How We Got to Where We Are
by Daniel R. Weiss
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, Tennessee.
I am often asked why I choose to work in a community Jewish Day School as opposed to working in a school attached to one of the movements of Judaism. I think that the answer is found in our calendar and in Jewish history.
This week, we conclude a period on the Jewish calendar known as the three weeks, by commemorating the solemn day of Tisha B’Av, on which we mourn for the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago. The destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile of the Jewish people is often blamed on sinat chinam, baseless hatred from one Jew to another Jew. In his book Torah Guidelines for Living Like a Mensch, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, illuminates a profound message that I believe speaks to how I live my life and why I choose to work in a community Jewish Day School.
Rabbi Greenberg explains that on the Shabbat immediately prior T’isha B’Av, the word “Eychah (how),” appears two different times, with a third occurrence on Tisha B’Av itself. The first occurrence is in the weekly Torah reading (D’varim 1:12), as Moses cries out due to a mood of hopelessness. He says, “How can I bear alone the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering.” In the Haftorah, the chapters read after the Torah reading, the prophet Isaiah too shows his outrage towards the Jewish people, by stating (1:21), “How has the faithful city become a harlot?” Finally, the third occurrence is read as the book of Lamentations, in Hebrew referred to as Eychah, written by the prophet Jeremiah, which opens with the words, “How has she become a widow, she that was great among the nations.”
Greenberg continues by asking, how do we confront our own personal exhaustion, moral decay and physical devastation. He suggests that the answer is in changing the vowels in the Hebrew word from Eycha, how, to become the word Ayeka, where are you?
I find myself new to Memphis. Our family has lived here for barely three weeks. It has already been a whirlwind. I have to stop and ask myself, “where am I”? and “how did I get here”? One of the things that drew us to Memphis, was the idea of community. We don’t have to look farther than current events in Israel and across the world to know that there is still sinat chinam today.
On Sukkot, we are told to take (and then wave or shake) the Four Species (palm branch, citron, willow and myrtle). If we are missing one of the four pieces, we have not completed the mitzvah correctly. The same is true each morning when we put on a tallit (prayer shawl). If one of the four corners is missing its tzitzit, or if they are tied incorrectly, we cannot fulfill the mitzvah correctly. The same is true of the four glasses of wine on Passover, the four sons or the four questions. If we are missing a piece, we are not complete.
It is not lost on me that the Hebrew word for peace, Shalom, has the same root (shin, lamed, mem) as the word Shalem, which means complete. We cannot truly be at peace, if a piece is missing.
That’s what we love about Memphis. What my family has seen thus far, what drew us to move here, was the appearance of cohesiveness in this community. I see it in the Memphis JCC Ahavat Chinam (Brotherly Love) Challenge. I experienced it this week when professional leadership of the different Jewish community organizations came to our school to meet me and show the power of community. I see it in the hallways of our school, even without the kids here over summer, knowing that at Bornblum, the entire community can come together, to learn to grow, to live as Jews. Our (collective) goal is to build a society of Mensches, good, ethical, morally upstanding individuals.
If we teach character, if we teach our students and those around us the value of Ayeka, where are you; we teach them how to lead the next generation. Rabbi Hillel teaches in Pirke Avot (Ethics of our Sages), “In a place where there are no humans, strive to be human.” Dr. Lawrence Layfer in an article in the Chicago Jewish News cites Dr. Richard Panush when explaining the words Rabbi Hillel, “I always interpreted this as an exhortation to character, decency, morality, high ethical standards, and menschlichkeit, professionalism in medical terms.”
Our job is to lead by example. Once we realize “where” we are, we can begin to address the “how” to lead and “how” to live. I am happy “where” I find myself. “How” will you help me lead?
Please read this email as a personal invitation to visit me at Bornblum, to share with me why you are a proud Memphian, and how we together can raise a society of mensches.