12 November 2010
5 Kislev 5771
Over the past two Shabbatot, my family and I had the pleasure of spending a great deal of time with Gann students. Two weeks ago we hosted a seudah shlishit (the third meal of Shabbat) at our home for our stateside juniors, and we spent last Shabbat here at Gann for the ninth grade shabbaton. It was uplifting to see a record number of ninth graders (nearly 100% of the class) singing, learning, and bonding with each other and with their teachers and advisors. The sacred time of Shabbat is a precious opportunity to connect with students, and watching my own young children playing and interacting with our students reminded me of how blessed my family is to be part of this community.
For me, one of the highlights of the ninth grade shabbaton was spending a significant amount of time with several of our most passionate Reform students and talking about prayer, spirituality, Judaism, and Reform life at Gann. I was awed by the depth and sophistication with which these young women think about their Jewish identities and their love of prayer. On Shabbat morning I prayed with these students and during the service, we read a beautiful poem from Mishkan Tefillah, the Reform Siddur:
What makes a fire burn/is the space between the logs,/a breathing space./Too much of a good thing,/too many logs/packed in too tight/can douse the flames/almost as surely/as a pail of water would./So building fires/requires attention/to the spaces in between,/as much as to the wood./When we are able to build/open spaces/in the same way we have learned/to pile on the logs,/then we can come to see how/it is fuel, and absence of fuel/together, that make the fire possible./We only need to lay a log/lightly from time to time./A fire grows/simply because the space is there,/with openings in which the flame/that knows just how it wants to/burn/can find its way. (Mishkan Tefillah, p. 225)
As we discussed this poem, I was inspired by the interpretations offered by various participants in the minyan. One of my colleagues suggested that the logs represent our actions throughout the week and the space in between represents Shabbat. Only when we create the sacred space and time in our lives to let ourselves breathe can we fully ignite ourselves and actualize all of the work we do everyday. A student-leader who helped to create the service suggested that this might be a metaphor for community. While we strive to build relationships and connections with each other, when people are too close together, it can be difficult to breathe. We need to give each other enough space to allow our relationships to really germinate and to create the “openings” in which the power of community can be unleashed.
Finally, another student, who, I think, unconsciously observed that the siddur placed this poem just before Barchu (the call to prayer), suggested that the logs represent our words. When we talk or recite or pray the words of the siddur without leaving space for personal meaning and intention (in Hebrew – kavanah), then our prayers will not allow for the fire and creativity of our souls to burn forth.
When I look back on the interpretations of these sensitive and thoughtful ninth grade students, it occurs to me that the poem is also a metaphor for the delicate act of education or parenting. Just as “building fires requires attention to the spaces in between,” teaching children requires careful attention to the human beings, the emotions, the experiences, the individual souls that often lie beneath the surface. We work so hard to control or ignite our children’s passions, commitments, and motivations by piling on logs. But sometimes, we just need to figure out how to create the space, and then the “flame that knows just how it wants to burn can find its way.”
Shabbat with our students is one of these spaces, and I look forward to watching the fire of these passionate Reform students and this entire ninth grade class burn bright for the next four years.
Rabbi Marc Baker