5 June 2009
13 Sivan 5769
This week’s Torah Portion, Parshat Naso, describes the census of the Levites and the work of the Levite families in the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). During the final stages of construction, Moshe gives carts and oxen to two of the Levite families to carry materials for the Mishkan but, according to B’midbar (Numbers) 7:9, “he did not give any to B’nei Kehat, the Kohathites, ki avodat kodesh aleihem, bakateif yisa’u – because theirs was holy work (service of the most sacred objects), they carried (the sacred objects) on their shoulders.” The peshat (plain meaning) of this text seems to be that because B’nei Kehat worked with the most sacred objects used in the Mishkan, they personally transported them on their shoulders. But the Etz Hayim Chumash brings a beautiful Hasidic interpretation from Menahem Mendel of Kotzk: “This description of the Levites’ physical labor should teach us that ‘one does not acquire the least spark of holiness without effort.’” (p.806) According to the Kotzker Rebbe, it is precisely through our work and our physical efforts (through carrying things on our shoulders, so to speak) that we elevate ourselves and that we actualize the sparks of holiness within us.
During these last weeks of school, our students are certainly carrying a lot on their shoulders. Yet every day brings a new and inspiring example of how our students’ hard work throughout the year is coming to fruition, how their sparks of holiness have been unleashed.
This past Monday night, I joined a full house of audience members in our Black Box Theater for a student written, produced, directed and performed musical production called “Wonderland.” Six of our seniors created the show as their Independent Study during the last six weeks of senior year. As always, the talent and creativity of our students overwhelmed me; I cannot imagine a more fitting culmination to these students’ high school experience than this display of leadership, determination, and pursuit of excellence in service of their passionate love of theater. On Tuesday I had the honor of serving on the evaluation panel for this senior project, and just when I thought I could not be more inspired, our panel interviewed them about their process. Even more moving than the performance itself, was the incredible dynamic that I witnessed between these six students, who displayed a capacity for reflection about their creative process – their successes and their failures – and their level of self-awareness about how they worked, as individuals and as a team, was truly remarkable. The creation and production of this show was a transformative learning experience about leadership and teamwork that these soon-to-be graduates will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
On Wednesday night our community celebrated the accomplishments of our student-athletes at our annual Athletic Banquet. It is incredible to see how far our teams have come, how much our athletes have developed, and how successful so many of our programs have been this year (five league championships!). But for me the most powerful moments at the banquet were the ways that coaches described their teams’ accomplishments and how their players have grown both as athletes and as human beings. Coach after coach reminded us that our student-athletes’ hard work and sacrifices are not ultimately for the sake of winning, but rather for the sake of developing character and life skills, in service of bringing out the best in themselves.
If Wonderland and the Athletic Banquet were public, ceremonial, celebratory examples of our students passions, talents and dedication, yesterday afternoon I experienced yet another form of our students’ holy work. Several students had set a meeting with me to discuss their concerns about a course that might no longer be offered next year. When I opened my office door to invite them in, over twenty students streamed in behind them, all coming to my office to share their feelings about the class. The students came to the meeting prepared with a binder of testimonials (in addition to the blog they have created). They expressed themselves thoughtfully and respectfully; they translated their passions and emotions into activism; they stood up for what they care about; and, they are mature, disciplined and articulate advocates for change. I was so proud to be sitting with them yesterday and they should be very proud of themselves.
“Avodat kodesh . . . bakateif yisa’u” – when our students commit themselves fully to their passions and their work, whether in the classroom, on the stage, on the field or in my office, the sparks of their holiness fly. And what a joy and a privilege it is to see, for they elevate those around them, and the rest of our community in the process.
Rabbi Marc Baker