by Daniel R. Weiss
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, Tennessee.
Rabbi Akiva, a leading Talmudic rabbi, once taught a story about a fox. The fox was standing on the bank of a river and sees a fish swimming from side to side. The fox asks the fish what he is doing, to which the fish replies that he is trying to escape the nets of the fishermen. The fox tells the fish to jump up on dry land to be safe. The fish replies to the fox that it is better to live frightened in the water than to have certain death on dry land.
As we know, a tree without water will surly die, yet a tree with water will continue to grow. Human beings are often compared to trees. The Torah, like water serves as our nourishment for growth. Once we stop learning, we lose our water supply and we stop growing.
Rafi Letzter, a staff writer for Live Science writes that a person can go three days without water before they would die. The same is true of Torah. We should not go three days without hearing words of Torah. Through his parable, Rabbi Akiva was teaching that without Torah, we would have certain death (though his words came during the time of the Roman persecution, they can ring just as true today).
This coming week, Jews celebrate the holiday of Simchat Torah (literally, Happiness of the Torah), on which we complete our cycle of Torah reading and immediately begin our cycle of Torah readings again. Our goal is to show that our learning never ends. The day prior to Simchat Torah (and in Israel the same day as Simchat Torah) is Shemini Atzeret. During our morning services on Shemini Atzeret, we add a prayer for rain, though with the rain of the past week, one might think we added in the prayer already. The prayer signifies that the seasons of changed and that there is a dependency on water for our sustainability.
When we study Torah, we learn that most Chumashim (bibles) do not begin on page one. They begin on page two. This is because we never begin Torah study, we simply continue our Torah study. The Torah itself does not begin with the first letter of the Alef Bet (the Hebrew Alphabet), it begins with the second letter. The letter Bet has a special quality among Hebrew letters. It is open on the left side, signifying that all letters appear to come out of it, like a mouth. It is also important to note the importance of the last letter of the Torah, Lamed (which ends the word Yisrael). When we take the last letter and put it next to the first letter, we form the word Lev, heart.
This teaches us that it is important not only to study Torah, but to act upon it, to use our heart. We must do it out of love. The most central and most expensive part of the four species is the Etrog, which symbolizes the heart. We put our Etrog into beautiful boxes to keep it safe and protected.
Sukkot is a holiday where action must be taken. We move out of our homes and into temporary huts. We eat our meals in our Sukkah, to see, smell, touch, be a part of nature. We shake the four species as an example of using our heart, our eyes, our lips and our spine to do mitzvot. And we celebrate with our community, by inviting people into our Sukkah and going from one celebration to the next.
This week, our students traveled throughout our community to Beth Sholom, Or Chadash, Memphis Jewish Home and the JCC preschool, to meet with rabbis, seniors, young children and members of our Jewish community. Students sang, danced, laughed, ate, shook the lulav and the etrog, did art projects and impressed our community with what it means to be active, involved and kind. Our students showed their heart.
Each week I am more and more impressed with the level of students that we have at Bornblum. Not only am I impressed by each student’s academic progress and ability to share what they have learned in class with others, but I am impressed with the character values that each student possesses. This week, during our Sukkot celebrations, this level of menschlikeit extended well beyond the walls of our school.
Our children at Bornblum are our heart. They are the lifeblood of the school. We provide the water, the Torah. They provide the heart. What we are growing are students who see themselves as leaders in our community. It must be continuous. We are never starting from scratch, we are just turning the page for a deeper, more connected growth opportunity.