13 November 2009
26 Cheshvan 5770
On Thursday morning I had the pleasure and challenge of leading prayer and song in one of our minyanim. Trying to wake up the room of tired teenagers, both physically and spiritually, was not easy, even with the uplifting musical accompaniment of our pianist. After we sang several of the opening prayers and blessings and several students shared reasons for which they were thankful, we arrived at the second blessing before the Shema.
I thought I would engage the students more deeply by inviting them to explore two lines of the blessing, which focuses on God as “Loving Teacher,” who has a special relationship with our people through teaching us Torah and Mitzvot. I invited everyone to think about, analyze, or meditate on the blessing’s description of the learning process and how this compares to what we do at Gann. And what followed were minutes and minutes of awkward, painful silence.
Either the students did not understand my question, or they did not understand the liturgy, or they were in silent protest of any attempts to engage them this early in the morning. Stubbornly, I refused to allow the more eager and actively participating students to rescue us, insisting that we would wait until at least two people whose voices we had not yet heard shared insights. The words I asked them to reflect on, which many Jewish Day Schools include in their mission statements or at least marketing materials, read: “V’tein b’libeinu lehavin ulehaskil, lishmoa, lilmod u’lelamed, lishmor v’la’asot, u’lekayem et kol divrei Talmud toratecha b’ha’hava – Instill in our hearts (the desire or ability) to understand and discern, to listen, learn and teach, to observe, perform and fulfill all the teachings of Your Torah in love.”
“Do you see connections between this blessing’s vision of education and your experience at Gann?” I asked, thinking this question would resonate. Then I tried breathing calmly through the silence, repeated my question multiple times, attempted to read the words over and over in more provocative and inspiring tones, even asked our pianist to provide soft background music. Finally, it happened. One of the teachers in the room commented, “The phrase ‘lilmod u’lelamed – to learn and to teach’ speaks to me because, as a teacher here, I not only teach my students, but I am constantly learning from them. I think this is true for students as well, that they are both learning from and teaching each other. Teaching and learning is a dynamic process.”
Then, the first brave student in the room volunteered, “I am drawn to the word ‘b’ahava – in love’, because it feels like teachers and students at Gann are so passionate about learning and about everything we do.” Another student suggested that the word “order” connotes an evolving process, from learning to teaching to internalization to actualization of values and teachings into practice. And still another student offered that a word relating to “fun” or “joy” was missing from the liturgy because, in his eyes, these concepts are so essential to the Gann experience.
Relieved and inspired by our students’ and teacher’s comments, I had a new insight myself. We actually were living out the blessing rather than just reciting it. So often in our attempt to cover ground, whether in prayer or in the classroom, we move through information in a way that can barely be called “learning”. However, yesterday morning, awkwardly silent as it was, God opened our minds and our hearts to understand, discern, learn, and teach each other new meanings behind the words. Through this process, we were observing, performing, and fulfilling the words themselves.
Because of this minyan experience, my normal prayer “routine” has been altered for my heart and mind will be drawn to these words in ways they never have before. May we continue to have the patience and insight to experience new connections to our prayers, our texts, and our traditions in love and joy.
Rabbi Marc Baker