12 June 2009
20 Sivan 5769
Today our school year culminates with the last day of final exams for our ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade students. Meanwhile, our seniors have spent their last week of Gann Academy bonding at a two-day off-site retreat, working hard each day on their graduation ceremony, and finally, last night, celebrating with their parents and families all they have learned and accomplished over the past four years and specifically during Ma’avar, our special Senior Spring Program.
In her column in this week’s Jewish Advocate, Judy Bolton-Fasman shares some examples of senior projects and internships, and describes Ma’avar as “the school’s response to senioritis.” In fact, this is part of the reason why we offer students the opportunities to spend their last six weeks of high school working on internships, Independent Projects, or out-of-the-box academic seminars taught by Gann teachers. And, last night illustrated a deeper educational rationale for the program: it creates responsibilities and possibilities for our students to activate themselves as independent learners, to pursue an area of work or study for its own sake and out of self-motivation, and to tap into and unleash their own unique talents, passions and creativity. Last night was a shining example of what it means for students to become life-long learners and pursuers of excellence who are in touch with, or at least in search of, their own voices, and who are reflective about their learning process. We heard from both students and their internship supervisors about work that ranged from research in a molecular oncology lab to teaching in an inner-city public elementary school to teaching circus skills to kindergarteners in one of our partner Jewish Day Schools. Students described seminars in Kabbalah, French poetry, and “Medical Mysteries.” And a Beit Midrash full of students, parents and grandparents were inspired by the musical performances of original student compositions, as well as independent projects such as one student’s creation of her own fashion magazine.
I can think of no better metaphor for last night’s celebration than the image of the Menorah at the opening of this weeks parsha, Parshat B’ha’alotcha. As the final preparations of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) are completed, God tells Moshe to give Aaron the instructions for lighting the menorah: “B’ha’alotcha et hanerot . . . ya’iru shivat hanerot – when you light the candles . . . let the seven candles give light.” (Numbers 8:1)
This parsha, B’ha’alotcha, is named after the verb used to describe the lighting process. Instead of using the verb “l’hadlik”, which is the standard word for lighting candles that we say, for example, when we bless Shabbat or Chanukah candles (“l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah”), the Torah uses the verb “b’ha’alotcha,” which comes from the root “a-l-ah,” meaning “to go up” (like making Aliyah to Israel). The Menorah alone captures last night’s experience in several ways: the tremendous warmth that filled the Beit Midrash, the radiance of each student’s individual candle, as well as the magnificent illumination of the collective light of the Class of 2009.
But Rashi’s commentary on the word “b’ha’alotcha” deepens this metaphor and brings to light, if you will, the spiritual mission of education. According to Rashi, the verb “to go up” is used for the lighting of the menorah because the flame of the candle goes up, which teaches us that “he (the Cohen/Priest) has to light (the candle) until the flame goes up from it.” You might think that it is enough to light a candle, but we have all seen candles whose flames never quite get going, but rather burn at such a low level that their lights are invisible, or eventually just burn out. Instead, we must keep fueling each candle until its flame shines bright. So too, it is our mission as educators and as a school not to be satisfied merely with our attempts to teach until it is clear that our students are actually learning. Ma’avar is about “hadlakah,” igniting our students intellectually, emotionally and spiritually by creating the space for them to have meaningful, individualized, in-depth learning experiences. Last night we saw, and again on Sunday at graduation we will see, evidence of “b’ha’alotcha” – our graduates’ souls are truly ablaze, and it is a joy and an honor to bask in the glow of their light.
Rabbi Marc Baker