Thoughts on Mentoring

Today I was presented with and accepted a sacred invitation– to mentor a child. The child’s parents approached me after I reached out to them to share some thoughts I had about their child on the basis of a series of classroom interactions. Sitting in my office, discussing their child’s personality, interests, and needs, was very powerful. Now I find myself reflecting on what it means to be a mentor, and more particularly, a mentor to an emerging young adult.

Children should be surrounded by a host of trusted adults that have the child’s best interests in mind. Parents, teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, clergy– all of these trusted adults wield tremendous power and therefore bear profound responsibility for the wellbeing of the children in their care. Any of these trusted adults can serve as a mentor for a child but it’s wholly possible that none of them will serve that role. To be a mentor is to self-consciously reframe the nature of a relationship toward certain positive aims. What are those aims?

It seems to me that a good mentor should be committed to certain values and principles. I’ll list some of them for clarity’s sake:

1) Promoting reflection– encouraging both the mentor and the mentee to become more reflective and self-aware. To provide occasions for reflection and to take the mentee’s thoughts and ideas seriously. To help direct reflection when appropriate particularly by asking good questions.

2) Asking questions– expressing curiosity, taking an interest, wondering aloud– a good mentor will do these things with a sense of joy and authentic interest.

3) Taking cues– knowing when to engage and when to step back, leaving plenty of room for the mentee to disengage without ever taking it personally.

4) Reciprocity– a good mentor should own up to the fact that they value the gifts that they receive from their mentee be they new ideas, new energy, new ways of seeing the world, or simply the fact of being appreciated and supporting another person on their journey.

My life has been enriched by various mentors on my journey. I know I’m not alone in this. My prayer is that, when called upon to serve as a mentor, we are all able to accept this sacred invitation and pay it forward.

More Jewish than Shalom

Today I decided, on a whim, to open up the Talmud and see what’s on tap for daf yomi (“the daily Talmud reading”). I came upon an interesting passage (Hagigah 10a). It reads:

אמר רב כיון שיוצא אדם מדבר הלכה לדבר מקרא שוב אין לו שלום

Which translates into something like:

“Rav said: When a person moves from the study of halachah to the study of Torah he finds no shalom (peace).”

Which got me thinking:

Halachah represents certainty. It represents the moment when debate gives way to law. It represents the fullness of rabbinic understanding on a given topic and is the distillation of this fullness of understanding into a legal code.

Shalom means peace, but it also means fullness, completion, and perfection. A person who studies halachah and lives his life in perfect accord with it can truly be said to live a life of “shalom.” Such a person, if he or she actually existed, would be living perfectly and completely within the Jewish tradition. Rather than striving for shalom his task would be to ensure that the shalom that he had achieved remain perfectly intact for all time.

Halachah offers the promise of shalom and with it the possibility of wholeness, certainty, and fulfillment.

But what about Torah study? Shouldn’t the study of Torah also offer the promise of (or potential for) shalom? After all, Jewish tradition says of the Torah, “All its ways are pleasant and all its paths are peace.” At first Rav’s statement, that Torah study and shalom don’t go hand in hand, seems absurd. But I think he’s right.

Torah study represents the never ending quest for insight and understanding. Struggle, incomplete understanding, doubt, and unrest– this is the stuff of Torah study. It’s what makes Torah study fun!

 The Torah doesn’t spell out exactly how a person should act, or even what the 613 mitzvot actually are. Instead, the Torah and Tanach present us with a world riddled with flaws, imperfections, ruptures, lack of closure, and more messiness than most of us know what to do with. Those who study Torah are perpetually confronted with the complexity of human beings living alongside one another and in relation to God.

Halachah is Judaism’s most comprehensive attempt to answer the question of what to do with our Torah and with our lived experience. When we prioritize Torah study over the study and observance of halachah we are prioritizing struggle over tranquility, brokenness over wholeness, and embracing a world where there is no absolute and unbreakable shalom.

I’ve remarked on more than one occasion that there’s nothing “more Jewish” than our pursuit of shalom. I’ve often called attention to the fact that our siddur has multiple prayers for shalom and that no prayer service is complete unless we’ve offered at least two different prayers for shalom.

However Rav’s teaching is making me question whether there isn’t something more Jewish than shalom?

I think the answer is yes. To be a Jew is to take seriously both halachah and Torah in the way that I’m describing them here. To be a Jew is to entertain the idea that there is a perfect, holistic, whole, wholesome, way to live in the world– a shalom of halachah. To be a Jew is also to know that our most sacred text, our Torah, perpetually reminds us that alongside shalom, and perhaps on the path to shalom, is a life of grappling, questioning, probing, yearning, and struggling.

A Lucky Penny

As a child I used to collect coins. Whenever my grandparents would travel internationally they’d always bring back a handful of coins for me as a souvenir. I kept my coin collection in a small treasure box with a built-in lock that was easy to crack. Until about the age of 10 my coin collection brought me great joy and hours of interest. Then I moved on to other things.

As a coin collector I took a particular interest in the “One Cent Penny.” I’m not sure of the exact history of the penny, but once upon a time the back of the penny used to have the words “One Cent” spelled out in pretty large letters. Y’all know what I’m talking about…

I had a zip-loc bag dedicated for these pennies. I probably had 30-40– a very modest collection.

As an adult I discovered that I’m not the only person in my family that has a connection to coins. My mom believes in what she calls, “Lucky Pennies.” A lucky penny generally means one of two things– either her thinking about a difficult decision is headed in the right direction (the penny serving as confirmation), or, a deceased loved one is letting her know that they’re watching out for her and our family. Lucky pennies are lucky not only because they appear at the right time but because they appear in peculiar places too. For example, when downsizing and moving out of my childhood home my mom found a penny on the driveway of the home she and my father eventually purchased. When meeting my wife for the first time, my mom found a penny. At my ordination ceremony etc… One question is whether any of these lucky pennies might’ve been conveniently placed by my dad, but we’ve never caught him in the act. To be clear, I love my mom’s theory of the lucky penny.

Yesterday I found a lucky penny.

Penny

If you’re still with me here, I think that means you care about me and my story, at least enough to spend a moment or two seeing where this is headed. Thank you for listening to my story.

Being in NYC means having more loose change rattling around than usual. Atlanta is a credit card city. In NYC you need cash. Yesterday I was shuffling through some coins and I found a “One Cent Penny.” It reminded me of my childhood coin collection for the first time in a long time.

I flipped the penny over to see the year it was minted. The year was 1948. The state of Israel was established in 1948. Had that penny been minted in 1947 I would’ve likely put it in a JNF Blue Tzedakah Box with the hopes that it might contribute in some small way to the establishment of a Jewish homeland. In 1948 I probably would’ve done the same, but with a very different Jewish reality– the reality of a sovereign Jewish state reborn. Reborn at great cost. Unquantifiable and incalculable cost. Or as Robert Hunter (who I just saw in concert) might say (though I don’t think he wrote this Grateful Dead lyric), “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

Like other people of conscience and concern I stand at the threshold of despair. Aside from the fact that I’m a Jew, a rabbi, and a human being, I have no right or reason to weigh in on the horrible violence that is unfolding in Israel and the Gaza strip. Aside from the fact that I have friends and colleagues in Israel as well as a deep personal connection to the country, I have no right or reason to weigh in.

In recent weeks I’ve read hundreds of Facebook posts and comments and I’ve felt the anguish, fear, hope, and despair. I’m trying, desperately, to use this lucky penny to find some renewed optimism. Recently I heard the author, Daniel Silva, speak. I asked him what he thought the main characters of his Gabriel Alon series would say about the war between Israel and Hamas. He said he was absolutely certain that it would get worse before it gets better. Much worse.

What would Abraham Lincoln, immortalized on the penny before me, have to say?

I think Lincoln would be deeply troubled by the tragic circumstances of innocent Palestinians living in Gaza. I think he would hold the Hamas government accountable for failing its people. I think he would say that at each moment those of us who have power can choose how we exercise that power. Rather than pursuing diplomatic channels they’ve chosen armed resistance. Rather than investing in their people’s future, they invest in their martyrdom. Rather than building schools they are digging tunnels. Rather than pursuing true autonomy and freedom they have further enslaved their own people. Lincoln would acknowledge that Israel and the “International Community” (to the extent that there is one) share some of the blame. But  Lincoln would look at Hamas and say that an unjust government that oppresses its people is no government at all. I think…

I think Lincoln would, with a heavy heart, acknowledge that Daniel Silva is right. Throughout the course of history our oddly enlightened species has, particularly in matters of politics, generally crossed thresholds where things will by necessity get worse before they get better. Lincoln would offer the American Civil War as an example of the heavy price that must be paid when confronting a political regime founded on injustice, oppression, immorality, and the annihilation of another people.

He’d point out that plantations had churches and that the “word of God” was proclaimed from their pulpits but that God’s messages were so thoroughly distorted and abused that they became part of the yoke of slavery rather than the inspiration for liberation. He’d point out that pulpits of hate, be they churches, mosques, or synagogues, should be eradicated from this earth.

He would hold all the powers that be to the highest moral standard. When considering Israel he would state unequivocally that the extent to which Israel’s actions in this conflict are justified is based solely on whether Israel is honestly committed  to liberating an oppressed people from an oppressive terrorist regime while simultaneously protecting her own citizens and interests. If Israel is truly dedicated to the annihilation of all Palestinians, then Israel is no better than Hamas. But Lincoln would be able to rise above the absurd rhetoric that has turned social media into one unending sermon and know that this is not the case.

Like all American currency the penny says, “In God We Trust” and “E Pluribus Unum.” If God is present in this conflict at all, let God be present in the teacher who is trying to provide a sense of normalcy to his students knowing that the basement of his school is a storehouse for rockets and grenades. If God is present in this conflict at all, let God be present in the hearts and homes of Israeli mothers who are comforting their children in bomb shelters or praying for their sons and daughters on the front lines. If God is present in this conflict at all, let God not be the excuse for celebrating the deaths of innocent people. Let God shield humanity rather than turn human beings into shields so that they might be added to the annals of the lists of collateral damage forever lost to history.  Let God remind us all that to live in God’s image is to create rather than destroy.

As for “E Pluribus Unum”– It is long past time to take our individual narratives and bind them together. It’s time to take the many and find the One. We need to care deeply for one another’s stories and see them as our own. We need to take all of our stories and anthologize them. We need to bind them in a book of life and teach our children and ourselves to read from this book. We need to take our billions of individual stories and turn them into one epic narrative of humanity. Only then will innocent Palestinians and innocent Israelis be able to look one another in the eye and begin the human work of reconciliation. It’s a hell of a lot harder than lobbing missiles, digging tunnels, and lazily using God and history as our excuse and justification. Tragically, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

 

 

Why I’m Fasting Today

Today many Jews and Muslims are fasting. We are fasting because our calendars tell us to. But some of us are also fasting so we can think deeply about peace/Shalom/Salaam. For that reason many of us feel that our fasts are linked and many other people of diverse backgrounds are joining us. I don’t usually observe minor fast days but today I am. I want to think about Shalom. And I want to be hungry while I think about it.

A number of years ago I wrote a song that was eventually recorded on The Davis Academy’s first CD of original Jewish music: Be a Blessing. The song is called “Seek Peace.” It’s based on a passage from Psalms that teaches, “Seek peace and pursue it.” It’s a song about the simplicity of peace, about the endless ways we can think about and achieve peace, and the ever flowing river of metaphors we might use to speak about peace.

The song is sung by kids. Their voices remind me that, from the perspective of a child, peace is the simplest thing in the world. If you’re looking for something to do as you fast or as you don’t fast, I invite you to listen to this song. I hope it makes you happy and hopeful.

DISCLAIMER: Everything that follows below is going to feel like a sales pitch. That’s not my intention and I’m sorry if it comes across that way. I simply believe in this song and in the power of music to effect change.

Here’s a YouTube video from The Davis Academy’s 2013 Israel trip. In it you’ll hear kids singing along with the album. It’s shaky but fun, especially if you were there! Unfortunately someone decided to give it a “thumbs down” on YouTube. In the scope of the universe it doesn’t matter much but I generally only exert energy for giving things a “thumbs up.”

 

 

The song, along with the whole album, are available for free download here. I’ve also got lyrics and musical notation for anyone that loves singing about peace and wants to add this song to their repertoire.

 

Ruth, Friendship, and Spirituality– Thoughts on Shavuot (on Shavuot)

 

Apologies for the pseudo-Shakespearian translation but here’s a familiar passage from the first chapter of the Book of Ruth:

16 And Ruth said: ‘Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; 17 where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.’

I have a confession to make. It’s Shavuot, and I didn’t go to Shul today.  Even though it’s Shavuot– one of Judaism’s three pilgrimage festivals. Instead, I met with and interviewed a recent alum of The Davis Academy as part of my doctoral research on adolescent spirituality. (Incidentally this is the 2nd year in a row that I didn’t go to shul. Last year I spent Shavuot at K’far Yehezkel, a moshav in the Southern Galilee. It was an incredible experience and you can read about it here.)

Though I didn’t go to shul, it turns out that I learned an incredible lesson about at least one aspect of Shavuot during my interview today…

My doctoral research is on the topic of adolescent spirituality. My goal is to advance both the academic and colloquial understanding of the phenomenon of spirituality as it is experienced by adolescents. I come to this topic not as an “objective” researcher, but as a rabbi and educator who works with adolescents and cares deeply about this aspect of their lives and their development. I also believe that this is a largely neglected area and that most educational contexts fail to protect, nurture and celebrate adolescent spirituality. Rather than circulating a questionnaire or survey I’ve chosen to conduct in depth interviews with a small cohort of recent Davis Academy alumni. Today I conducted an interview with one of my research participants. And yet again I was blown away by the depth of thought, the depth of caring, and the depth of insight that I witnessed in the adolescent sitting across from me.

As the interview unfolded both the participant and I developed a deeper understanding of what spirituality meant to him. Toward the end of the interview I attempted to summarize his definition of spirituality as he understands it:

Spirituality is about realizing our potential as human beings. It starts with self-knowledge and self-awareness but quickly extends to our relationships with other people. We realize our potential when we connect with other human beings in meaningful and socially redemptive ways. Spirituality is the foundation of the connection that we make with others, particularly when this connection is deep and true. All true friendships have a spiritual component. 

I’ve conducted several interviews, and the theme of “connection” has been present in each. But no other research participant has more emphatically emphasized that his/her definition of spirituality is so firmly rooted in the act of connecting with other people, in forging relationships of various kinds, and friendship in particular. When I asked him directly whether all of his friendships had a spiritual component he thoughtfully and unabashedly said yes.

On Shavuot we read the book of Ruth. Ruth is all about relationships, human connection, and friendship. The connection between the name Ruth and the Hebrew word for friendship/companionship Reut has been noted by others. Ruth chooses to cast her lot not only with Naomi, her mother in law, but with Naomi’s people– the Jewish people. At the beginning of this post you’ll find the most famous passage from the book of Ruth. Ruth’s words to Naomi when Naomi implores her to return to the Moabites.

While I didn’t go to shul today I do feel that I encountered holiness. I’m motivated to do my doctoral research because I believe in the importance of the topic. I think we all need to develop a more nuanced and respectful vocabulary for thinking about and discussing adolescent spirituality. I’ve conducted 4 in depth interviews and, while each participant has experienced spirituality slightly (or very) differently, if at all, they’ve all been incredibly reflective, generous in sharing their experiences, and appreciative to have been given a voice. Collectively and individually, they’ve reaffirmed my belief that JFK got it right when he said, “Man is still the most extraordinary computer of all.”

 

The Child in Room 18

This week I did something I pray that none of us ever have to do. I visited a child who was actively dying and his family. There is no way to express the feeling of dread that welled up as I navigated the corridors of Scottish Rite. No way to express the rush of tears that were summoned by the sobs of those that stood vigil. No way to express the anger and confusion that come with standing beside a family that has been robbed of hopes and dreams. No way to express the sense of holiness and solemnity that comes with watching a grandmother stroking the hair of the child. No way to express the unpredictable decent of laughter into tears and back to laughter. No way to express what it means to speak to a child not knowing if he can hear. Not knowing what to say. Making promises that I must now pray to be able to honor. Promises to remember, to respect, to celebrate. No way to bracket images of my own children. No way to sidestep the theological implications. No way to empathize with the parents, drowning in the grief of anticipation. No way to assess what Amichai called the diameter of the bomb. No way to process the artwork drawn by the older brother with the caption, “Good luck in heaven!” No way to thank the nurses that patiently and attentively made handprints and footprints for loved ones. No way to express what it means to be able to turn around and walk away. No way to know if my counsel is that of a sage or an idiot. No way to hit send on an email that will wound people that I care about.

It’s not about me. It’s about all of us. Together we make order out of chaos. Together we make meaning out of biology. Together we mourn and eventually celebrate. We cry on one another’s shoulders. We stand behind, beside, and among brokenness. We gather shards, patiently, indignantly, courageously, and reluctantly. We stand within the breach and look toward the light. Sometimes in the light we see the face of a dying child. Sometimes the sun/son shines so brightly we can’t help but cry.

The Gift of Time

Someone recently shared a personal story with me. It was  a simple story of how one of her loved ones gave her a gift and how this gift made her feel.

I was very moved listening to this story. I was moved because of the simplicity and universality of it. Each of us has received and each of us has given. Each of us has known the profound feeling of bringing joy to someone we know and love; each of has felt the profound joy of receiving such love.

The gift in the story wasn’t a physical gift. It was shiny or expensive. It was the gift of time. Time is undoubtedly the most precious and powerful gift any of us has to offer.

I listened to this story as a husband, a father, a son, and a brother. I also listened as a colleague, school administrator, and educator.  The message of the story cuts across personal and professional boundaries and is relevant in all areas.

Time is a gift that each of us can and should give freely, especially to those we value most. Rather than waiting for others to ask for our time, we should be mindful each day to give the gift of time. Rather than piling appointments right on top of one another, we should allow enough time to be present for the person in the room.

Time given to students and colleagues both affirms and strengthens relationships. It helps us recognize what really counts and what really matters. It allows others to express concerns and get at what’s really important, rather than rushing through an agenda or checklist. In many ways it’s the simplest gift we can give; a gift that enriches our lives as well.

The Davis Academy and the Snow Storm

On Tuesday morning The Davis Academy 8th grade joined with their counterparts at The Marist School for the culmination of a series of meetings focused on interfaith dialogue, understanding, and community service. Blissfully unaware of what Tuesday afternoon would bring to the greater Atlanta area, students from the two schools spent the morning volunteering at Books for Africa, The Atlanta Community Food Bank, Medshare, as well as at The Davis Academy. In a few short hours they processed more than 6,000 pounds of food, 16,000 pounds of books, and 2,500 pounds of medical supplies. They prepared more than 700 sandwiches for Project Open Hand, wrote more than 500 get well, holiday, and birthday cards for area nursing homes, and jointly painted a prayer canvas with both schools’ logos that will help line the route of the upcoming Boston Marathon. It was a typically atypical morning at Davis. A day that engaged students in the kind of learning that, to paraphrase Haim Ginott, makes us ‘more human.’ Or as we put it at Davis, a day of menschlichkeit.

These sandwiches made it to a local shelter by Tuesday night.
These sandwiches made it to a local shelter by Tuesday night.
Davis and Marist students join forces.
Davis and Marist students join forces.

As Marist students boarded their busses the first flurries of snow were falling. Regarding the subsequent hours, each of us has a story. To the best of our knowledge all members of The Davis Academy community found safe haven by Tuesday evening, even if they weren’t in their own homes. Over the last couple of days, members of The Davis Academy administration have been privileged to hear some of the many stories of our community members. We have heard about students helping to warm stranded motorists with cups of tea. Families opening their homes to strangers who simply needed to make a phone call or use the restroom. Alumni who provided emergency medical services to individuals who were cut off from emergency vehicles. Teachers who spent the evening pushing cars up hills. From every corner of our community we have heard tales of selflessness, compassion, and bravery. We have been sacred witnesses to indescribable acts of menschlichkeit.

Davis 8th Graders serve coffee to stranded motorists.
Davis 8th Graders serve coffee to stranded motorists.

To be sure Davis Academy students, families, alumni, and teachers weren’t the only heroes on the streets in recent days. But upon reflection, it cannot be denied that our kehilah instinctively knew that action was required and responded in kind. We knew that the extraordinary circumstances required us to think not only of ourselves, but also of others. We answered Rabbi Hillel’s two thousand year old question, “If I am only for myself, what I am?”

A recent survey of Davis Academy alumni confirms something we are very proud of here at Davis—that our graduates thrive at the high school of their choice and that they leave Davis ready for the next step. The stories you’ve shared, and the stories we hope that you will share in response to this note, help us understand what the “Davis Journey” is all about. We are helping children become mensches. It’s not just smart people, not just well-prepared people, not just well-rounded people, all of which might lead us to say ‘dayeinu’ . We are helping our children become more fully human, to become mensches. We are helping them to become leaders and mensches who see in their fellow human beings an ethical obligation—to care, to help, and to honor.

Help us understand the story of The Davis Academy in response to this week’s snowstorm by hitting reply and sharing your story. Please let us know if we have your permission to use your name in subsequent communications.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Micah

“MLK: Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” Beit Midrash

Regrettably I did not have time to correctly identify the images I used in this PowToon.

The following “text sheet” contains more expanded versions of some of the quotes/commentaries from the PowToon. I am grateful to Rabbi Peter Berg, Rabbi Brad Levenberg, Rabbi Jan Katzew, and Rabbi Michael Shire for their contributions. Rabbi Katzew and Rabbi Shire’s quotes aren’t in the PowToon because they were a bit beyond what I thought our Middle School students could tackle in the short time we had for this lesson!

I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

–      Martin Luther King Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Rabbi Peter Berg from The Temple in Atlanta writes:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…The Torah teaches lo tuchal l’hitaleim – you shall not remain indifferent.  Literally translated it means do not hide yourself.  Our Jewish values teach us to face the world head on, to engage in study and moral debate, to raise questions about the world and about ourselves, to enhance life, and to struggle to repair that which is broken an incomplete.

 

Rabbi Levenberg from Temple Sinai in Atlanta writes:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere… Jewish tradition compels us to protect the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable among us.  Among us… among us.  That’s the challenge, is it not?  There are those who firmly believe that we must care for the Jews first and, if we have time and resources, to care for others.  I disagree.  As long as anyone is homeless, we can be homeless.  As long as anyone is hungry, we can go hungry.  And as long as anyone is subject to another’s ill treatment, we need only look at our tragic history to realize that, in fact, Jewish tradition compels us to protect the poor, the weak and the vulnerable.  Everywhere.

Rabbi Michael Shire from Hebrew College writes:

I just watched the movie ‘Mandela; Long Walk to Freedom’ and was struck that Nelson Mandela was in prison throughout the time that Martin Luther King was also fighting for civil rights. I don’t know if they corresponded or knew about each other but how fascinating to compare the situations of the two men. One, starting an epic struggle of a black majority violently fighting against an apartheid Government and military that was increasingly vulnerable to world wide condemnation. The other, bringing to an end 100 years of a process of Black emancipation in a society built on the values of equality and universal suffrage. It is definitely the case that there was ‘a network of mutuality’ where the nature of just being of a black colour demanded a new perception by others and by blacks. People of colour had been considered inferior, infantile, slovenly, ignorant and lazy. In South Africa, it took the nobility of men like Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko (murdered in prison) to demonstrate that blackness was nothing to do with character. In fact they had also to prove it to their own people that had so long been downtrodden. Steve Biko’s work on ‘black consciousness’ echoed a similar attempt by Theodore Herzl to do the same thing for the Jewish People. In his writings about early Zionism, Herzl declared that the Jews were proper and fit to have their own land like any other people. At the time, this was considered inconceivable by most people including Jews themselves. Jews were  considered inferior, miserly, dirty and shifty. What does it take for a people to learn not only that they can be free but that all deserve to be free? At Pesach we say, if not all are free, then none are free’. Do we have responsibility for the freedom of other peoples? And for their self-worth as well?

Rabbi Jan Katzew from Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion writes:

“I cannot sit idly by” – ‘לא תעמוד על דם רעיך אני ה
– Leviticus 19:16 – You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor; I am Adonai. Martin Luther King’s words echoed a מצוה, and not just any מצוה, but one embedded in the very heart of Torah, the Holiness Code. Standing idly by would be a sin, and not just in the eyes of Martin, but also in the eyes of God. Elie Wiesel noted that rather than use the word אחיך – your brothers, Torah teaches רעיך – your neighbors, thereby making the מצוה apply to humanity as
a whole rather than to a particular family or people. Finally, the words אני ה – make it clear that this מצוה to confront the oppression of any person or people not only involves human dignity and compassion but also divine dignity and compassion.

Rabbi Micah Lapidus from The Davis Academy writes:”It’s not enough for a Jewish person to be smart. It’s not enough to be talented or successful. It’s not enough to be HAPPY. A Jew needs to be righteous. We need to do the RIGHT thing, the HARD thing, the JUST thing.”

Drew Frank from The Davis Academy shared the following quote from Haim Ginott: “I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.

So I am suspicious of education. My request is: help your students become more human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.”

Opening the Eyes of the Blind

I started my day praying with 4th graders. Fortunately a colleague stepped outside to gather a rain-measuring device and encouraged me to take the kids outside because there was a beautiful mist resting on our baseball field. Going outside changed everything. The typical prayer routine was tossed aside and the 4th grade and I engaged in a moment of quiet mindfulness and appreciation:

“What did you notice or appreciate?”

“There’s a bird sitting on top of the fence.”

“The grass is sparkling.”

“The concrete is cold.”

“I’m sitting in front of a pole.”

“The sun is powerful.”

We then opened our prayerbooks to a series of prayers that thanks God for some of the daily basics that we often take for granted.

“Which do you think we should recite after taking some time to notice and appreciate?”

“Thank you God for opening the eyes of the blind.”

“I agree. Most people think that our eyesight just gets worse and worse as we grow, but maybe we actually can get better at seeing as we grow and take time to notice and appreciate.”

It’s wonderful when experience and tradition are in harmony. I spent the rest of my day with that prayer in mind: thank you God for opening the eyes of the blind. Then I was blindsided.

——

My day ended in a meeting with a small group of  colleagues. During the course of the meeting one of them shared a concern with me about something I occasionally (or maybe even often) do while leading prayers with our middle school students– calling students out by name, particularly if they’re talking out of turn.

The content of the conversation isn’t as important as the process. I quickly realized that something I considered a benign, even affectionate gesture, was being perceived differently. In calling out students by name I thought I was saying, “I know who you really are. I know that you want to contribute rather than detract from our community during this time.” Regardless of my intentions, rabbis and the rest of us must strive to never shame another person, especially a child or adolescent. Unintentional shaming is even worse because it often goes unnamed and unexpressed possibly causing resentment down the road.

It’s not easy to share a piece of feedback that we know might upset someone. But the strength of our communities, the functionality of our teams, and, ultimately, the spiritual well-being of those we serve demands that we share our perspectives. We have to demand of one another and ourselves that we open our eyes to things we might not see.

One of the greatest ironies of sharing feedback is that relationships sometimes cloud rather than clarify the process. We don’t want to hurt, offend, alienate, turn off, or otherwise damage the precious ties that we share with students, colleagues, and friends. Sharing, like my colleague did today, requires vulnerability and risks hurt. But the truth is that sharing feedback actually strengthens these ties and brings meaning to terms like collegiality and community.

Last week a parent shared with me that he felt naive in discussing God and theology. I suggested that naivety might not be a bad thing. Naivety brings with it the capacity for openness which in turns brings the capacity to see with new eyes and acquire new insights. We can help one another celebrate our naivety, see differently, and deepen our understanding.

I’ll admit that when my colleague mentioned that he had feedback to share I got nervous. As I listened and reflected my nervousness turned to embarrassment that I hadn’t seen this myself. Embarrassment quickly gave way to understanding and appreciation. It all brought to mind the 4th graders I spent the morning “enlightening.” All I can pray is that the more we help one another notice and appreciate, the more compassionate and vibrant our world will be.