18 November 2016
17 Heshvan 5777
I just returned from a two-day trip to Israel, where I visited places and people with whom Gann is building collaborative partnerships, spent time with Gann alumni, and—the reason for the trip—joined our nearly 30 Gann juniors for the final days of their Israel experience.
On the road to spend our final hours in Jerusalem, we stopped at Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which, according to its website, “allows visitors to see life as it was lived by our ancestors 3,000 years ago.” We stopped there in order for each of our students to plant a tree, literally putting roots into the ground with their bare hands and leaving their personal mark on the land that they have walked and experienced for the past several months.
Before the tree-planting, the group stood in a circle overlooking the beautiful landscape and sang together. One of the teachers explained that this planting was a way for the students to give something back to the land from which they have taken so much over the past months. We passed around one of the trees, and each of us named someone to whom we were dedicating our planting. Finally, the other teacher suggested that trees are a metaphor for understanding the transformational journey on which our students have been and the people we hope they will become.
He referred to the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot 3:17, which compares different types of people to different types of trees. There Rabbi Elazar teaches that a person whose wisdom or knowledge is greater than his good deeds (chochmato merubah mima’asav) is like a tree whose branches are many but whose roots are few. When the wind comes, it uproots the tree and blows it over. Whereas a person whose good deeds outnumber his wisdom or knowledge (ma’asav merubin michochmato) is like a tree with few branches but extensive roots, which will not be moved even by all the winds in the world.
This Mishnah focuses on the relationship between righteous actions and intellectual knowledge or wisdom. It highlights the risks of being more head than heart or hand. Interestingly, it does not focus on the problematic behaviors that might result or the damage this kind of person might do to others or the world. Instead, Rabbi Elazar teaches that being “all thought, no action” or even just more thoughts than good deeds is fundamentally unstable and unsustainable for the person himself. Instead, being grounded in the values of our tradition and doing good in the world are what keep us from being blown over by the winds of change and challenge, fear, complexity, confusion, and more.
As the students stood in a circle surrounded by the land of Israel, breathing in the history of our people and looking into one another’s eyes, their teacher extended this metaphor of the roots beyond good deeds to include a strong sense of self and Jewish identity.
No matter how strong and knowledgeable a person is, the mind alone can always blow both ways and, ultimately, will not alone answer life’s ultimate questions—questions that can inspire us or, at times, threaten to blow us over spiritually, emotionally, ethically. Being deeply rooted in our past is the strongest, most secure foundation for facing an uncertain future. Knowing where we come from and being connected to our community and our people are anchors that help to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground.
This is what a Gann education is all about; this is an essential part of getting our students ready to succeed and thrive in the world; and this is why we are working hard to make a transformational Israel experience a core part of the Gann curriculum for every student. Great education is tree-planting. Our students’ hearts and minds are the seeds of the future, and our work is to give them water and fertile soil with which to blossom and grow. When we do, even the high velocity winds of our fast-paced, complex, sometimes scary, world will not blow them over.
Our students and alumni are already growing into the trees of the future of the Jewish people, our country, and our world. Breathing in the oxygen they produce every day certainly fills me with energy, joy, and hope.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Thanksgiving,
Rabbi Marc Baker