People of One Heart, One Mind, on a March
This past week's Parasha-Yitro-describes the awesome experience of our biblical ancestors standing at the foot of Mount Sinai.
However, the Torah is careful to point out that this experience does not happen without preparation, leadership, focus and follow-up.
As I was organizing this dvar torah, I realized these four elements are key components of the March of the Living.
And while the March is not exactly the same experience as Mt. Sinai (of course!), they are analogous in many ways, because each is a life-changing, transformative moment in the life of the people undergoing them. So let's take a look at each of these experiences.
The Torah recognizes that impactful moments in life sometimes happen suddenly with no warning-like an encounter with a burning bush (see Moshe/Moses) or with a nameless individual on a journey (see Yosef/Joseph).
But impactful moments also happen because the people going through them have had time and opportunity to prepare for the experience.
At Mt. Sinai the people were told to abstain from sexual relations for 3 days & wash their clothes. Symbolically this might mean, they were asked to turn inwards, to reflect alone without a partner on what was to come, and then externally to renew themselves with an outward, physical sign of clean clothing.
On the March, we also want our teens to have the benefit of preparation before this very powerful and very spiritually/ physically/ emotionally taxing experience. That's what the educational experiences are- to start the reflection, the processing in advance of Poland and Israel, to turn inwards.
But also we have as a clear goal that the teens should bond with each other and become more of a "family" through their bus groups.
As the medieval commentator Rashi notes, Israel (meaning the people), camped near Mt. Sinai and the Torah uses a singular verb form for the word "camped" (Shemot/Exodus 19:2) -why? Because the people were like one person --"be'lev echad" with one heart, one mind-- whereas before that, their other encampments were made in a spirit of dissension and disagreement.
A clear goal of the March is that despite all our differences of language, culture, geography and religious expressions, we Jews are one people with one common destiny. The march is practice for getting beyond our differences and perceiving the "lev echad"-- the unity-- that underlies the ostensible diversity.
The second component after preparation is leadership.
The Kadosh Baruch Hu explicitly says to Moshe/Moses:
"I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after." (Shemot/Exodus 19:9)
On the March, we are asking our teens to listen carefully to our survivors as well as to our adult staff. We want our teens to absorb the messages we are delivering- not only the explicit testimonies & educational messages, but also the opportunities that arise as teachable moments and unscripted conversations in the back of the bus.
Please let's all remember that no one is educated by listening to one's own opinions, even if they are coming through the mouth of another person.
Human beings grow when they have to wrestle with and process perspectives and experiences they have never considered or experienced before and then test those against their own values, identity and education. Growth comes from challenges, overcoming difficulties, & encountering diversity.
The third component after preparation and leadership is focus.
At Mt. Sinai, the people experience thunder, lightning, a dense cloud descending on the mountain, a loud blast of noise like a shofar. There is smoke and fire and the whole mountain shook with the blare of the shofar getting louder & louder.
Clearly, the people are part of a multi-sensory experience that is overwhelming everything else. Why? I believe it is so that they will be entirely "in the moment" as we say today. So their entire focus is on the moment of revelation. And only then does Moshe/Moses lead the people toward G!D, taking their place closer to the foot of the mountain.
This is why Rashi comments: the term in Hebrew 'likrat' is used when 2 people are approaching one another, and this tells us that the Shechina, G!D's immanent presence, was going forth to greet the people just as they were approaching towards the Divine.
Only when there is focus, mindfulness, & presence can something profound take place. That's why we ask your teens to put away their phones, to not be so in touch with "back home," to turn to one another without devices in between in order to have profound conversations, time to think and process, time to wonder and just be in the moment.
Finally, after preparation, leadership, and focus, there is follow-up.
At Mount Sinai, the follow-up to the thunder and lightning was Aseret HaDibrot/ what in English we call the Ten Commandments. In effect, the experience of Sinai- the awe, the fireworks, the spectacle and the resulting emotions-- this is not enough. We humans need ways to live this experience in our everyday lives so the Torah shows us some ways to do that-#1-#10 and then the entire parsha of this week, namely Mishpatim, laws and practices that concretize the intangible ideas and emotions experienced at Sinai.
As wonderful as the March is, it isn't a magic bullet. In order to help our teens connect to the wider Jewish community, we want to know what school they plan to attend so we can make sure the Hillel house can be in touch with them.
But also we want to be in touch with parents to find out how this experience affected them, not just in the short-term but in the long-term.
Michele Burger, our former March chair, told me her son volunteered to organize Yom HaShoah through Hillel at his university and that this is no doubt, a result of his previous March of the Living experience.
Please be watching for these kind of outcomes. We will be asking you in the coming years-what are their Jewish connections? What are they doing vis a vis the messages of the Shoah & memorializing the holocaust as well as with Israel?
We will be sending articles, testimonials, current events and so forth to the March participants so they continue to stay connected to the March experience and to each other. We would love to plan a reunion, if possible during one of the breaks from school.
As the Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig once wrote:
"It was at Sinai that the people began the process of searching out what G!D wanted of them. From that moment on, the Jewish people has been engaged in a covenant, a partnership with G!D."
It is my prayer that the March helps your teen further search out what G!D wants of them. What our mutual history demands of them. And that they respond to the challenge we adults but particularly the survivors throw in front of them: What role will you play in the evolving story of the Jewish people?
Todah Rabbah/thank you very much for entrusting your children to us on this momentous journey.