3 September 2010
23 Elul 5770
We certainly hit the ground running this week at Gann! Last Sunday morning, parents, siblings, and friends bid an emotional farewell to the 46 members of our junior class leaving for their three-month Israel experience. On Tuesday, our ninth grade students and their advisors, along with a corps of student leaders and other faculty, set off for their orientation at Camp Yavneh. The next day the rest of our student body, faculty, and staff joined the ninth grade for our All School Retreat, which culminated last night back at Gann with our new family barbeque and welcome program. After all these activities, I feel so energized by the spirit and intentionality with which our faculty, staff, and students have begun the school year.
Before our retreat, a friend challenged me about the wisdom of beginning the year in this way. “You are a school, not a camp,” he said. “Just as your students are transitioning out of summer mode, shouldn’t you be setting a tone of academic seriousness and establishing teachers’ authority in the classroom rather than taking your students and faculty away on a retreat? What kind of message does this send?”
I shared with my friend the same thing I shared with our students, faculty, and staff at the opening of the retreat on Wednesday. One of the goals of our retreat is to kick off the year with energy and fun, which, we believe, overflows into a positive school spirit throughout the year. During this time we also engage in the important work of developing and deepening our school culture and values, building and strengthening relationships, and practicing the cognitive, behavioral, and social-emotional skills that our students need in order to be successful throughout the school year.
However, most significant to me is the false dichotomy that my friend’s suggestion creates between investing in culture, community, values, and relationships and focusing on academic performance. To me, there is a fundamental truth about learning that underlies our vision of education. People learn in relationship, with their teachers and with each other. For our students, teachers, and administrators to excel and strive for excellence, both in and out of the classroom, they all need to be willing to take risks, push themselves out of their own comfort zones, and even see failures as learning opportunities. This can only happen in an environment where our values are clear, where trust is high, and where people feel safe, supported, and honored, not only for what they do, but also for who they are.
As we prepare for the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays), I am struck by the parallel between this false educational dichotomy and a false spiritual dichotomy that often characterizes religious life and spiritual work. Much like our tendency to view the pursuit of academic achievement as an individual pursuit, we often view the work of spiritual development, whether in the form of prayer or teshuva (repentance), as intensely personal. In contrast, the work of living with family and in community and of focusing on our relationships with others feels more socially purposeful than it feels spiritually purposeful. At this time of year, I am often inclined to focus more intensely on me and my imperfections, on the mistakes I have made, and on my personal aspirations for the coming year.
Yet, in his great Hasidic work, Maor Vashemesh, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein (mid-1700s – 1825) offers a powerful counter-perspective. He points out a redundancy at the beginning of this week’s Parsha (Nitzavim-Vayelech), in which Moshe says to B’nei Yisrael, “You are all standing here this day . . .”, then proceeds to list all of the people who are included, and concludes with “kol ish Yisrael – every person of Israel.” Why, the Maor Vashemesh asks, does the Torah include this seemingly unnecessary language? And why does it also switch from the plural into the singular?
According to the reading of the Maor Vashemesh, the Torah uses the subtlety of its language to teach us that “a great and fundamental principle in the service of God and the process of Teshuva is to unite with each other as one, to build bonds with each other through loving one another, and to focus more on each other’s strengths and good qualities, rather than on each other’s shortcomings.” When we do this, the Maor Vashemesh suggests, we develop in ourselves the passion and desire to do teshuvah with all of our hearts, to be and to become our best selves.
Just as learning takes place in relationship and in community, so, too, does the profound spiritual and ethical work of personal growth and self-improvement that should be at the forefront of our consciousness in the coming weeks. As we enter a new Jewish year and a new school year, may we strive for excellence in all we do; may God give us the patience and confidence to grow and evolve as Jews and human beings; and may we continue to invest in the meaningful relationships that provide us with the love, support, and inspiration to make all of this possible.
Ketivah v’Chatimah Tovah and may it be a sweet New Year.
Rabbi Marc Baker