When I was accepted as a Wexner/Davidson Fellow as part of my doctoral work in 2009, a friend of mine, who had just finished her time in the Fellowship said to me, “The Wexner experience is going to change your life!”. The truth is that I didn’t believe her – but she turned out to be entirely correct! This past week the Davidson scholars, which are the Wexner Fellows that went into education, gathered in Detroit, invited by both the Wexner and Davidson Foundations. It was, as Wexner always is for me, wonderful to gather with intelligent, thoughtful, caring, mission-minded folks, all trying to improve our Jewish community. I was invited to share a dvar Torah, which is shared below. It will, I hope, give a small insight into why I value the Wexner community so much, and some thoughts on leadership and the parsha at the same time.
Here it is:
Hi Everyone. My name is, well, my name is spelled R.A.F.I. Cashman. You can say the name in your head, but please not out loud. When I was born my parents named me Rafael, but after 3 weeks of coming home from work saying, Hi Rafael, they got annoyed by how many syllables there were, and so shortened it to the name I have now. Which is Rafi, by the way. Now that’s not what all of you said in your head. Some said Rawfi, some Ruffy, and maybe a few Canadians or mid-Westerners said Rafi, which is my name. Not too nasal, to be clear, if you’re from Detroit. No offence intended to our Davidson hosts. But to be clear, I don’t care what you call me. My wife, after all, is from NY and calls me Rawfi, and I’ve never corrected her. This was a bit embarrassing when, after about a year of marriage, we were at a meal with my parents and brothers, and she called me Rawfi, and they all said, Why are you calling him that? That’s not his name! And she was upset because I’d never told her otherwise. She still calls me Rawfi. So if you can say my name, great. And if we already know each other, please don’t try to change it. I won’t notice either way.
In his book “Who is Man?”, Heschel talks about names. He says, “It would be unfortunate for a person to live without a conventional name; it is disastrous for a person to live without inner identity.” (p.51) At a simple level I think this is true, if we see names as no more than a way to identify ourselves. Rafi vs. Rawfi (or any other name I might take for myself). But I think there is something deeper here that Heschel overlooks. I’d like to think this through with some help from the story of Migal Bavel in this week’s parsha.
It’s an amazingly compact story about a community’s attempt to rebel against Heaven. One of the things I’ve always found fascinating about the story is that their stated purpose is the phrase, ve’na’aseh lanu shem, let us make a name for ourselves. And yet none of the people are named. It’s as if God’s punishment was to prevent them from having the thing they wanted most – names!
But there’s something deeper here. Yeshayahu Lebovitz explains the lack of names as reflecting a totalitarian impulse, the extreme dominance of the community at the expense of the individual. Because of this, he says, their punishment was dispersion – as an antidote to their excessive group adherence. It also explains why the people have no names – because no one is valued as an individual.
We are all too familiar, post Holocuast, with the way in which the loss of names, or rather, the removal of names and their substitution with numbers, reflected a loss of humanity.
Names, in this reading, are much more than signifiers. Not in every case, for sure, but at a high level, they give us our individuality, our humanity.
In our capacity as leaders, knowing the names of the people who work for us, matters a great deal. It may feel like a small thing on our end, but not just knowing someone’s name, but using it, matters a great deal. It’s one way, a basic way, in which people feel noticed, that they matter.
Now, even if important, and a good reminder, I’m not sure anything I’ve just said will be particularly new or surprising for the people here. It reflects the values I think we all share – the value of individuals, of their unique humanity.
So I was thinking about all this on Rosh Hashana night, where there’s a minhag to learn the mishnayot of Masechet Rosh Hashana, the tractate of Rosh Hashana. And it tells the following story. Rabban Gamliel, who is the head of the community, and Rabbi Yehoshua, have had an argument about whether witness to the new moon could be accepted or not, for that year’s month of Tishrei. The result of this disagreement is that each pegs a different date for Yom Kippur – no small difference! Rabban Gamliel, the communal leader wants to bring Rabbi Yehoshua in line and demands that he show up on his, Rabbi Yehoshua’s, Yom Kippur with his staff and wallet, demonstrating that he does not think it is really Yom Kippur. Rabbi Yehoshua is in a huge bind, and goes to his Rabbi friends for advice. One of them is Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas, who says the following: You must go, because even if you think you’re right and he’s wrong, he represents the court. And if we start to question the legitimacy of the court now, we’ll have to question the legitimacy of every court from the time of Moshe until now. He then goes on to quote a passuk detailing the members of Moshe’s court: Moshe, Aharon, Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu, and the ‘the Elders of Israel’. Why, Rabbi Dosa asks, were the elders’ names not listed? It is, he says, and this is the key idea, to teach us that every time 3 judges come together on a Jewish court, they are like the beit din of Moshe.
There’s a lot to discuss here, including the beautiful end of this story that I have not shared, but what struck me was the way in which namelessness functioned so differently than in the Migdal Bavel story. Rather than remove dignity, it added it! It recognized that what was important in this context weren’t the names, weren’t the individuals, but the roles that they played. In contrast to the lesson I’ve always taken from Migdal Bavel, this story is saying that there are times when, in fact, names don’t add but subtract, when individuality gets in the way.
Which got me thinking about my role as a Head of School. It’s bothered me for some time that I cannot bring my full self to work, because I am always, for everyone, at some level at least, a role. These are the coloured glasses through which I’m seen, even by those who I know best and know me best. It’s certainly true that the role is shaped by my personality and presence, but I am seen through the role nonetheless. This awareness has been made acutely to me in those moments when I think I can be me, but others read me through my role, with very different outcomes. It was very clear to me this past summer when I was a mentor in the Day School Leadership Training Institute, run through the Davidson school at JTS, where for the first time in a long time I got to be me. I was not my role – just myself. It was incredibly liberating, to be honest. Yes, I love my work and take the responsibility of leadership, but I also felt challenged this downside of not being me, always being seen through the lens of my role. But when I read this mishna, it changed my perspective. The role is, despite its challenges, a gift, and one in which I have to mute my ‘self’, my name (though without leaving me nameless). It allows dignity to lie in the role, in the service of leadership to my community, even if it means I take a small step into the background. I found this idea a solace, a salve for what I thought I’d lost, but had merely not seen through the proper lens.
To close I want to circle back to the first notion of names. My daughter shared a dvar Torah at the Shabbat table a few weeks ago. She said that one of the halachot in writing a Torah is that every letter has to be entirely separate from the others, but close enough to make words and sentences. Moreover, if there’s even one incomplete letter, the entire sefer Torah is pasul. This is, she said, how Jewish communities should be. Each person, as the famous midrash says, is represented by a letter in the Torah. We are each our own individual letters, but must be and see ourselves as part of a series of larger and larger communities. And if any of us are missing, we are all together incomplete. For me, the Wexner community has always been a place of incredible community, in, and perhaps because of its diversity. That, for me, is what it means to be part of the Wexner community. Thank you to the Wexner and Davidson Foundations for making this kind of exceptional community possible.