14 May 2010
Rosh Chodesh Sivan 5770
Although our school year is coming to an end, this is also a time of new beginnings. This past Wednesday night was our New Parent Orientation, an opportunity for parents of incoming ninth graders to meet each other and to learn about some practical aspects of the freshman year. Today their children will be at Gann for Step-Up Day, their first opportunity to come together for an early social and academic orientation to Gann. It is a joy to welcome all of our new students and parents into the Gann community. These events, like most new beginnings, bring with them excitement, anticipation, and, of course, some anxiety.
Today is also Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the first day of a new Jewish month and, in this case, the month in which we will commemorate and celebrate our receiving of the Torah on Shavuot. During this holiday, we recreate the experience of standing at Har Sinai (Mount Sinai), and we re-affirm the brit (covenant) between God and the Jewish People. As teachers and as learners, we also have an opportunity to reflect on the role that Torah and, more broadly, learning, in general, play in our lives.
This Shabbat is also a new beginning as we begin to read Sefer Bemidbar (the Book of Numbers), which, itself, represents the beginning of B’nei Yisrael’s journey through the midbar (the wilderness/desert) toward the Land of Israel. As I addressed our new families and students this week about the beginning of their high school journey and reflected on my relationship with Torah and Gann’s educational mission, I was reminded of a beautiful midrash about the relationship between the concept of a midbar and the process of learning. “‘And God spoke to Moshe bemidbar Sinai – in the wilderness of Sinai’ (Numbers 1:1): Anyone who does not make him/herself k’midbar hefker – free or ownerless like the wilderness, cannot acquire wisdom and cannot acquire Torah.” (Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah 1:7)
What does this midrash teach us about learning and new beginnings in general? By taking the concept of the literal midbar through which our people travelled and interpreting it as an existential, psychological, or spiritual state, the rabbis invite us to recreate Moshe’s experience of receiving Torah in the literal midbar by making ourselves into a wilderness spiritually and intellectually. Specifically, this midrash alludes to a certain quality of midbar, that it is hefker – ownerless, free, unbound, a quality that can be scary and overwhelming when one is wandering through the midbar, but that also opens up tremendous possibility for discovery. Our rabbis understood something profound about learning: fear, attachment, and ego can impede our ability to learn and grow because they prevent us from taking risk and from opening up ourselves to see the world in new and different ways. Instead, the rabbis tell us to “make ourselves like a midbar,” to let go of our attachments, free ourselves of preconceptions, and open ourselves to wisdom and Torah. This is a beautiful charge as we contemplate receiving the Torah again on Shavuot next week.
I also think that this midrash speaks to our other new beginnings. To me the midbar is a symbol, not only of openness and discovery but also of journey. Anyone who does not see him or herself as on a journey cannot acquire wisdom and cannot acquire Torah. Life is not static, and high school is not static—for either students or parents. If we think we will end up in the same place we begin, if we are attached to walking out as the same person who walked in, we limit our capacity to learn and to grow. When we make ourselves like a midbar, when we embrace the journey and open up to all we might discover in the process, there is no limit to how much we will learn, and no doubt, be transformed along the way.
It is an honor and a joy to be on this journey with all of you.
Rabbi Marc Baker