23 September 2016
20 Elul 5776
On Monday we welcomed almost 95 grandparents and special visitors into the school for our second annual lunch and learn. It was a unique opportunity for them to see where and how their grandchildren spend so much of their time during high school and to learn from three Gann teachers. This year topics included seeing the American story through oral history, understanding both chemistry and the US-Israel relationship through water research, and, exploring how people learn through the wisdom of the rabbis.
The passion of our teachers and the creativity of their subject matter were inspiring. Yet, for me, the most memorable part of the morning was the introductory speeches of two Gann seniors. They spoke about their personal stories and their high school journeys as their grandparents looked on with admiration and nachas (pride). One of the students told the story of his grandparents’ deep commitment to giving their children and their children’s children a Jewish education. He shared that he was the 11th of his 11 cousins from the same grandparents to attend Gann Academy. He looked out at his grandfather and said (I am paraphrasing), “This is your legacy.”
What an incredible moment! We can teach our students about family, legacy, continuity, and appreciation of the past, but to see the power of “midor l’dor—from generation to generation”—to watch the torch being passed with such reverence and love was actually breathtaking.
Coincidentally, both students who spoke are studying Talmud with me this semester. This moment reminded me of a conversation on one of our first days of class about the interpretive tradition. The rabbis of the Talmud quote a teaching in the name of a rabbi who lived hundreds of years earlier. As the quote concludes, the anonymous rabbi-editor of the Talmud very casually modifies the language of the earlier rabbi to help us understand that what appeared to be a very concrete and somewhat extreme statement was actually teaching something more broad and more metaphorical. As I taught this text, I nearly glossed over this small redaction because it seemed perfectly plausible and relatively inconsequential to me. However, immediately my students’ hands went up.
“How can the Talmud do this?” they asked. We had just been discussing the fact that the rabbis generally have great reverence for the authority of earlier teachings. “If the earlier teachings are more authoritative, how is it that these later rabbis can just correct them like that?” they wondered. “This seems arrogant, self-centered—they are imposing their understanding on the earlier rabbi as if to say his words must be wrong.” I smiled at how protective my oft-irreverent adolescents were of this early Talmudic sage. Then I challenged them. “Is modifying an earlier teaching in order for it to make more sense to us an act of arrogance and disrespect or an act of reverence, as if to say ‘we trust that what you taught must be logical and relevant to us.’?”
And then came the question that a teacher of the Jewish tradition or of Constitutional Law or of any interpretive process lives for: Who has more power, an earlier, seemingly authoritative, perhaps even canonical teacher or the later generations of students and teachers who interpret those who came before them? When is interpretation an act of reverence and when is it an act of chutzpah?
I am less concerned with my students’ particular answers to these questions than with the fact that they have raised them at all and are wrestling with these essential questions that will prepare them for lives of literary analysis and legal thinking, deep engagement with their Jewish tradition, and responsible citizenship in a democracy.
As I listened to the heartfelt words of my student speaking about his grandparents on Monday, I heard a young man beginning the last leg of his high school journey with the confidence to contribute his unique voice and develop his own perspectives and the humility to recognize the giants on whose shoulders he stands and whose legacy he inherits.
One of the themes of the high holidays is the theme of covenant. Even as we celebrate the freedom, empowerment, and creative opportunities that come with a new year, we also acknowledge that we do not stand in front of our Maker alone. We stand as part of a historical community. We ask forgiveness not because of our own merits but because of the merits of those who have come before us.
We might ask ourselves during this month of Elul: What is one way in this upcoming year that I might connect more, show greater kavod (care and respect), or somehow relate differently to a parent, grandparent, teacher, or someone who has come before me? On whose shoulders am I standing as I begin this new year?
Rabbi Marc Baker