“Be A Mensch” Project


Proud of this project encouraging children to recognize admirable traits in their peers and take pride in their own strengths and virtues.

It Takes a Village to Raise a Mensch by Aviva Engel

Canadian Jewish News: Hebrew Academy Students Encouraged to “Be a Mensch”


The Sounds of Leadership

Be a MenschThis past month our Elementary School embarked on the “Be a Mensch” Project which aimed at recognizing carefully selected Middot Tovot (good character traits) in others.  What a wonderful sight it was to see students, faculty and staff literally wearing their good behaviour as badges of honour.  In Hebrew the word for clothing, madim, and for character traits, middot, are etymologically related.  The message: we wear our actions, good or bad, on our sleeves.

This week’s parsha is devoted almost exclusively to the bigdei kehunah (priestly garments) of the regular kohanim, who wore four garments and the Kohen Gadol, who wore eight.  Many commentators offer significant messages that are conveyed by the structure and form of the various items of clothing.  The ultimate purpose of these beautiful uniforms was “l’kavod u’l’tiferet” – for the honour and glory of the Ribbono Shel Olam (Shemot 28:2).

Bigdei_Kehuna(7)Among the special garments described in our parasha that were worn by the Kohen Gadol is the Me’il, the Robe – (Shemot 28:31-35). The Me’il was long enough to come down to the feet of the Kohen Gadol and along the bottom hem, it was decorated with a series of 72 pomegranates made of blue, purple and scarlet wool, and golden bells each with a ringer.  According to Rashi, the pomegranates and golden bells alternated all around the bottom of the Me’ilThese pomegranates and bells were both decorative and functional:

וְהָיָה עַל אַהֲרֹן לְשָׁרֵת וְנִשְׁמַע קוֹלוֹ בְּבֹאוֹ אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ לִפְנֵי ה’ וּבְצֵאתוֹ וְלֹא יָמוּת

“It must be on Aaron in order to minister, its sound shall be heard when he enters the Sanctuary before Hashem, and when he leaves, so that he not die.” (Shemot 28:35)

There are a many interpretations on the significance and purpose of the bells, as well as many lessons to be learned.  Some suggest their sounding being intended for the people’s ears (Rashbam, Chizkuni), some suggest they were intended for Hashem Himself and/or the angels (Ramban) and others describe the bells along with all the priestly vestments as serving as a Kapara (atonement) for different sins of the Jewish people including unintentional murderers (Yerushalmi), or for lashon hara (Kli Yakar).

But, what if the bells’ message was also intended for the Kohen Gadol himself?  What was the lesson learned for the spiritual leader of the Jewish people as he heard the sounding of the bells while entering and exiting the Sanctuary?

Perhaps a message was that in order to successfully lead, to be heard and to be followed, he had to understand that his role was to be servant first.  Only when he would act in the best interest of his people – “l’sharet” – then they would follow him – “V’nishma Kolo”.

In an essay called The Servant as Leader, first published in 1970, Robert K. Greenleaf coined the phrase “servant leadership”, which elaborates on this idea.  He writes:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”

Greenleaf continues: “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

According to Greenleaf, a servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Perhaps we can say that Moshe Rabbeinu models servant-leadership for his brother Aaron and all future leaders, by “recusing” himself from this week’s parasha altogether, which proves to be the only parasha since his birth that his name is not mentioned.  He steps aside temporarily into anonymity to bring out the autonomy and full service of Aaron.

The Me’il was an important reminder for the spiritual leader of the budding Jewish civilization in the desert, and an important lesson for community leaders, school leaders, classroom leaders, and parent leaders everywhere that to lead is to recognize the best in others and cultivating their talents first. Then, they will follow.

The False Prophet in Us

Swept away by election season drama, the airwaves, print, online and social media are abuzz feeding us the most recent scandal, misspeak, or blunder.  Rather than fueling a conversation on key issues and the candidates’ views on them, we are being bombarded with the character, behaviour and association flaws of candidates.

This is an old story, as old as politics and leadership itself.  While character analysis remains critical, attention to the message has taken a WAY back seat to attention on the messenger.

Why is this?  What does it say about our society?  And is there something to do about it?

We seem to be a generation of skeptics, a generation reluctant to trust, a generation that lacks loyalty.  Some will say this is unique to our generation caused by new realities.  In the age before free agency in sports, players spent their entire career with one team.  In the age before globalization, people moved around less.  In a time before social media, people took membership to community institutions and their commitments and friendships more seriously.

Or perhaps we can say that generations of hustlers, manipulators and swindlers have finally taken their toll on society and we are tired of being fooled.  The consequence? If integrity and honesty slapped us in the face, we would not be able to recognize it.

In this last week’s parasha we are given a stern warning of the so-called false prophet, a person who comes with the razzle and dazzle of miracles, wondrous feats and a silver tongue to lead the Jewish people to other gods. (Devarim 13:2-3)

The Torah recognizes the inevitability of spiritual sharks in our midst, accepts the reality that there are plenty of phonies out there, and really good ones at that. It also gives us counsel on how to recognize and be proactive in seeking authenticity.

First, the Torah tell us, we must use our built-in phony meters and simply not listen to them – לא תשמע אל דברי הנביא ההוא

What ARE we supposed to do?

– אַחֲרֵי ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם תֵּלֵכוּ, וְאֹתוֹ תִירָאוּ וְאֶת מִצְו‍ֹתָיו תִּשְׁמֹרוּ וּבְקֹלוֹ תִשְׁמָעוּ, וְאֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹדוּ וּבוֹ תִדְבָּקוּן.

“Hashem your God shall you follow and Him shall you fear; His commandments shall you observe and to his voice shall you hearken; Him shall you serve and to Him you shall cleave” (Devarim 13:5)

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the “Netziv”, understands the false prophet as an external spiritual attack on a community in crisis, to which the Torah offers counsel (Haamek Davar, Devarim 13:2-5).  I believe his formula for combating the attacker can also be applied and adapted to the internal false prophet as well.

In this verse, the Torah counsels us with five critical steps towards authenticity:

  1. “Hashem your God shall you follow and Him shall you fear” – Follow Hashem with full faith and confidence;
  2. “His commandments shall you observe” – Look carefully at our actions, and shore up our commitments to  Torah and Mitzvot;
  3. “and to his voice shall you hearken” – Make sure that there are trustworthy messengers of the voice God in our midst, namely teachers of Torah and spiritual guides;
  4. “Him shall you serve” – Those teachers and guides model the service of God;
  5. “and to Him you shall cleave” – Connect to them in order to connect to Hashem;

Today, Rosh Chodesh Elul, we begin a 50 day process asking Hashem every day for one and only one thing – אחת שאלתי,

– שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית ה’ כָּל יְמֵי חַיַּי לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם ה’ וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ

Return me to the house of the Lord all the days of my life to gaze at His sweetness and worship in His house. (Tehilim 27)

How do we get there?

We follow Hashem with faith and confidence, putting our best foot forward.  We take an honest accounting of our behaviour and actions, surrounding ourselves with and connecting to experienced guides, teachers and mentors who role model the behaviours we seek.  Ultimately, arriving at God’s home, the place of our most authentic self, a place of honesty and of integrity.  In Torah language – ישר.

Our parasha stresses a new reality in the service of Hashem upon entrance into the Land of Israel and the building of the Holy Temple, the physical location of authenticity in this world –

(לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנַחְנוּ עֹשִׂים פֹּה הַיּוֹם אִישׁ כָּל הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו (דברים יב:ח

When it comes to honesty and integrity in the Beit Hamikdash we are not to do as we please, as we see fit in OUR eyes.  Authenticity is not about the subjective self, rather it’s about striving for our objective self, as the Torah says:

– ‘כִּי תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי ה

That which is right in the eyes of HASHEM (Devarim 12:25)

There is a true self and there is a phony self and what we see with our own eyes may be false.  We must be cognizant that our eyes are susceptible to blinding in the search of truth.  We can be distracted by many magnetic things and by many compelling people.

So we must mute the false prophet within, and set a standards of – ישר.  We are charged to yearn for, inquire, strive, and seek out honesty and integrity.

And this is what the month of Elul is all about, this is what teshuva is all about, namely, the diligent search for honesty and truth in ourselves as we prepare to stand before HaMelech – the King of Kings on Rosh HaShana.

“To dare and to choose”, as Brene Brown – renowned American scholar and bestselling author says, “to show up and to be real, to dare and to choose to be honest and to let our true selves be seen.”

The tragedy of the teshuva process is that while introspection and taking that necessary personal accounting, we often blind ourselves by our faults and delude ourselves into thinking that our faults and missteps are who we really are.  Ultimately, we are filled with so much guilt that we give up on the teshuva process, thereby giving up on our true selves.

As Brown says: “Authenticity is a choice and a practice — having the courage to be vulnerable, and engaging with the world from a place of worthiness rather than a place of shame or ‘never enough’.”

HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, zt”l, whose 80th yahrzeit is commemorated this week, devoted himself to revealing the true light hidden in the Torah and Torah life.  HaRav Kook, zt”l, writes:

“When we forget the character of our core soul, when we are distracted from looking at the content of the inner life within ourselves, everything becomes confused and doubtful.  But teshuva, which is primary, which illumines darkness immediately, will cause a person to return to himself, to the root of his soul.   Immediately, he will return to God, to the Soul of all souls.” (Orot HaTeshuva 15:10)

Teshuva, is the process towards honesty and integrity with ourselves, our families, our community, our nation and our world from a place of worthiness, a return to who we truly are, and ultimately to God.

Yes, we are tired of phonies, so let’s be real.

Chodesh Tov and Shana Tova.