Erev Shabbat, Parshat Vayeitzei, 7 Kislev, 5780

Dear families,

This week’s parshah opens with a dramatic scene. Yaakov escapes Be’er Sheva and heads off on a perilous journey to Charan. His family situation is beyond dysfunctional and stressful. His father has just passed away, his brother Esav is furious with him and is planning to kill him, and Yaakov just leaves everything behind, all he has ever known, and runs for his life.

He stops for the night, exhausted and afraid, and after building himself a shelter made up of 12 stones that surround him to protect himself from the elements and from wild animals, falls fast asleep. And he dreams a dream, the famous dream we all know, of a ladder on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God ascending and descending on the ladder. God then appears to him and promises him the promises given to his father and grandfather.

In this story, the sages focus on the stones. Before Yaakov lay down to sleep, we learn:

He took some of the STONES from the place, and he set it under his head… (Bereishit 28:11)

But after he had dreamed and woke up, we see that:

He took the STONE which he had set under his head and erected it as a monument… (Bereishit 28:18)

The Midrash notes the discrepancy between the two verses (was it one stone or many stones?) and teaches that the many stones actually gathered together under Yaakov and became ONE, the 12 stones representing the 12 tribes, unified as one people. Unified through the respect and love each tribe has for each other, connected to each other through ve’ahavta la’re’achah kamocha. And only then is he able to have that prophetic dream, and have God reveal Himself.

The need to feel safe and secure is paramount. Without it, everything is compromised. Yaakov needed to feel protected and safe when he set up the perimeter of stones.

Our children, our students, the spiritual descendants of Yaakov, are no different. It is well known through research that stress interferes with learning and memory. The ability to retrieve and encode information from stored memories can be quite easily disrupted by stressful situations. When a person is stressed or anxious, blood flows (i.e. leaves) from the frontal lobe region of the brain as part of the fight or flight response. The frontal lobe region of our brain is where decisions are made, it is the part of the brain responsible for our executive functions and self-regulation.

A stressed student is a student who can’t learn properly. A child who is chronically anxious cannot develop properly, cognitively, socially or emotionally.

For some students, feeling unsafe can be from something in the home, and that often manifests itself academically or behaviorally. For other students, school can be unsafe, with academic struggles, problems with friends, teachers or even bullying. And for some students, both home and school can be hard, anxious places.

At Hebrew Foundation School, students, staff, parents and board share the responsibility for creating a culture of respect and safety, and for putting in the hard work to tackle the challenges and obstacles that can stand in the way of learning and progress. The responsibility we have to get it right, for the sake of our children and students, is awesome.

That’s the business of any good school, to work to create a culture of mutual respect, and an environment that is safe, caring and orderly. It is something we actively work towards at Hebrew Foundation School – we all want our students to feel safe and cared for, and learning and growing to their fullest potential.

That being said, I want to challenge us further, and I want us to aim higher, because we are after a higher goal. Like Yaakov’s dream, that’s to bring God into the school and into the live of our students. And the only way we do that is by realizing that all the different parts that make up a school, the students, the teachers, the parents, the administration and staff, and board and volunteers… all those parts, like the 12 stones, need to come together to support each other, respect each other, and elevate each other for the highest of purposes.

When we realize that we are on this journey together, when we surround and envelop our children with love and support, when we are b’achdut and living and learning in the spirit of ve’ahavta la’re’achah kamocha, then a school and a community become ONE, and God’s presence is palpable – the Torah and the universe it contains is entirely dependent on ahavat yisrael. And only then is everything and anything possible.

There is much more to say about this subject, which I’ll be sharing and discussing over the coming weeks and months.

Shabbat Shalom u’mevorach. Good Shabbos, good Shabbos!

Mar Abba, Head of School