31 October 2008
2 Heshvan 5769
Our first full week back in school after the holidays has been intense and the energy high: Our seniors are putting the finishing touches on their early admissions college applications; our sports teams are competing for league championships; and, our entire community is preparing for next week’s historic presidential election.
On Wednesday, our cross-country team won another race and completed an undefeated season. Five of our runners also represented Gann by running in a 5K Road Race in Newton to raise money for spinal cord injuries – a beautiful example of integrating the Jewish value of tzedakah with their unique athletic passions and talents. On Thursday, a crowded sideline of students, teachers, parents and friends cheered on our boys’ varsity soccer team as they hoisted the league championship trophy for their second year in a row! This year’s undefeated season has been particularly special for our boys’ team since by all accounts this was meant to be a challenging, rebuilding year for the program (the team graduated many seniors last year). When I asked our coach how the soccer team accomplished what they did, he responded with an illustration on the power of team sports: “I’ll tell you,” he said, “they just came together as a team in a way I did not imagine they would.” This reminded me of something our Athletic Director said this week when I asked her how she hopes the athletic program will help us accomplish our school’s mission. She responded, “Team sports are a microcosm of our broader mission to teach students what it means to live in community; we work hard to teach them values of teamwork and commitment – commitment to others and commitment to something larger than themselves.” It was inspiring to watch her words and these values come to life on the soccer field yesterday; our boys’ modeled for all of us the beauty of team and community, of the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts.
This week we have also felt the pending culmination of the election season, as our junior class led the school in voter registration for our school’s mock election. Throughout the trimester, as part of their American History curriculum, our juniors have been learning about the campaign process by running mock campaigns for four presidential candidates, by visiting the McCain and Obama campaign headquarters in New Hampshire, and by campaigning around the school with posters and person-to-person advocacy. Walking around our school you can see a huge McCain-Palin sign in the hallway and sidewalk chalk advertising for Obama-Biden. During hakhel (morning assembly) on Tuesday, the campaign managers for Nader showed a brief video introducing him to our community. And, this week’s student-run radio show features a mock debate between Obama and McCain, in an attempt to give voice to the candidates’ policies and perspectives, and to bring the choices of the American people to life for our student body. Our school’s pluralistic mission and curriculum are infused with a vision of democratic education, which challenges our students to clarify their personal values and prepares them to become active, engaged and responsible participants in their community and in American society.
These themes of teamwork and community, democracy and pluralism that energized our school this week also shed light on the cryptic story of Migdal Bavel (the Tower of Babel) that appears in this week’s Parsha (Parshat Noach). The essential question or difficulty in the story (Genesis 11:1-9) seems to be: What was so bad about what the people did and why did it warrant the punishment they received? In fact, the society in this story seems to be an example of unity and community (the people are described having the “same language and the same words.”). They share a common goal and, in the words of God, with this kind of unity, “Nothing they propose to do will be out of their reach.” Isn’t this an example of teamwork, communication, community, and of working together toward a shared purpose?
Perhaps the most common way to understand their wrongdoing is that they were working toward a problematic goal, the building of the tower, or the “making of a name” for themselves. But one of my teachers suggested to me that perhaps the problem with this society was less about what they did than about how they did it. Perhaps God punishes them by “confounding their speech” and “scattering them across the face of the earth” to teach them (and us) that sometimes too much unity is deeply problematic. My teacher pointed out that every verb used to describe the people’s actions is in the plural, as if to say that in their society, there was simply no room for the voice of the individual, no room for dissent or dispute – no diversity, no democracy, and certainly no pluralism! And this is a model of community that, in God’s eyes, has gone too far, with no checks and balances on the people’s common goals. We see no voices asking, “Are we sure this tower is really a good idea?” or just, “Maybe we should build this way instead of that way?” Perhaps this radical and unchecked unanimity was what disturbed God so much about this society.
Embedded in the mission of our school and the vision of our country are the often competing values of community and pluralism, of unity and diversity. We strive to passionately live out each of these values – to learn what it means to commit ourselves to causes and a community that truly are bigger than any one individual person; yet to cultivate a robust culture of makhloket (debate and dissent) in which our pluralism of ideas, perspectives and experiences pushes us to become the most productive, responsible, ethical, caring community we can be. What a joy it was this week to see our mission in action, on the sports’ field and through our mock election process!
As we prepare for Shabbat and for a historic week for the United States, may we take great pride in our school and our country; and may we continue to build our community through our diversity rather than despite it.
Rabbi Marc Baker