4 February 2011
30 Shevat 5771 – Rosh Chodesh Adar I
Last Sunday Gann’s Robotics Team participated in the New York state championship competition. Our team entered this competition at the last minute because, even though they qualified for the Massachusetts state championship, that competition is on Shabbat this year. After only a few days of intense preparation and a long day of competition, our rookie team won the most prestigious award of the competition, the Inspire Award (or, as I call it, the mensch award) for overall performance and sportsmanship. This accomplishment automatically qualifies them to compete at the world championships in St. Louis this spring!
When I arrived at Pace University in Pleasantville, NY, to cheer on our team, I was immediately impressed by three things, all of which captured for me the essence of the robotics competition and why it is such a remarkable educational opportunity for our students. The first image I saw when I entered the large gymnasium filled with robotics teams and their fans was a practice “field” (a squared off area with different obstacles on which the robots compete) and a sign that read “Practice Field Courtesy of R.A.B.B.I. (Gann’s team name, “Rabbis and Brain Bots, Inc.”) – Need Help?” Our team had transported their practice field to the competition, setting it up not only for themselves but as a service to other teams as well. I found it particularly cool that, when I arrived, the team practicing on our field wore tee shirts that read: “Pope John Robotics”!
Then I visited our team’s work area and spoke with one of the members of our team, who was holding a clip board with a sign taped to its back that read: “Need help? Ask me.” Along with other members of our team and our wonderful coach, she went out of her way to offer help and support to the other teams. As our coach explained the nature of the competition to me, I learned that every member of our team played a specific and important role, from operating the robot in competitions to scouting out other teams to videotaping our matches to advocating for our team with judges, as needed. It was a joy to watch our students put their rabbinical reasoning and debate skills to use as they passionately and respectfully (and successfully) disputed one of the competition’s outcomes!
While the actual competition was exciting and intense, most powerful for me was watching our students stretch themselves and observing the skills and capacities that this competition demands of them. In addition to the obvious elements of constructing, programming, and operating the robot, students demonstrated entrepreneurship and creativity, the ability to manage a project from start to finish, flexibility and adaptability to respond to challenges on the spot, and interpersonal and collaboration skills to work with each other as a team and partner effectively with other teams. These are many of the skills and capacities that work and life in the 21st century demand of us.
This week we begin reading the parshiot in Exodus about the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), which, actually, parallels some elements of the robotics competition. It requires collaboration and teamwork between different people with different roles from providing the resources and materials for the mishkan to building the structure and its vessels to set up, take down, and transportation to the carrying out the avodah (service) that takes place in the mishkan. As in the robotics competition, the melacha (work, process) of building the mishkan is as spiritually significant as the product. In the end, the mishkan itself is only a structure. The goal is that the shechina (divine presence) will dwell within this structure and within the entire community. Achieving this goal is a result not only of the structure itself but also of the qualities of the people who build it. When each person gives what he or she can, when they build with intentionality and dedication, when their lives and behaviors manifest ethical and spiritual values, then God will dwell among them.
Our talented Gann students have achieved a great and early success because they understand that their competition is about something larger than winning. They understand that what we accomplish is often less important than how we accomplish it, the effort we put in, and the way we treat others along the way. Competition at its best teaches us that, when talent, preparation, and determination are matched with character, values, and purpose, our greatest accomplishments can elevate those around us, even our competitors.
We should be very proud of our team, and they should be very proud of themselves for learning and living this lesson so quickly and for all they have already achieved. Mazel tov!
Chodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Marc Baker