8 January 2010
22 Tevet 5770
Sometimes, the idea of changing the world can be overwhelming. How does one begin, in the words of Gann’s mission statement, “to make lasting contributions to the Jewish community, American society, and the world at large?” During the first half of the year, we have challenged students to grapple with what Facing History and Ourselves calls their “universe of obligation,” different aspects of their identities, and the value dilemmas these create. This kind of ethical reflection encourages students to think about what kind of people they want to be; yet, these intellectual exercises must also translate into action. On a practical, day-to-day level, how do we build a community of mensches? A pivotal moment in this week’s parsha, the opening of the Book of Shemot (Exodus), suggests that it starts with how we see each other.
Raised as an Egyptian in the house of Pharoah, Moshe grows up, “goes out to his brethren (the Israelites), vayar b’sivlotam (and he sees their suffering).” (Shemot 2:11) The text uses the preposition “b-“ before the word sivlotam (their suffering), which typically means “in”, instead of using the word “et” which typically connotes a direct object (it could have said “vayar et sivlotam”). Quoting a midrash, Rashi reads into this anomalous preposition: Moshe “natan einav v’libo lihyot meitzar aleihem – gave his eyes and his heart to be pained on their behalf.” It is as if the text uses the preposition “b-“ in order to imply that when he sees them, Moshe is getting inside of them, he is empathizing with them. This is not seeing from a distance, but rather it is a seeing of identification. In the classic work of Mussar literature Alei Shur, Rabbi ShlomoWolbe describes the character trait or the inner quality of chesed (compassion, loving kindness). He writes, “Small acts of chesed do not require money or time, but they do require us to see what is lacking in/the needs of the other.” (p. 204) Rather than give to or do for the other on our own terms, if we are truly to manifest the quality of chesed, if we are to express loving kindness toward another, we must pay attention, which starts with taking the time to see and know the other’s unique pain points – “vayar b’sivlotam.” A guest in our home or school, for example, needs to feel like he is truly home, rather than a stranger. A student who eats alone in the dining hall needs to feel genuinely engaged and invited to join his peers, rather than included because of social obligation.
As we begin the second half of the school year, I am pleased to share that we are ramping up our commitment to chesed and tikkun olam this year. This week, we welcome back Gann alumna Leora Koller-Fox, who will serve as a part-time community service coordinator. She will help plan our Exploration Week community service experiences, will consult with individual students about options and placements for individual community service projects, and will create a new senior Ma’avar course on community service that will combine learning and doing. Over 50% of our students signed up for community service programs during Exploration Week. In addition, we will build both service learning and doing into our commemoration of MLK Day this year. I am hopeful that these opportunities will help us to fulfill our responsibilities to our community and the world and help us to deepen our consciousness as a community in which day-to-day acts of chesed continue to be essential to our character and culture.
As we aspire to make lasting contributions to the world, may we take the time to see and feel the needs of those who are closest to us – our family, colleagues, classmates, and friends. When we are able to fully manifest our inner qualities of compassion and loving kindness, to shine our own inner light on another, we are also able to transform ourselves into builders, creators, and repairers of the world.
Rabbi Marc Baker