3 June 2011
Rosh Chodesh Sivan 5771
On Wednesday night at our annual sports banquet we celebrated the accomplishments and growth of our student athletes with reflections from our Athletic Director, words of tribute from our coaches, and two wonderful slide shows. One of the things that struck me most this year was the ways that Jewish values were woven into the evening, reaffirming that athletics can both develop our students’ character and inner qualities as well as strengthen and reinforce their Jewish identities.
In her opening speech, our Athletic Director referenced her participation in a faculty development program based on the principles of mussar, a Jewish approach to personal character and identity development. She spoke of the Jewish values such as seder (order)¸ as well as kavod (respect) and anavah (humility) that she learned through her mussar work and that our students learn through their participation in sports. Later, a student gave a d’var Torah that I found particularly meaningful in light of both the sports banquet and the upcoming holiday of Shavuot.
In this week’s parsha (Naso) we read the well-known “priestly blessing” that many traditional families recite over their children on Friday nights and that many of us know from our Bar or Bat Mitzvah or other life-cycle occasions: “Yevarech’cha Hashem b’Yishm’recha . . . May God bless you and watch over you . . .” (Numbers 6:22-27) Our student pointed out that God commands Moshe to bless “b’nei Yisrael – the Children of Israel”, which is plural, while the blessing itself (“Yevarech’cha – May God bless you”) is in the singular. Why, she asked, does the text switch from the plural to the singular? To paraphrase her answer, she explained (quoting a source that I cannot recall) that we can learn from this that God wants us to stand before Him not merely as individuals, but united as one community. The same commitment to team and to shared values and aspirations that our students learn through participation in competitive sports, she suggested, is what God asks of the Jewish people and is how we merit God’s blessing.
This theme of standing together as a community also reminds us of ma’amad Har Sinai (standing/revelation at Mount Sinai), which we will read and re-experience on Shavuot next week. In Rashi’s well-known commentary on Exodus 19:2, he quotes a midrash teaching us that when B’nei Yisrael arrived at Mount Sinai they were “k’ish echad—
b’lev echad – like one person with one heart.” One of the most powerful aspects of the Sinai experience and the receiving of the Torah, perhaps the most foundational moment in our people’s history, is that it, too, necessitated unity and community. We receive Torah together. And yet, paradoxically, our tradition also teaches us that God spoke to each individual according to his or her own strength and capacity to understand. This is what it means to be a spiritual, purposeful community: to be able to transcend our differences and stand in radical unity bound together by a common experience and common relationship with something larger than ourselves and, at the same time, to preserve the uniqueness and the integrity of each individual.
May our student’s beautiful words about the priestly blessing and the upcoming holiday of Shavuot remind us of the kind of community we aspire to be and to build.
Chodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Marc Baker