As a Head of School, I pay attention to the cultural climate in my school. Last week, the culture was full of silly fun: dress up, crazy hair, pajamas, and, of course, Purim (the Jewish holiday commemorating the story of the Book of Esther). This week, I found our students . . . well, out of sorts. I wrote in my weekly newsletter, Chailites:
With the onset of spring this week, our students are a little hot under the collar. Provocations are deemed injustices. Reactions look more like overreactions. Reconciliation comes grudgingly. That obsession with fairness, though, is what makes this time in their lives so powerful.
This week, I also reached my personal fundraising goal for St. Baldrick’s as a participant in 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave. Together, this group of rabbis has already surpassed two goals, raising over $450,000 collectively for pediatric cancer research, a woefully underfunded area of medical science. I thank those who made a donation to support my participation. Their generosity means that I need to act on my promise to shave my head; that need meant that I had to let my students know the shave was coming and why.
I found a way to bring school culture, the curriculum, and my shave together in a way that I believe speaks to the values of our school. Those squabbles became the point of comparison to real challenges and losses. The curriculum includes study of the weekly Torah portion; Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) outlines some laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary law) and poignantly recounts the strange death of two of the High Priest Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu.
I started my explanation to them by wearing my bright blue, curly-hair wig from crazy hair day last week. I mentioned that I noticed this week’s “spring fever.” Then, I donned my Albert Einstein wig to talk ask about their learning.
It is a striking lesson then that, in the face of true injustice, we find a key Jewish figure responding very differently. In this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, two of the High Priest Aaron’s sons—Nadav and Avihu—get killed instantly by a fire that breaks forth from the altar. While many commentaries seek to explain how the victims were at fault, Aaron’s reaction is unapologetic. Aaron does not fly off the handle; he does not lash out at others; he places no blame; he files no complaint; he is silent.
Aaron’s silence is not just the absence of making noise. The Hebrew word for Aaron’s silence Dohm is different from Sheket. Sheket is quiet, calm silence; dohm is still, inanimate silence. Aaron’s silence is the kind you can hear; it is the total absence of what should be there. In the face of the random death of own children, Aaron temporarily absents himself.
Each time we encounter something wrong in our world, we have a choice. We can complain, we can be silent, or we can try to do something.
. . . then I told them the big news . . .
I told them that in three weeks, I will be shaving my head. . . . I have my own reasons for having felt absented, like Aaron, by cancer; I have also “yelled” publically at God. To teach our students a different way to respond to injustices, I will actively show how we can become change agents; I certainly will not be able to hide my bald head.
The educational moment was there, so I seized it. I encouraged them to think about all the times they might whine or complain and all the times they shut down. I told them I that I don’t want them to shave their heads; I hope they never have cause to do so. Instead, I asked them to try to be present in our imperfect world and to try to fix it.
. . . [36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave] . . . refers to the Jewish idea that, at all times, 36 righteous individuals sustain our world. We cannot know who those people are, yet we can try to live up to their image. I believe that, as rabbis, this effort is about more than funding the fight against cancer, though; this effort is about taking productive action in a broken world.
If our mission is, in part, to “foster . . . dynamic leaders,” we must model it. As I contextualized it for them:
As we move from Purim’s story of Esther saving the Jews in Persia to Passover’s story of God’s redemption of the Israelites from slavery, we need to find our way to a better world.
I ended the conversation with the uplifting message of the Passover Exodus and the Passover seder’s concluding hope that we celebrate freedom “next year in Jerusalem” with a video showing today’s Jerusalem in the eyes of American high school students studying there. Indeed, our troubled world can be happy.
I know I am not done explaining. While most of the rabbis will shave on April 1st at the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention, I will be waiting for a local event, “Pasta & Pediatrics” at the Siegel JCC on April 13th. When I shave, it will be very close to Passover. Closer to that time, I will teach about the mourning customs of the Omer, the period of counting from the second night of Passover to Shavuot. For now, though, I am finding my way away from complaining, out of silence, to action.
I hope my students and you, too, will do the same in your own ways.