Much to my delight, the movie Spaceballs was showing on cable again the other night. And in typical Mel Brooks fashion, it puts the Jewish spin on just about everything. He famously took the Star Wars Force, the great power that defines the universe and can be controlled by those who have the gift of harnessing it, and turned it into the Schwartz. It made me wonder what if… what if we stopped saying Shabbat Shalom, and instead, started saying: “May the Schwartz be with you!”
Then at Rosh Hashanah, we could say, “May you be written in the book of Schwartz.”
Or at Chanukah, “Nes Gadol Hayah Schwartz.”
Why, the possibilities are endless!
You know, strangely, something poignant does come out of this silly comedy, and it is spoken by the bad guy, Dark Helmet (played by Rick Moranis). He has to explain why he is afraid to confront the “everlasting know-it-all” Yogurt. Colonel Sandurz asks him, “Don’t you have the Schwartz too?” And Dark Helmet has to explain, “He got the up side. I got the down side. See, there’s two sides to every Schwartz.”
And as we learn from Spaceballs and from the Star Wars saga, the Schwartz, like the Force may have two sides, but the power is in “how you handle it.” You can use good powers for bad, or bad powers for good. The utility of any weapon, power, or tool lies in the decisions of the one who possesses it.
The commentator Ibn Ezra points us to this idea by examining the use of one particular word in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo. He reads the section that talks about taking the first fruits of the land as an offering, and placing them in a basket (Deu 26:2). He laser beams in on the word basket. The Hebrew Tene, he says is an unusual choice, a rare appearance of this word. And so he points us to a later part of Deuteronomy (Deu 28:5 and 28:17) that uses the same word and wants us to take note of it. It says your basket shall be blessed and same with your kneading bowl. Ibn Ezra hates that these things are out of order. The kneading bowl should come before a bread basket. You can practically hear him saying, am I right folks? Am I right? Unless…. the basket is for holding the flour… Boom! Drop the mic.
So what we’ve got here is the same basket that could be for fruits, for bread, or for flour. It’s all about who’s using it and how.
We all have multipurpose baskets, we have our unique set of skills and the opportunities to influence others. Like the Schwartz those powers have an up side and a down side. And we have to wield them responsibly.
Patricia Buitrago (http://www.success.com/article/are-you-using-your-power-for-good-or-evil) was a 10th grader when her math teacher called her to his desk. In front of the rest of the class, he said, “Your grades are [terrible], you don’t understand math, and you shouldn’t even think about college.” She cried all the way to a lower level math classroom. From that moment on, the rest of her grades, formerly A’s began to plummet to C’s and below. This teenager who had aspiratations of becoming a teacher herself, in one brief moment, had her dreams dashed.
It is unlikely that the teacher had malicious intent, but he clearly failed to recognize the power of his position and the power of his words. There are innumerable better ways he could have handled this situation. He could have challenged himself to teach her differently. Or, even if Patrica genuinely needed to be in a different math class, he could have been more supportive and encouraging, even recognizing the rest of her skills, imbuing her with confidence to try harder and achieve.
By contrast, Jennifer Reed who left journalism to become an English teacher shares a very different story, where she exercises the upside of a teacher’s power. A student had been transferred to her class midyear and got a D on the quiz. Considering the difficulties her student experienced with changing classes, she allowed the student to re-take the quiz, and with a more time to prepare and the quieter setting, the grade went from a D to an A. Neither teacher nor student made a big fuss, yet. But then came a writing assessment. Again the student got a D. Reed took her student aside privately, and said, “You always listen in class and you try hard, you really should be an A student.”
What Reed did not know, was that this was a special needs student, and no one had ever said anything to her like, “You should be an A student.” Not even her own mother had dreamed such a thing. One little comment changed her world. It was a small exercise in wielding enormous power and influence. Two examples of the exact same power. With one swipe for the bad, it could destroy a world, as happened with Patricia Buitrago’s teacher. And with one glorious swish, it saved a world as happened for Jennifer Reed’s student.
This is not just about teachers. It is about anyone who leads or can influence another. Those who use the downsides of their powers, whether parents, team captains, managers, clergy, or just trusted friends, try to influence by force, coercion, insults, or even threats, but for the rest of us, those who commit ourselves to the upside, we influence by example, encouragement, honesty, and love.
The power is in all of our hands. Let us see how we handle it.
The High Holiday Season officially has officially begun with Selichot (service focused on penitential prayers). If we have not yet, let us use this Torah portion and the coming night to begin reflecting on how we use the tools at our disposal, for the light or the dark, the good or the bad.
In this coming new year, let us all pray, “May the Schwartz be with you. Always.”