May 23, 2008
18 Iyar 5768 – Lag B’Omer
Laughter and joy filled the Black Box Theater and the rest of the school last night as our students wowed our community in Playhem, a collection of one-act plays that were produced, directed and acted entirely by students. Audiences roared with applause and appreciation for the creativity and talent of our students. It was a night to remember and an uplifting end to a week in which our students soared in other ways as well. On Tuesday, our girls’ softball team, after being down 14 runs to 0, achieved a dramatic, come-from-behind victory, and won the game 30-27. On Wednesday, our Boys’ Varsity Baseball team reached a new milestone and won their first league championship on our home field, cheered on by a crowd of Gann fans. And today is Colorwar, a student- conceived, planned and led program of fun and games, friendly grade competition, and an all-school cookout; this year, Colorwar is our way of celebrating Lag B’Omer and of injecting ruach (spirit) and joy into our community during an intense and often stressful last few weeks of the school year.
As I marvel at this week’s display of our students’ talents, passions and initiative, I am proud of our culture and our community, but I am also reminded, sadly, of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who, according to our tradition, died of a plague during the time period of the Omer (between Pesach and Shavuot) because they did not behave with kavod (honor, respect) toward one another. For me, the story of Rabbi Akiva’s students is a sobering reminder of the fragility of a learning community. How can it be that rabbinic scholars – students of Rabbi Akiva, whose leadership and interpretive genius helped shape Judaism as we know it today – did not behave with kavod, one of the fundamental values of the Torah, toward one another?
I think we find one answer to this question in the opening line of this week’s Parsha, Parshat Bechukotai. The parsha opens: “Im bechukotai telechu . . .”, “If you follow my laws/statutes, and you observe/preserve/guard my mitzvot and do them . . .” (Leviticus 26:3). The text goes on to list all the blessings that will befall B’nei Yisrael if they follow the mitzvot, and then all of the curses that will befall them if they do not. This opening line is difficult, full of seemingly repetitious verbs and phrases. Why does it not just say: “If you observe my commandments . . . ?” According to Rashi, “following my statutes” cannot mean “observing commandments” for the text already says this. Instead, it refers to studying Torah, to learning. Perhaps Rashi is pointing out that the process of living out Torah – of becoming the people God wants us to become – is a process, an integration of learning, observing and doing. The rewards and punishments of this parsha are linked not to mere knowledge of Torah or to blind obedience, but rather to this process of learning and acting. Perhaps, in the midst of their passionate study and debate, the students of Rabbi Akiva became too absorbed in one half of this process of not just learning, but of living Torah.
This process is at the heart of the way we strive to teach and the culture and community we strive to build at Gann. A culture of intellectual rigor alone, one that is competitive and success-driven and that defines high school education so often in our society, does not nurture children’s souls or help them grow into mensches. We want our students to revel in the process of learning and to internalize habits of mind and habits of heart that translate into action. We want our culture of learning, debate, and intellectual rigor to give students skills and tools to make meaning of their world; to develop and refine their understandings of themselves as Jews, Americans, and human beings; to act morally and responsibly; and, to change their school, their community, and our world for the better.
Pluralism is very much about the vibrant intellectual discourse of challenging ourselves and each other, sharpening and sometimes changing our minds, our opinions, our conceptions of truth. But pluralism is also about honoring and respecting each other’s dignity and differences, ensuring that the culture our conversations, dialogues, and debates is defined not only by intellectual fervor but also by fundamental Jewish values about how we speak to and treat each other.
Today, on Lag B’Omer, which marks the end of the plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s students, may we revel in the values and the joy of our community and rededicate ourselves to linking learning and action – head, heart and hand; and in doing so, may what we know translate meaningfully and positively into who we are and how we act in this world.
Rabbi Marc Baker