Pure Light

Dear families,

It’s always a little disorienting when Chanukah does not fall during the days in December when school is in session.  This year, the first light of Chanukah is this coming Sunday night, when we are all on break, on staycations, road trips or away in sunnier climates.  While our students have been learning about Chanukah these past few weeks, we have not had the chance to celebrate together with the lighting of the candles as per usual.

So, in the Chanukah spirit, with school winding down, I’d like to share a Chanukah teaching, based on the following account in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b):

“When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all of the oils. After the Hasmoneans defeated them, they searched and found but one cruse of oil, untouched and sealed with the seal of the High Priest. The cruse had only enough oil for one day, but a miracle occurred and they were able to light from it for eight days. The following year they established these days as a holiday for praise and thanksgiving.”

There is so much to unpack in this deceptively simple holiday.  Chanukah, with its dueling narratives and critical debates about the nature of what the miracle was, the clash of cultures of Hellenism and Judaism, and the contrast of its outsized popularity in modern Jewish culture with the relative obscurity of its origin story and the minor holiday status accorded it by the rabbis – the holiday is actually representative of so many aspects of who we are as a people, and who we are as individuals.

Like Chanukah, what story do we tell?  What do we emphasize?  What do we diminish?  What parts are we proud to share with the world, and what parts need to stay close to our chest?  When we teach about Chanukah or share the best wisdom of Judaism with our children, what do we need to focus on?  If we share too much, all at once, it only gets more confusing.  If we share too little, then we risk a watered-down understanding of themes that are immensely powerful and potentially life-shaping.

So what do we do?  Where do we start?

I think the beginnings of an answer lie in the above Talmudic story, and it is a distillation of a major teaching about Judaism.  The Talmud emphasizes the significance of the small jar of oil in the rescue of the Jewish people – not the larger military victory or any of the other facets of the Chanukah story.  The sealed jar of pure oil is a metaphor for that little bit of pure and complete faith that resides in the depths of the Jewish soul.  It’s the piece of us that no one can take away from us, which nothing can defile or destroy.  We’re all a little bit like the Beit Hamikdash, in the state it was recaptured in by the Hasmoneans – we’re all a bit broken and we’re all somewhat damaged, each in our own and unique ways.  But we have to search for that part of us that is pure, that is capable of being a light and giving light to others.  And then we can start again, and build again.

I think of this when I think of our students; they are so young and they are for the most part blissfully unaware of the challenges that may lie ahead.  And so for them, finding that “one cruse of oil, untouched and sealed with the seal of the High Priest” is something that comes naturally and intrinsically – their light is pure and clear and warm and beams from their smiling faces.  The harder challenge is for us to find that cruse of oil in other people, the adults, and most of all, in ourselves, with all of our broken pieces and idols strewn everywhere.

But search we must, because it is the only way to be in this world.  Everyone has value, hiding as it may be behind so much that is unclean and compromised.  Everyone has a spark of the Divine.  And it is something we share, and can use to light the way forward.

Have a wonderful vacation and Chag Sameach!

Mar Abba
Head of School

Yaakov’s dream, unity and academic success

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