On Tuesday morning, I had the opportunity to visit an elementary school that, like Akiva, is going through the AdvancED accreditation process. My job was to serve on the accreditation team. After an hour of driving past highways, fields, cows, and horses, we arrived at the school. The school is a Title 1 school and over 70% of their student body is from low income households. It was very clear from the moment we came into the school that every single staff member cared about each of the 400 children in the school. The children were loved; they were nurtured and they were seen for who they were and where they were coming from. Breakfast and lunch were provided. As children entered the school, they were hugged and greeted by name. They knew that no matter what worries they might have in their lives, during their time at school, they would be cared for and their basic needs would be met.
This week we read parshat Shemot. In this parsha, we see Moshe leaving the Pharaoh’s palace. The text states,
וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא, בְּסִבְלֹתָם
And it was in those days that Moshe grew up and he went out to his brethren, and he saw in their suffering” (Vayar B’Sivlotam). Here we see Moshe as an Egyptian prince leaving the comforts of his palace seeing his slave “brothers” for the first time. And the text states, “vayaar b’sivlotam,” and he saw in their suffering. What does it mean to see? What does it mean to see in a person’s suffering? At Akiva this morning, the children thought about this very question and these were their answers:
“It means you don’t just see what they are doing, you see inside. You see if they are hungry or if they are sad or if they are hurt.” (5th grade student)
“It means you have empathy.” (4th grade student)
“It’s like you’re walking in their shoes.” (3rd grade student)
“You see what is in their heart.” (1st grade student)
As I entered my second classroom in Krisle elementary, I sat down and watched as a child welcomed a new student to class. She put her arm around him and said, “I hope you like it here” and she patiently explained what they were doing in the classroom that morning. This was not the only instance of kindness and thoughtfulness. It was all over the school. VaYaar B’Sivlotam. These children knew how to empathize with their peers and they did…again…and again. As I sat wondering what it was about this environment that allowed these children to not only feel safe but to constantly reach out to those around them, I began receiving multiple texts on my phone from different people at Akiva. “Call me.” “Call me when you can.” “Our school is being evacuated again.” My heart sunk. I quickly left the room, and I couldn’t help but think of this irony. In a room of 2nd graders, empathy and love and the ability to nurture is overwhelmingly felt. And 1 hour away, our faculty and some children are scared and overwhelmed and it is all because one person does not care about the meaning of “Vayaar BeSivlotam…” one individual who, for whatever reason, cannot see in someone else’s suffering.
Every day at Akiva we are committed to providing our children opportunities to understand what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes, and sometimes our children are better at this than we are. On Wednesday, Akiva’s faculty could “see”… they could see that some children would be OK in the fast paced action to get children out of the school and they could “see” that some children would need extra love. And that morning, at Krisle elementary, when the calls started coming in about what was happening at Akiva and I apologized to the instructional leader for being so flustered, with tears in her eyes, she said, “I am sorry about what your children and faculty are going through right now.” She could see…and she understood the pain I was feeling for our children and our faculty and the intense feeling of emptiness in being away during a time of need.
Two days after our children listened to parts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech and 49 years after his assassination, our children still live in a world where our universe engages in baseless hatred, where people cannot see in others’ suffering. This is why now, more than ever, it is our responsibility to help our children understand what it means to stand up for their beliefs and to stand in a way that does not impact their ability to truly hear and be heard. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer…Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.” As I reflect on the inauguration of the 45th president today, I know that it is our responsibility to teach our children to live peacefully in this world. We must compel them to “pray” with their legs to “see” with their hearts, as our ancestor, Moshe. did centuries ago.