As I write this, there is so much uncertainty about the road ahead for our country. In particular, the seeming inability to find common ground and the lack of any shared measure of truth is deeply unsettling. While so much of this is wrapped up in the political processes of this moment, I am reminded that people in power are a reflection of the society that each of us, you and I, have built. It makes me more aware of what kind of society I am part of creating through my choices, my speech, thought and action.
Being a teacher, I cannot help but relate this thinking back to the classroom. As I do, the first thing that comes to my mind is the first day of school. On that day, many of us teachers begin by having the students talk about their hopes and dreams for the class. What are the big, bold, aspirational ideas that are pregnant in that first moment of creating a classroom community? From those notions, the students then discuss what the class has to look like in order to have a chance for those hopes and dreams to materialize, whether it is about what time people arrive, how we navigate disagreements, celebrate successes, pick ourselves up from failures or redirect ourselves when needed. I am always amazed at the deep wisdom that emerges from students in those moments as they develop their visions and the attending classroom protocols. In particular, it is their idealism and their realism about what it takes to strive for what matters to them most, that always leaves an impression. Throughout the year, when we inevitably veer from the path, we are always able to get back because of the guideposts we create on those first days. (For more on this method of starting school, which grows out the “Responsive Classroom” approach, see here).
Interestingly, this week’s Torah reading lays out what appear to be just such guideposts for Abraham and by extension, the Jewish people and again by extension, for society at large. What are they? Genesis 18:19 reads, “to keep the way of the Omnipresent by doing tzedakah u’mishpat (righteousness and justice).” I leave the original Hebrew in because their meaning isn’t in exact alignment with the connotation conjured by the English. To get to the root meanings of tzedakah and mishpat, we can look to the 19th C. Italian commentator, Samuel David Luzzatto. He writes clearly and simply that tzedakah (righteousness) means “to do good unto others” and mishpat (justice) denotes “not committing injustice toward any person”.
And so, I imagine our society as one large classroom. I think about its hopes and dreams where people live in line with the ideas that all “are created equal”, able to peaceably and cooperatively engage in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. I think about “good unto others” and “not committing injustice toward any person” as the guideposts to keep us on track toward those ideals. Finally, I again think about how more than any leader, it is you and I that have the ability to keep us on that track.
We can all reflect on the “classroom protocols” of our lives, whether they are our personal media habits, how we manage disagreements, how we build community, or time and energy we invest in working toward our ideals. We can ask ourselves “am I supporting the hopes and dreams of our ‘big classroom’ through my choices?”, “Am I actively doing good and preventing injustice to others?” We must then have that energetic enthusiasm of the first day of school to reinforce what we are getting right and redirect where we have derailed.
I realize that in some ways this is overly simplistic, but it seems that in this hour, we as a society have lost our hold of some of even the most simple things. The road ahead is uncertain, but how we walk down it together is entirely in our hands.