remember and celebrate the life of Dr. King, to delve into broader ethical and philosophical issues facing our society, and to discuss our responsibilities for each other and our country.
Both of these brief announcements reminded me of how central these values – civic participation, respectful discourse, responsibility for each other and our society – anchor our entire educational program. At the heart of our pluralistic educational vision, there is a commitment to vibrant makhloket (debate and disagreement) that does not weaken us or turn us against one another but rather deepens our own convictions and, in the words of President Obama’s Tucson speech, “sharpens our instincts for empathy.”
I am reminded of a well-known midrash on this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, which implicitly tempers the joy that the Israelites express after they cross through the Yam Suf (the Reed Sea) with the Egyptians drowning behind them. According to the midrash, as the Egyptians were drowning in the sea, God’s ministering angels wanted to sing, but God rebuked them, saying, “My creations are drowning in the sea and you want to sing!?” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 39b) This text emphasizes that even our enemies, let alone those with whom we simply disagree, are still God’s children. We must remember and respect the humanity of the other, even as we debate, rebuke, or, at times, punish. This is the theological underpinning of the empathy that President Obama calls for, that our pluralism seeks to cultivate, and that is a core value of our Jewish tradition.
May our students’ commitments to civic participation and responsibility and their growing capacities for empathy serve as a small tikkun (healing) for the tragic events in Tucson and give us hope for the future.
Rabbi Marc Baker