by Daniel R. Weiss
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, Tennessee.
As kids we are told, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It’s a lie. Bones can heal. Words stay with someone. They have constant reminders which continue to cause pain and suffering. Words kill. Slowly. Painfully.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
While there are many forms of mental health and mental illness, for me, this month is a stark reminder of the illness that is depression.
This week’s Torah portion is called Emor (say). There is power in speech, both written and spoken. What we say and what we write can never fully be erased. We teach our students the importance of digital citizenship and cyber-bulling to help them avoid making mistakes that will negatively impact others. It is a part of our curriculum and something that we ask parents to reinforce at home.
We are also aware that some of our students struggle with anxiety and depression. Dena C. DeJulius and Lisa H. McLean write in this month’s Educational Leadership Magazine, “The World Health Organization (2018) stresses that ‘Adolescence is a crucial period for developing and maintaining social and emotional habits important for mental well-being.’” Our job as educators is not only for the academic success of our students, but also their social and emotional well-being.
Terezia Farkas, a Depression survivor, author and columnist, writes in a Huffington Post article, “Anger is a big part of depression. I know because I’ve been through it. Anger is potent — you can feel it all over your body. Anger is an emotional reaction to pain or to a hopeless and frustrating situation. As such, anger is a motivator. But anger also cycles rage and defeat. In depression, anger turns its energies inward.”
When a situation arises that angers us, depression often follows. They go hand in hand with each other. Lashon Hara (evil speech) is both a contributing factor and an end result. Our fourth grade students this week learned an allegorical story of a father with a tube of toothpaste. The father tells his child to squeeze the entire tube of toothpaste onto the counter and then to gather every last drop and put it back into the tube. The child of course responds by saying that it is impossible to get all the toothpaste back inside. The father explains that the same is true of Lashon Hara. Once it is out there, it can never be completely taken back. A student in the class shared that they had heard the same story with a feather pillow, where the feathers scatter and the child is told to bring them back together.
There is a lot of toothpaste on our counter; too many feathers in the air. We can spend the rest of our lives trying to gather feathers, trying to clean up the mess that we have made, or we can resolve to stop spreading gossip, slander and negative speech. We can resolve to think about what we say, how we act and the impact that it has on others.
On the bookshelf at my home are two of my most prized possessions, gifts that were given to me by the mother and grandmother of a former student. They happened also to be the sister and mother of my childhood friend. One is a Tanakh (Bible). The Tanakh belonged to my friend. It was one that he received when we were in high school, the one from which he drew his connection to Judaism and love of Israel. The Tanakh represents the written word. Each time I look at the week’s Torah portion, I am reminded of the power of the written word and the lasting impact that words can have. The other gift is a money clip with a pocket watch, engraved with my friend’s initials. It was something he always wanted. Something his mother gave to him. She passed it along to me. It is a reminder to me that we must hold time dear to our hearts. Just like I hold the memory of my friend close to my heart. It is more valuable than possessions, more valuable than money.
I’ll never truly understand the illness of depression, and why it claims people like my childhood friend the way that it does. I’ll never truly understand the power of speech or lack thereof. I’ll never understand if it is what people say, or if it is what they do not say. What I do know is that it is our responsibility as a school, as a community, to teach, to listen and to love.
Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa used to carry two slips of paper, one in each of his pockets. One slip of paper contained the words Bishvili nivra ha-olam—“for my sake the world was created.” On the other slip of paper, the words V’anokhi afar v’efer”—“I am but dust and ashes.”
The Tanakh and pocket watch are my slips of paper. The trick is, knowing which to look to when.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,