23 January 2009
27 Tevet 5769
This was a historic week, as our entire school community gathered in our Beit Midrash to watch the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States. While I was saddened not to be watching this moving event with our students, I had the privilege of watching with a room full of Jewish day school lay and professional leaders. I spent the first half of the week at the RAVSAK (Network of Jewish Community Day Schools) Annual Leadership Conference in San Francisco. Entitled “Bridges to Tomorrow: Preparing For A Changing Reality,” the conference gave me an opportunity to meet, share, reflect and learn with colleagues from all over North America about everything from the current economic crisis to cutting edge 21st century education. I was invited to give the opening D’var Torah of the conference on Sunday. The context for the D’var Torah was pre-M.L.K. Day and pre-inauguration; and, I was speaking primarily to Jewish day school lay and professional leaders. Despite the fact that it is longer than my usual weekly emails (yes, this is possible!), I want to share the text of my D’var Torah with you this week.
Rabbi Marc Baker
RAVSAK Leadership Conference 2009, Opening D’var Torah
What a time to be here together, and what a time to be leading Jewish day schools. Our economy is in a depression (as if our affordability issues aren’t challenging enough already!); an unimaginable investment scam has been perpetrated by a Jew and its ramifications – both ethical and economic – are rippling through the Jewish community; and, as we wrestle with challenges facing Jewish education in North America, Israel has been at war.
Two weeks ago, on the morning I addressed my school community about the situation in Gaza, I finally understood, really empathized with the words that Moshe says to God twice during his unwilling appointment as the leader of the Exodus: (In last week’s parsha) “Bi Adoni, lo ish devarim anochi . . . kvad peh u’kvad lashon anochi . . . Please, God, I have never been a man of words . . . I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10) (And this week) “V’ani aral sfataim – I am a man of uncircumcised lips – of impeded speech.” (Exodus 6:12) I admit that I am not usually accused of being a man of too few words; but, as I walked out the door that morning I turned to my wife and said, “The last thing I want to do today is speak . . . the responsibility feels simply overwhelming.” I suppose I felt comforted by the words of my rebbe, Rabbi Danny Landes, who assured me, “Don’t worry, you’ll get it wrong.” He pointed out the obvious: my inability to do the moment justice wasn’t really about me or my shortcomings: A Depression . . . fifty billion dollars . . . war . . . there simply are no words.
How humbling it is be charged with leading and teaching when it sometimes feels like the world is falling apart, or caving in on us. How tempting it is to slip into a perpetual violation of Steven Covey’s first habit and to allow ourselves and those we lead to become reactive. We hear ourselves saying, “In light of the economy, we just can’t right now; that’s just not realistic; are you showing us the worst case scenario? Fly across the country and pay for a hotel to attend a leadership conference? Not that, not now, not in this economy; it’s time to hunker down.” In times like this, it is easy to understand the depth of B’nei Yisrael’s inability to believe in Moshe’s message because of their “kotzer ruach v’avodah kasha – crushed spirits and their interminable hard work.” (Exodus 6:9) How quickly we can feel confined by the challenges of our work, by a struggling economy, by the events of the world around us. And how difficult it can be to believe in the possibility of something different, something better, something new. Thus is born: the slave mentality.
As a relatively new head of school, I also read with new eyes and understand in a new way the significance of Moshe’s fears and, perhaps, his projections: “v’hen lo yaaminu li, v’lo yishm’u b’koli – but they will not believe me, and will not listen to me” (Exodus IV:1); “hen B’nei Yisrael lo shamu eilai v’eich yishm’eini Paraoh – The Israelites would not listen to me; how then shall Pharaoh heed me?” (Exodus 6:9) The prospect of trying to lead or influence others who are already in a reactive state is daunting; and, it is natural for the same fear and reactivity to creep into our own hearts and minds . . . is it they who will not listen to us, or is it we who ourselves can’t imagine breaking out of our current reality? Are we, too, doubtful, or worse, cynical about our future and our mission in the face of what sometimes feels like an intractable reality?
These are the feelings of Galut – Exile, of Mitzraim – Egypt, of being trapped, constrained – economically, psychologically, spiritually – by the challenge of just making it through another day, of paying our teachers, of filling seats in the classrooms.
Yet what a time to be here together, and to be leading Jewish day schools. On the eve of M.L.K. Day and of a historic inauguration that – regardless of our politics – symbolizes the possibility that change and hope are attainable, even for those fighting against a seemingly immutable, oppressive reality. Tomorrow, we remember and celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and it’s hard not to feel a sense that on Tuesday, we will witness his dream . . . come true.
Neither of the two leaders whom we honor over the next two days could be described as k’vad peh u’k’vad lashon – as slow of speech. In fact, one of the most striking characteristics of these two men is their capacity to find the words, to give voice to a spirit of optimism, and to galvanize people – even cynical, alienated people – around a belief in a better future.
But what is it that gives people strength and hope at a time when it is so easy to feel despair? I think we can learn from the opening of this week’s parsha, when, in response to Moshe’s skepticism, God offers an eternal affirmation of His presence and relationship with our people through the four, actually five, phrases of redemption: v’hotzeiti, vhitzalti, v’ga’alti, v’lakachti, v’heiveiti – I will take you out (of Egypt), I will save you, I will redeem you, I will take you to be my people, I will bring you into the land.” I will give you freedom from the confinement you once felt, and it is freedom for a higher purpose, a better future. As leader, Moshe needed to internalize and model this faith. And while it is not clear that he ever was fully able to convince himself, and while B’nei Yisrael were not instantly transformed by God’s message, our tradition has symbolically codified this language of freedom and redemption into our consciousness, as these verbs represent one of the textual supports for the four cups of wine we drink at the Passover seder. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his Haggadah, captures the power of Passover’s message and, I think, of God’s words to Moshe at the opening of this week’s parsha. Commenting on a phrase used by Paul Johnson, Rabbi Sacks writes:
The dignity of purpose: that remains, even today, a radical hope. Throughout history there has been no shortage of those who claim that ideals are illusions and hope a form of hubris destined to end in failure . . . Judaism is now, as it has been since its earliest days, a protest against such despair in the name of humanity and of God whose breath and whose voice, if we listen, we can still hear through the echoes of time. (p. 4)
It is our job to lead our schools and the Jewish community through the wilderness. Not only with rhetoric, which inspires in the moment, not with flashy miracles or quick fixes, which get people on board temporarily, but rather with our words and actions, through how we teach and how we lead every day.
We must model optimism and we must expect it from others. We must stay proactive in response to crisis . . . by constantly striving to learn and grow; by asking good, hard questions that perhaps we have not yet been forced to ask; by seeing challenges as opportunities; by refusing to abandon the pursuit of excellence, even when taking seriously the issue of affordability; and, by celebrating our past, living our mission and focusing on our core priorities. When we do this, we and our schools will adapt and evolve, and we will give others the hope and the strength to do so as well. Our schools will not only survive. Jewish day schools will be models for other institutions and for the Jewish community. This is why we are here today, and this is what the next three days should inspire us to do.
May God give us the wisdom to be strategic, and the courage to make hard decisions that are driven by our mission and our priorities. May God give us the energy to work long, hard, and proactively, and the strength of character and spirit to stay positive even in the face of crisis. May God give us the vision to look beyond our obstacles, and to see new possibilities and a better future. We have made the commitment to be here, to invest in our own learning and to fight the inertia of fear and reactivity. May the next three days be rich, rewarding and rejuvenating. I look forward to learning with all of you.