Robert Lichtman

The butterfly and the messiah

This essay honors Rabbi Meyer Fendel, Founding Dean of the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County; Rabbi A. Simcha Teitelbaum, z”l, Founding Dean of the Yeshiva High School of Queens (both of whom had a photograph of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook on their walls); and the hundreds of dedicated school leaders and gifted educators at the superb Jewish Day Schools in my community of Greater MetroWest, NJ.  These perspectives are mine.

The unbroken chain of Jewish tradition teaches that the Messiah (Mashiach) is a human being who does not arrive fully formed, but is born into, shaped by, and emerges from the Jewish community. In every generation there is a person who has the capacity to lead the world to peace as Mashiach. Right now, there is someone who may emerge in that role, if not as Mashiach then perhaps as parent, spouse, or sibling.

Any one of many Jewish educational experiences provides the potential for one of its learners to develop into the leader of our Jewish People, of Jewish renaissance and of global unity under God. In my imagination that person is likely a student in a Jewish Day School. I will explain why after this about a butterfly.

We delight in watching a butterfly flap its wings in New Jersey unaware that this motion is initiating subtle atmospheric events that may escalate exponentially and culminate with a devastating typhoon in India. That is how Chaos Theory illustrates the causative nature of “The Butterfly Effect.” These depictions always seem to begin with a peaceful, benign activity that spirals into a catastrophic consequence so remote that absent this theory one would never imagine that the two events are connected.

The distant, unforeseen outcomes of events is what occurred to me recently after some neighbors proclaimed never to be involved in traditional Jewish experiences ever again. They recalled events that scarred them: a teacher callously and publicly dismissing an honest and courageous question; or being called upon in class to translate a text that was clearly beyond their ability; or some other damaging incident that unfortunately some of us have heard of or even experienced – incidents that caring educators try so skillfully to avoid.  The power of one isolated event to evoke trauma so many decades later had me wonder about the cost of such events, not only to our neighbors who have turned away, but to the Jewish People, and perhaps to the world. I wondered how often throughout our history has the trajectory of that generation’s potential Mashiach been disrupted by such an act or comment? How often has redemption been deflected by an educator, with the best of intentions, in an unguarded moment?

Now I’ll tell you why I believe the seeds of redemption are blossoming in Jewish Day Schools and why the education offered there organically provides the principles that will be called upon by Mashiach.

Jewish Day Schools are where unconditional love of Israel – the land and the people, wherever they are – is celebrated. An Israel that is not only “defended,” but cherished.  An Israel that is not a haven from hatred, but is a magnet for people to use as a launching pad to live the lives that they imagine.

Jewish Day Schools are where the unconditional love of Jews – whomever they are, and however they practice – is offered.

Jewish Day Schools are where the fundamentals of Jewish scholarship are implanted. The scholarship that extends back to Sinai and projects to scenarios unimagined, including those that will demand sophisticated Jewish knowledge to adjudicate.

Jewish Day Schools enable a kinship of prayer where every person has a voice, and where those with frail voices are carried by the power of community.

Jewish Day Schools are where the Hebrew spoken by the Prophets is spoken still, upholding the ancient promise of justice and peace while preserving keen moral clarity to discern right from wrong, good from evil, in an upside-down world.

Jewish Day Schools are where the wisdom of the world is treasured and taught.  The wisdom that needs to be woven into Jewish teachings to be relevant in a diverse world that thirsts for transcendent meaning and has never been fully exposed to Torah in all its facets.

Jewish Day Schools are where students learn Torah and the sciences, and rather than rejecting or warping one to conform to the other, wrestle with the truths offered by each.

Jewish Day Schools welcome poetry, art, and music into their community, to understand and to enjoy Divinely inspired beauty that infuses the world.

Jewish Day Schools position learners to be a “light unto the nations,” who emerge from centuries of isolation to risk exposure in the world’s marketplace of ideas in competition for the hearts and minds of billions of people who are adrift in a sea of darkness.

Jewish Day Schools are where young women and men interact as peers and learn to honor and respect one another.

Jewish Day Schools are where teachers teach and learners learn about the unique custodianship entrusted to humankind in the Garden of Eden to tend the Earth.

Jewish Day Schools are where students learn from Judah and his brothers to proudly practice the principle of Areyvut – mutual Jewish responsibility and interdependence. It is where hearts hurt for the suffering of all people, as students learn from Jonah’s reluctance to act empathetically, to think and to act differently.

Jewish Day Schools produce people who see light sparkling through cracks in the darkness. They are imbued with the legacy of the Prophets to understand the perplexing present as prelude to a better future, like the mother who writes letters to her very young children to be delivered when they are older. She wrote this on October 8: Israel is at war today. I do not know how it will end and how events will unfold. But it is my hope that when you learn about these days in history class, your teacher will say, “This was the time when Mashiach arrived.”

We envision the day when God’s name will be one throughout the world, and rather than nations competing violently for dominance, peace will reign.  Subjugation by the sword is not the Jewish way. Signs and wonders, thunder and lightning – literal and rhetorical – are impressive, but even God learned that the impacts of those spectacles are short-lived.  To make a bold and indelible impression upon a world that has seen and heard it all, a diverse world that views life from the perspectives of many more than 70 faces, Mashiach will need the grounding and the imagination provided by a Jewish Day School as an educational foundation. A Jewish Day School where educators understand the enormously consequential expectations placed upon their profession and accept the awesome responsibility to be not only skillful in their practice but thoughtful and loving in every interaction.

I am not alone in viewing Jewish Day Schools as incubators of redemption. “Reish Lakish said in the name of Rabbi Yehuda Nesia: The world only exists because of the breath, i.e., reciting Torah, of schoolchildren.” (Shabbat 119b) The breath of Jewish Day School children whispering, sharing, and singing Torah in all its dazzling dimensions initiates a Butterfly Effect.  The events that emanate from the breath of living Torah will cascade to produce not a cataclysm, but paradise.

About the Author
Robert Lichtman lives in West Orange, NJ and draws upon his long tenure of professional leadership to teach and write about strategic issues and opportunities impacting the Jewish community, and other things. He writes his own bio in the third person.
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