The deep-seated values of the Torah and Halacha (Jewish law) teach us that how we spend our time, with whom we interact, and what we are exposed to are important aspects to enriching our Jewish lives. At Torah Day School, we teach these values day in and day out. They are further reinforced by our students’ families and community. These are some of the key ingredients that strengthen our commitment to Torah and our relationship with the Almighty. I will often encourage the students and staff to think about how they communicate with each other, as the language that we use communicates value for ourselves and the person to whom we are speaking. Many times it is not what was said that was so amazing or damaging, but rather how it was said that leaves the greatest impact. The boundaries that Orthodox Jews have taken on are often seen by others as “sheltering our children” and in some way limiting us. However, I see it as preserving that which is important to us and allowing us to solidify our values before they are challenged by society. To filter our children and ourselves from some of the nastiness that exists in social media and pop culture today not only keeps us more innocent, but it also helps us to maintain clarity about what is true and good in the world. Often, people get so caught up in fitting in that they give up on their own values in the process. If we want to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people, we need to be willing to preserve the qualities that make us different.
I had the privilege of teaching at the Seattle Jewish Community School for many years. The overarching theme of everything we as a faculty and staff hoped to instill in each child and family in our community was the Jewish value of derech eretz. This phrase is most commonly translated literally as “the way of the land,” or in lay terms, manners. Good manners. Treating each other with respect. The Jewish values of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests), and chesed (kindness) work in tandem with the value of derech eretz. What does it mean to include another child in your game at recess? What does it mean to speak respectfully to your friends, to a teacher, to your older or younger buddy? Every Friday, one student from each class was acknowledged for his or her derech eretz. These moments were highlights of our weekly Shabbat celebrations, and hearing these stories over the course of the year, about every child, reminded us how each of us has the capacity to show kindness and respect.
Now that I work at Hillel at the University of Washington, I have a new window into the world of young adults who encounter daily opportunities on campus to show derech eretz. Whether the conversation is a nuanced one about Israel, current politics, social justice, or life decisions, the choices we make with our words, with our tone of voice, and with our ability to listen with respect matter. I feel privileged to learn from these college students and young adults as they navigate a world filled with opportunities to experience, model, and shape a culture of derech eretz. As we move through this time of reflection around the High Holidays, may we all find helpful and meaningful ways to communicate with renewed derech eretz.