28 September 2010
20 Tishrei 5771
This morning we had our annual Grade 12 Parent Learning in the Sukkah. This event is a wonderful opportunity for parents to connect with each other and with me, to learn Torah, and to reflect on their families’ Gann experience as they begin the home stretch of their high school journey.
We learned a well-known midrash (Rabbinic commentary) about the significance of the “arba minim – four species” that we shake and with which we march around on Sukkot: the etrog, lulav, hadassim, and aravot (willows). What is the significance of these four species, and why, according to our tradition, are we required to hold them all together in one bundle (aguda achat) when we shake them? And, how do our answers to these questions relate to our school and our students’ Gann experience?
The midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 30:12) famously compares the four species, with their hierarchy of beauty in taste and smell, to four different types of people, each possessing different levels of Torah knowledge and good deeds. The essential message of the text is that, rather than ignoring or writing off the seemingly less appealing kinds of people, God, instead, requires us to bundle them together, for God is somehow elevated only when all of Israel are connected “b’agudah achat – in one bundle.” The midrash acknowledges the diversity within the Jewish People, or, perhaps, as we discussed this morning, the different sides of each of us as individuals. Our mandate is to build a community out of this diversity.
Building on this midrash, the Sefat Emet, a 19th century Hasidic Master, illuminates an incredible spiritual paradox underlying the relationship between individual and community. He writes that “every person can find his or her place on this holiday,” affirming the value and uniqueness of every person who is created in the Image of God. “But,” he adds, “every individual needs to nullify him or herself to the community.” Somehow, we must strive not only to find ourselves, but also to move beyond ourselves and to become part of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. For the Sefat Emet, a holy community exists, not despite the diversity of the individuals who make it up, but rather, precisely and paradoxically, through the full actualization of those individuals and their differences.
High school is a time when students struggle with concepts of community and individuality. Gann’s mission is to honor this struggle and preserve the paradox without reinforcing a sense that they are mutually exclusive. We strive to be a community where each child can find his or her unique voice and unique place, yet, where the extremes of individuality and the narcissism of adolescence are counteracted by our students’ sense of connection to something larger than themselves – a community, a history, a People with shared values, shared experiences, and shared aspirations.
As we conclude the holiday of Sukkot and prepare to dance together with the Torah on Simchat Torah, may each of us feel the joy of what makes us unique, different, and special, and may we also feel the joy of what binds us together—our shared experiences of community and connections to Torah.
Rabbi Marc Baker