Thursday, March 21, 2013

Looking Beyond Ourselves

The following appears as the Dean's Message in this week's MHA / FYOS Reporter

The dominant theme of seder night is undoubtedly the story of our exodus from Egypt.  Yet there are two additional motifs which play a strong supporting role in the days leading up to the seder and continue right through to the very end of this most unique night in the Jewish calendar.  They are related ideas both of which require that we look beyond our own proverbial four cubits to those who need and depend on us: the less fortunate in our community and the children in our own family. 

While providing for the disadvantaged is always a value in Jewish life, it takes on additional intensity thirty days before Pesach as communities begin their ma’ot chittim campaigns to ensure that everyone in the community has sufficient food for Pesach.  These efforts reach a crescendo at the outset of our seder when we publicly invite anyone who is hungry to join us at our table for the festive meal.

Engaging and educating our children follows a very similar pattern.  It is a foundational element of Jewish life at all times of the year, yet as Pesach approaches it takes on a fevered pitch: the littlest ones practice Mah Nishtanah and the songs of the seder; the older ones prepare to impress their guests with insights into the Hagaddah; everyone learns and relearns the myriad halachot and customs that guide our behavior over these eight days.  Then, when seder night arrives, all eyes turn toward the children.  Over and over again the author of the Haggadah and its commentators stress the importance of centering the night which tells of our past on those who will ultimately create our future.

These two themes – extending ourselves to the less fortunate and extending ourselves to our children – came together in the most extraordinary way for me last week.  In response to the newsletter message I wrote some weeks ago about David Reed, son of Mrs. Betty Reed, an anonymous alumnus of our school sent me these moving words.  I share them with you as we head into Pesach as evidence of what can happen when we heed the seder’s call to look beyond ourselves and see those who need our help, guidance, and love.

Good afternoon Rabbi Perl,

I hope this e-mail reaches you, and that it finds you well. I just came across the beautiful story you wrote in the newsletter, about receiving the check from David Reed, and I feel that I have to write you (as soon as I stop crying). 

I attended the Memphis Hebrew Academy decades ago, from kindergarten through eighth grade. I was definitely not a typical MHA student--my family was very poor and we were not Orthodox. My parents were in an awful marriage and home was a very scary place. My siblings and I were traumatized and quite neglected. We also lived in a very rough part of town, and endured quite a bit of after-school anti-semitism. Needless to say, I kind of stood out from the crowd, for all the wrong reasons. I was an awful student, just awful, and while many my teachers and classmates were very nice to me, unfortunately, quite a few were not. Still, I credit the school for allowing me to attend (I surely was given some sort of scholarship or aid), and for providing me with the only stability that I had at the time. It gave me a firmer foundation, and a glimpse of civility that didn't exist at home. I just don't think that anyone knew what to make of the messy, troubled little girl who showed up for class each weekday. I'm sure I was pretty hard to tolerate. 

But there was one teacher there who accepted me unconditionally, and that was Betty Reed. No matter how disheveled or exhausted I was, that lovely woman greeted me with a warm smile each weekday morning. Sometimes she even hugged me. Under her tutelage, I was reading at an eighth grade level in first grade (though I barely passed my other classes). She instilled in me a love for literature and writing that I carry to this day. In fact, I became a writer.

I still have a lacy, rather yellowed thank you card that she wrote to me back in 1966. Here is what it said: 

"...Thank you for the stationary. I love it because it’s so pretty, but most of all I love it because it came from my very special friend. I love you...– Betty Reed"

You cannot imagine what those words meant to me. Mrs. Reed made me feel valued when no one else did. There were other kind teachers who came along later, but in my nine years at the Memphis Hebrew Academy, she had the greatest impact on my life.

For years, I tried to find her, to thank her for all she'd done for me. So often people quietly change the lives of others for the better, never realizing the impact of what they've done. I wanted to tell her. It wasn't until I came across the story in your newsletter that I realized that she too was struggling at that time. It reminded me that life works in mysterious and beautiful ways. For over forty years, I've carried the memory of this wonderful woman in my heart, feeling grateful for the goodness she had bestowed on me when I was six years old. I never imagined that at the same time, one of her own children was carrying the same feelings for those who had employed her. The world is a wonderful place. 

I did an Internet search after reading your story, and I believe that Mrs. Reed has passed away. I don't know if you have a way of contacting her son, but if you do, I hope that you'll feel free to forward him this e-mail and/or my e-mail address. I'd like to tell him how remarkable his mother was, though I have a feeling he already knows. 

Thank you for sharing your experience, Rabbi Perl. You've made my whole week. 


A Former Student 

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