25 September 2009
8 Tishrei 5770
Last Friday, just hours before Rosh Hashanah, I received an email from a woman in the Greater Boston Jewish community whom I have never met and whose name I did not recognize. The subject line read: “Your Students.” I confess that I began reading with some trepidation, which was heightened by her first two sentences: “Last night, my husband and I went out to dinner in Needham. We were seated next to a table of teenagers and both sort of rolled our eyes at each other that we were unfortunately seated next to them.” However, her email continued:
“…throughout dinner they were perfectly pleasant and we learned that they were all Jewish as they mentioned going to Temple this weekend . . . (they said) they go to Gann Academy . . . We had never heard of your school, so inquired more about the school. One of the young women spoke about her school with such pride and told us how much she loved the academy. It was so wonderful to hear these young students speak so highly of their own educational institution. You don’t often hear this from teenagers. We were both so impressed. Although we are very far away from high school for our unborn children, when the time comes, we will surely come and look at your school. This may seem insignificant, but I wanted you to know that your students are making you proud in the community!”
During hakhel on Tuesday morning I shared this email with our entire school, along with two salient points that resonate with me, especially during the Aseret Yamei Teshuva (the Ten Days of Heightened Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).
First, this person took the time, even during the rush leading up to Rosh Hashanah, to stop and write to me, simply to share something positive about our students. So often the negative motivates us to speak up and speak out more than the positive. It is so tempting to react, complain, write, call, or just be negative when things frustrate us, bother us, or don’t go our way. Yet, it is so powerful when we speak up in order to praise or say thank you, or, as the title of one parenting book on my shelf suggests, when we “catch people being good.”
The second point of this story is that, like it or not, we are always on. Maimonides writes in his Laws of Teshuva that, throughout our lives, we accumulate positive actions and negative actions and that a person should always see himself as if he is a scale in perfect balance, ready to be tipped by the very next action he takes. The metaphor of a scale-in-balance powerfully conveys the significance and consequence of each one of our actions, no matter how small. As I suggested to our students this week, imagine that our lives were on camera, broadcast to our family, friends, community, the world, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Would it cause us to be more conscious of what we say and how we act, especially during what seems to be the least significant moments in our lives? We are always on because someone is always watching, interpreting, and learning something from our behavior, forming impressions about us, our family, our school, or the community we represent. We are always on because our actions and words have ripple effects far beyond those that we can see or imagine. One teacher approached me at the end of hakhel and marveled, “It is possible that, because of our students in that restaurant, a child who might never have received a Jewish education will receive one.” Our students went out for dinner on a Thursday night, acted like proud, positive, Jewish mensches, and, in doing so, may have shaped the future of a Jewish soul.
When I contacted this person to thank her for taking the time to write to me, I shared with her that, contrary to her last sentence, this is, indeed, a very significant event. What happens in school is really a laboratory, a practice field, for how our students will act, speak, and live when they leave the halls of Gann. In school they learn our values, develop habits of heart and mind, and practice being their best selves. But it is outside our walls, in the community, and in the world where they ultimately live out our mission and make lasting contributions, no matter how large or small.
As we prepare to enter Shabbat Shuvah (the Shabbat just before Yom Kippur) and Yom Kippur, I am grateful to both our students and the thoughtful sender of the email for reminding us of the power and significance of what we choose to say, how we choose to act, and who we choose to be in this world.
Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatimah Tovah—May God cosign our resolutions to live a life of goodness in the coming year.
Rabbi Marc Baker