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Introducing The Davis Academy Beit Midrash

This morning the Judaic Studies team at Davis studied the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa as it appears in Lamentations Rabbah 4:3. For those who aren’t familiar the story is about… well that’s the thing. It’s a story that is connected in the “rabbinic imagination” to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans. The story serves as a kind of proof text or explanation for why the Temple was destroyed: baseless hatred and excessive piety.
There’s enduring wisdom in the recognition that the fusion of baseless hatred ande excessive piety is a truly toxic combination. While Tisha b’Av mourns the physical destruction of the Jewish community in Ancient Palestine (and a host of other historical maladies) it also calls upon each of us to participate in the positive destruction of unchecked emotions that detract from rather than contribute to the social good.
This morning’s conversation quickly diverged from a discussion of the moral dimensions of the story into a meta-conversation (I can just see you losing interest). The story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa is, like many rabbinic texts, an elliptical story. It leaves out plenty of details, raises issues pertaining to narrative plausability, and requires a certain amount of familiarity with Jewish history. Because these are ancient/ classical texts and we are modern/ postmodern readers there are translation issues. These issues range from making sense of the Aramaic to trying to develop an appreciation of whatever genre restraints may be dictating both the content and form of any given story. In the case of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa one’s sense of the text is determined as much by what you bring to the text as what you find there. Is this making sense?
Ultimately our conversation became about the act of reading itself. By the time we wrapped things up the five of us had spent about an hour engrossed in a dialogue that was brought into being by a Jewish text. Our activity connected us to countless people throughout history who had previously studied and discussed the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa. Our conversation also connected us with all those who study it today in relation to Tisha b’Av, and to some extent to those who study it in the future as well. In other words through engaged reading we became part of a community and a conversation that transcends time, geography, and ideology.
But at the same time as our conversation connected us with a kind of virtual community, it also forged a much more intimate community– the five of us. The conversation that we had about Kamsa and Bar Kamsa was unique. While probably not unprecedented, it was our own conversation. In addition to mining a variety of messages from the text we also learned about one another– what we see in the text, what we notice, how we analyze, how we think, how we question, what gets us intellectually excited, what Tisha b’Av means to each of us. All of this emerged through the act of reading and is a reflection of the powerful impact that reading can have.
I love reading. I especially love reading Jewish texts because they demand that I be an active, creative, and engaged reader. Jewish texts teach me how to read and enrich the many other readings I am engaged in.
While meta-conversations generally tend to resist pragmatic applications there is a very practical dimension to what I’m describing. At The Davis Academy we are going to be implementing a new initiative– The Davis Academy Beit Midrash. At various times in the year the entire middle school will be coming together to study certain Jewish texts. One goal of the Beit Midrash is to expose students to classical Jewish texts that they might otherwise not encounter in the course of the regular Judaic curriculum and to teach them how to read these texts in the way I describe above. While reading Jewish texts to life we will simultaneously be fostering the kind of community that can only emerge through the kind of reading that Jewish texts invite– a community that is based on shared conversations, dialogues, and ideas. A community of listening and speaking, of debating and relating. A community where teachers are learners and students are teachers. A community dedicated to the exploration of self and tradition, and critical reflection. I’ll let you know how it goes…

Graduation: Invocation and Benediction

Invocation:

Adonai, Our God, God of our fathers and mothers (our sisters and our brothers), Source of All Life, we gather on this splendid evening, the 2nd of June, 2009 corresponding to the Hebrew Date of 11th of Sivan, 5769 to mark a moment of sacred transformation in the lives of 79 remarkable individuals and their families. We come to this joyful and complex celebration, each of us, bringing our own stories, our own histories, our own memories, our own tears, our own laughter. We strive, in Your presence, and in the presence of our friends and family, to embrace this moment and cherish each breath. Help us to appreciate all that this moment represents…

As we look toward the future this evening, we also reflect on the past. We think back on the years at Davis that flew by much more quickly than expected. We unlock the flood gates of memory and swim in the countless moments, the ones we planned for and the ones that planned for us without our knowing. Whether by fate, by chance, or by design, we consider all that has transpired in our lives and in our world.

Graduates— three weeks ago we sang together in Jerusalem. Who knew that the time would pass by so quickly? You’re older now, and wiser, well some of you :), actually, all of you. We’re ready to let you go, we’re ready to watch you change the world. This is your moment. Be proud, shine, be open, and embrace what comes…

As you take the vital, inevitable, the beautiful step forward into a future full of promise and light, know that you carry, in your hearts, in your minds, and in your souls, the special heritage that has been given to you by your family, by your school, and by your Jewish Tradition. Adonai, Our God, we invoke your blessing this evening. Bless our graduates, bless our teachers, bless our parents. Bestow your blessings upon us all that we may fully witness this sacred moment. Together we say: Amen.

Benediction:

And so God called to Abram and his wife Sarai—Lech l’cha. Go forth. Embark upon your journey.

And the prophet Isaiah cried out in the Temple Court—Beit Ya’akov l’chu vnilcha b’or Adonai. House of Israel, may God strengthen your steps and illumine your path.

Graduates—as you “go forth”. As you embark upon your journey. May the mitzvot and the mentschlichkeit values be a light for you and may Torah fill your days.

And while we wish for each of you every blessing, every dream and more, we wish even more that you will be a blessing. God told Abraham, heveh bracha—be a blessing. It’s that simple. And to you we say—heveh bracha, heveh bracha, be a blessing.

Love Your Neighbor

This week’s Torah portion contains the oft-recited verse, “V’ahavta l’reacha camocha” (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). Not bad as far as Leviticus goes! During tefillah with our kindergarteners I asked them who their neighbor was? As usual hands went straight up and I started calling on children:

“The person who lives next door to me.”
“The person on my street.”
“Mr. Raymond my neighbor.”

But it wasn’t long before they arrived at a deeper understanding of the concept of “neighbor”:

“The person sitting next to me.”
“Someone who is close to your heart.”

And then most profound:

“God, because God is all around us.”

I was reminded of our recent 7th grade trip to Washington DC. Sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall spread out before us, we read the words spoken by Rabbi Joachim Prinz who spoke these words in his speech at the March on Washington in 1963:

“In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”

I’m no longer surprised (and haven’t been for some time now) that I probably (dare I say definitely) learn more from the children I teach than they learn from me. To what can the matter be compared? To the following parable told by the Maggid of Dubno, an 18th century rabbi and teacher (retold by Rabbi David Wolpe in his book Floating Takes Faith):

“Once a father traveled for miles with his son to reach a castle. Whenever they encountered a river or mountain, the father lifted his son on his shoulders and carried him. Finally they came to the castle, but its gate was shut, and there were only narrow windows along the sides. The father said, “my son, up until now I have carried you. Now the only way we can reach our destination is if you will climb through the windows and open the gate for me from within.”

It occurs to me that if “neighbor” is indeed a moral concept, so too are “father” and “son.”

Passover Blessing

As we approach the Passover holiday, it’s a wonderful time to be aware that one of Judaism’s most nourishing aspects is that it promotes mindfulness. From the moment we greet the day to the moment we drift into dreaming, Judaism invites us to take notice. While we might think that we recite blessings for God’s benefit, the real power of saying berachot (blessings) is the impact it makes on us: the speakers. Blessings are little mindfulness meditations that bring the richness of the universe into sharp relief. When one of our storied sages taught us to say one hundred blessings a day, I think he was actually limiting the number rather than being overly demanding; once we start counting our blessings it can be hard to stop.

Being mindful has the effect of slowing down time, of enhancing our enjoyment and appreciation of life. While many of us joke about wanting the Pesach Seder to “be over already” the truth is that we know these precious moments in time are what remain vivid for us years after the fact. Blessing, whether through the prescribed formulas or the words and meditations of our hearts, is Judaism’s way of attuning us to life’s holiness. They help us grasp the vastness of a moment, a person, a prayer.

This Pesach season may each of us in The Davis Academy community be blessed in our coming and our going. May we be blessed in our matzo ball soup and maror, in our telling and retelling, in our kvelling and even in our yelling. May we be mindful of our children and our parents, our brothers and sisters, our guests and our hosts, and may our doors be thrown open for Elijah and whoever may come. As we prepare for the many moments that await us, may our blessed mindfulness find favor in God’s sight.

L’shalom,

Communicating with God

A few hours from now it will be erev Purim. It’s my day to stay late and I find myself juxtaposing two experiences I had today: this morning’s Purim Assembly at our lower school, and my afternoon 5th grade Judaics classes.
This morning the entire lower school gathered in the gym for a Purim Assembly (davka NOT a Megillah reading). One of the great blessings of The Davis Academy is that we often have the opportunity to welcome (i.e. utilize) rabbis from the community. Several of my rabbinic colleagues had agreed to dress up and participate in a Purim skit. A good time was had by all and there are pictures!
Purim is a holiday of contradictions. I find it to be intermittently profound and mundane, deadly serious and uncontrollably silly. The Purim story invites us inter alia to consider if/how/where/why God is present even as God’s name does not appear in the Megillah. I don’t want to attempt to answer that question here…
This afternoon I introduced what promises to be a rich and intense unit of study with my 5th grade students. Initially I thought the unit would center on prayer fluency and the basic concepts of Jewish prayer. As I contemplated a set induction I knew that I wanted to give the students an assignment that was vague, open to interpretation, and also personal. The assignment I came up with was: “Communicate with God.” I tried to offer as little instruction as possible. Being a beautiful day I thought it would be good to go outside.
After giving the students time to think, write, explore, or do what they would with the assignment we gathered as a class to discuss. Let me say only that it took very little prompting for students to share and listen to one another with the utmost respect. For some the assignment was a breeze, for others it was paralyzingly difficult. A number of comments were made. Here’s a selection:

“This was easy because communicating with God isn’t something I need to be taught. I already have everything I need to know inside of me.”

“If God created all of us, then when we communicate with one another, we are, in a sense, communicating with God.”

“I am always communicating with God, God is everywhere. In all that I do I communicate with God.”

“I drew a picture of Moses kneeling upon a rock and praying, God is depicted as a hand reaching down from a cloud.”

“I communicate with God by finding a quiet place to sit and relax. I like to look around and see what comes into my mind.”

“I told God about my day, about my plans for Purim and Spring Break. It doesn’t have to be a big special thing to talk to God.”

As I reflect on these, and the many other responses that were shared during these conversations, I realize now that the juxtaposition of this “assignment” and the rapidly approaching holiday of Purim needn’t be random at all, but actually quite purposeful. Purim is a holiday that invites us to speculate about God’s role in human affairs or imagine a world without God. By opening a dialogue about God with my students I found myself presented with a variety of options for negotiating these often abstract and/or dogmatically rigid questions.

Chag Purim Sameach.

An Apple Tree Grows in Dunwoody

Tubishevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, already feels like ancient history. Here in Atlanta we had the good fortune of being graced with some warm, radiant sunshine which allowed us to embrace the spirit of Tubishevat– namely celebrating our connection to the natural world of which we are a part and not distinct. It was a miraculous Tubishevat at The Davis Academy and at the middle school in particular.
A few days prior to Tubishevat I saw three of my colleagues digging around in the small garden adjacent to the athletic field at school. It was particularly cold that day and I found myself intruiged to the point of braving the brisk to see what the fuss was about. It turns out that they were digging a hole to plant a tree, but not just any tree; there was an apple tree growing out of the compost pile. Thank you to the unsuspecting 7th grader who chucked a half-nibbled apple into the compost instead of consigning it to a meaningless decomposition in one of our abundant and conveniently placed rubbish bins! Little apple tree had reached the point of outgrowing the compost pile and was worthy of more dignified and intentional placement.
We quickly decided to have a tree planting ceremony in honor of Tubishevat. The apple tree was joyfully planted by Davis Academy students, in the presence of their peers, on Friday, February 6th, during Kabbalat Shabbat. As others have planted for us, so we now have fulfilled the mitzvah of planting for others.
The following Monday, on Tubishevat itself, we attempted a terrific experiment during tefillah– going outside. A event that I consider nothing short of miraculous occurred: 240 middle school students proceeded to leave their seats in our gym/sanctuary, walk quickly and respectfully outside, spread out across our vast field of green, pray/meditate independently, and return back into the gym, without any disruption or incident. Though I hold our students in the highest esteem I was momentarily stunned that our student body was collectively capable of such a massive coordinated movement without breaking character in the least. The message I shared with the students and have since reiterated is the following: With trust and respect between and among our students, and between our students and me, their rabbi, and our entire faculty, we are capable of taking risks and creating great and beautiful memories and experiences together. Tefillah has become not only a time for prayer, but a time for building trust and community, for exploring the limits and boundaries of self, and challenging one another to rise to our fullest potential in ways both great and small. For this I am grateful.

Reading Torah for the First Time

On Thursday morning one of our 5th grade classes gathered in my office for a moment of reflection. After months of preparation the time had finally come for them to chant from the Torah for the first time. All their classmates and parents were waiting in the library where the Torah Reading Service was going to be held. With guitar in hand I asked the students to take a deep breath and spend a moment opening their hearts. Then we talked about The Davis Academy journey– how every day has the potential to be full of amazing and life changing experiences. But along the journey there are moments of holiness, sometimes little and sometimes big, sometimes planned and sometimes not. The 5th grade Torah Service is such a moment. Each child shared a memory from class– lots of smiles and laughs, lots of “oh yeahs…” A few of the students got a little choked up. I did as well.
We marched quietly from my office to just outside the library. From there we watched the last few students and parents shuffling in. Once everyone was settled inside I, along with the students who were leading, marched into the library singing “Am Yisrael Hai” (“The Jewish People Lives”). In the presence of our community, gathered for the sacred and joyous mitzvah of reading and studying Torah, it was hard not to feel the most profound sense of hope that these children not only embrace Jewish tradition but will build a viable and vibrant Jewish world for future generations.

A typical Friday for a Jewish Day School

First Friday of 09. During Kabbalat Shabbat Rabbi Peter Berg from the Temple charmed our children, transforming them into crying babies, snoring grandparents, lowing cows, doodling rosters, and quacking ducks. Message: let us bless the noise that tells us we are home. We made sure to think of Israel today by singing Kahol v’lavan, Hatikvah and also offering the traditional prayer Avinu sh’bashamayim (Mishkan T’filah, p. 113). We also did “Can you shake it better than a fifth grader during the micamocha.” The answer appears to be: ehhh.

Tefillah was funky at the middle school today. Science fair has taken over the gym! While it would have been nice to have had Kabbalat Shabbat there (to reflect on the false dichotomy between science and religion) we decided to split into grades. During tefillah Mr. Kudlats and I opened a dialogue on Israel with the 8th grade since we’re headed there in May. After reading an interesting article from the New York Times about the Israel Consulate’s attempts to do media coverage of the war via the web service “Twitter” (which allows positings up to 140 chrctrs) we made sure to leave time to welcome Shabbat by lighting candles, blessing juice, and sharing Challah. One face of Shabbat is setting aside our worldly concerns to embrace something eternal: joy, shalom, family, rest, Shabbat. The contrast between our Israel discussion and our Shabbat singing was a bit abrupt, but necessarily so as our students had a lot to say.

This Shabbat we finish reading the book of Bereishit. It seems like only yesterday that we celebrated Simchat Torah by unrolling our Torah scrolls and surrounding our students in the sacred words of Jewish tradition. In this week’s parsha, a dying Jacob blesses his children with the following words, “The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day– The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm– Bless the lads…”(Genesis 48:15-16). My prayer this Shabbat is that God protect the citizens of Israel, all the innocent civilians of that sad and troubled region, and all of us. May this Shabbat be full of peace, rest, and joy.