21 March 2008
Today we celebrate Purim together as a community – praying and reading Megillat Esther, fulfilling the mitzvoth of Matanot L’Evyonim (giving tzedakkah to the poor), Mishloach Manot (giving gifts of food to our friends), and eating a festive meal together. We also bring Exploration Week to a close by reuniting our school, sharing our experiences with each other in formal and informal ways, and beginning to integrate all that we’ve learned about ourselves and our world into our day-to-day lives.
This week, I had the pleasure of leading a seminar for a small group of students who were wonderfully reflective, curious and open to the learning process. We explored Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a framework for maximizing our potential and fulfillment, and for living out our values, goals and ideals on a daily basis.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I find myself reading the Purim story through the lens of the first of the seven habits: Be Proactive. This first habit is the necessary starting point for effective personal and interpersonal living because it challenges us to take ownership, responsibility and initiative. Being proactive means believing and acting like we are in control of our lives, our time, our schedule, how we interact with others. Responsibility means being “response-able” – having the freedom and the ability to choose how we respond to people and situations that affect us.
Like all of our lives, the Purim story is filled with moments when individuals and the Jews of Shushan are acted upon. Queen Vashti, and eventually women throughout the kingdom, are summoned to parade their beauty before King Achashverosh; Mordechai, along with others, is told to bow down to Haman; the Jews are going to be wiped out by Haman; Esther is “forced” to hide her true identity, much in the same way that Jews have always, consciously and unconsciously, hidden our true identities in order to protect ourselves or in order to assimilate to a culture and way of life to which we aspire or that will be more accepting of us if we are the same, not different.
Purim is a story and Shushan is a world where characters have every reason to be reactive – the royal leadership is reactive and incompetent, the bad guys are out to get them, and there is no visible sign of God on whom to call or rely. Yet the power of the story can be found in moments of human initiative in which our heroes, Mordechai and Esther, refuse to let others control their lives and instead choose to take responsibility for the destiny of their people. The story is filled with examples of being proactive: Esther enters the beauty contest (and wins), Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman, Esther goes to speak with the King even though he has not summoned her. Mordechai and Esther take responsibility for the Jewish future and in doing so, rather than accepting their roles as victims of an evil man, an ineffective king, and the society in which they live, they came to, quite literally, write their own story, their people’s story, our story.
High school is a time in which our students so easily can allow themselves to be influenced and acted upon – by their parents, their teachers, their friends, the internet they surf, the television they watch, and the subtle and not-so-subtle messages they receive all the time about what they should value and whom they should be. Our mission, as parents and as educators, is to raise young Jewish adults who will become the next generation of Jewish and American leaders by making informed, thoughtful and responsible choices about their lives and their Jewish identities. When Jewish values and Jewish tradition inform them and inspire them, when they have a vision of the people they can become and the world in which they want to live, and when they have the faith and the confidence to take initiative and ownership over their choices, their lives, and our Jewish future, our students will ultimately act, rather than be acted upon.
Yesterday, the Fast of Esther, was also the Yahrzeit of Joseph Gann, and next month will be the Yarhzeit of his wife, Rae Gann. The Gann’s were two people who, through their passionate commitment to the Jewish people and their tremendous generosity, modeled the habit of being proactive by taking responsibility for and transforming the Boston Jewish community. We are proud to bear their name and to remember Joseph and Rae Gann as founders and role models for all of us. And we are proud that Gann Academy represents a new model of Jewish high school education that seeks to respond to the challenges of today by defining and transforming our community, shaping a vision for the Jewish future, and by educating the next generation of Jewish leaders who will not be acted upon, defined, or confined by the challenges they face.
May we draw on the inspiration of the first habit, the Purim story, and the memories of Joseph and Rae Gann as we strive to take responsibility for our lives; and in doing so, may we change our world for the better by helping to shape the future of our community, our country and the Jewish People.
Purim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Marc Baker