7 November 2008
9 Cheshvan 5769
I am inspired by our school’s mission and energized by my relationships and interactions with our students and I was reminded, by two separate experiences this week, why I love my work and look forward to coming to school every day.
On Tuesday night I attended the school’s traditional election night party where a small group of students, teachers and administrators watched election results on various news channels projected on our large screen. How often do high school students spend an evening eating pizza, watching the news, and discussing issues and ideas with their teachers, administrators, and Head of School? Our students discussed and debated what seemed like every moral and political issue, including gun control and the Second Amendment, abortion, the philosophy of the free market, and our current economic situation. We also reflected together on high school education and on Gann, exploring the nature of student-teacher dynamics and the ways that our different political or religious commitments might impact a learning community. It was a joy to participate in this event and to observe the fulfillment of our school’s mission to develop “knowledgeable, sophisticated and passionate” young adults.
On election night I was inspired by our students’ knowledge, sophistication and critical thinking, by their passionate political and ethical commitments, and by their concern for American society and the world. Later in the week, I had an entirely different encounter that equally moved me, but in a very different way. Walking down the hallway, one of our seniors came up to me with excitement and enthusiasm and said, “Rabbi Baker, guess what I’m going to start doing tomorrow . . . wearing tzitzit (a traditional garment with tassels on the four corners, worn under clothing).” To see a student who transferred to Gann from a public high school with relatively little Jewish educational background so excited about exploring a new mitzvah nearly brought tears to my eyes. It is not that he has “become Orthodox” or radically changed his way of life; rather, this young man is excited about Judaism – he has embraced and been embraced by our community, and has embarked on a personal Jewish journey. While we did not discuss extensively his reasons for wearing tzitzit, I got the sense that this decision was not the result of sophisticated research and analysis of the mitzvah, nor of extensive critical thinking about the role it would play in his life. Rather, this young man seemed drawn to this mitzvah – open, joyful and passionate about Judaism and the possibility that wearing tzitzit would add meaning to his life and his Jewish identity.
This brief but moving encounter brought me back again to our school’s mission, and to Abraham (then still Abram) in this week’s parsha (parshat Lech Lecha), who is famously told, “Lech lecha meartzecha u’mimoladtecha umibeit avicha el haaretz asher areka” – “Go forth from your native land, from your birth place, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) After this initial command, God promises to make Abraham’s name great and to bless him. Abraham proceeds to follow God’s command and to go, to head out on a journey that would begin the thousands-year journey of the Jewish People. Was Abraham’s decision to “go forth” on this journey based on knowledge and sophistication? Based on the Biblical text, this is the first time God even speaks to him! It seems to me that God’s calling speaks not to Abraham’s critical mind but to his passionate heart. Perhaps Abraham’s journey begins not in an intellectual place of knowledge and sophistication but in a spiritual place of openness to possibilities, of faith in the face of the unknown, and of hope for a better future. I think we can learn something from this about Jewish education, about Jewish journeys, and about the character traits we strive to cultivate in our students, our children and ourselves. In order to develop people who are passionate about Judaism, life-long learners and pursuers of personal growth and transformation, we need to develop critical-thinking minds as well as open hearts.
May we all find moments of “lech lecha” in our lives. May our life choices, the risks we take, and the journeys we are on, be shaped by increasing knowledge and sophistication about Judaism and the world, as well as by passion about, and openness to, possibilities of finding new meaning in our lives.
Rabbi Marc Baker