One of my favorite High Holiday stories, from the author I.L. Peretz, is about a town that brags each year that its rabbi goes right up to heaven to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
A visitor to the town expresses skepticism about this possibility, and in order to prove the townspeople wrong, he hides in the rabbi’s house and follows him. What he discovers is on the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the rabbi wakes early and performs a series of mitzvot for an ailing, older woman living alone on the outskirts of town. The rabbi knows there is no chance for these mitzvot to be repaid, and he performs them without revealing his identity, so his reputation will not benefit from these actions either. He acts in a truly selfless manner in order to prepare himself for judgment on the High Holy Days. The skeptic returns to the town and when he next hears a townsperson brag about the rabbi going to heaven, he replies “If not higher.”
In one classroom at Columbus Jewish Day School, there is a special spot on the white board for student names with the heading “Kinder Than Necessary.” Many of us may experienced classroom management techniques as children that involved names going on the board to track poor behavior. Having your name on the board was negative and embarrassing. In this classroom, having your name on the board is an honor. It means you were observed doing something kind without being asked or told, without hope of a reward or recognition.
Over the past few weeks, I have challenged the students of CJDS to be “kinder than necessary.” In the ensuing weeks, I had the opportunity to watch older students teach younger students how to play a new game on the playground, to see kindergarteners help cheer each other up, to see children of all ages clean up after each other and their peers without being asked. In other words, the students have been able to step into the habit of being kind quickly and easily. My heart has never felt so full.
This time of year, we are asked to perform a Heshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of our soul. We are supposed to weigh our actions and look for ways to make changes in the year ahead. It can be difficult to reflect on our own behavior with clear eyes and an open heart. It can be difficult to apologize, to ask for forgiveness and to commit to doing better in the coming year.
When I learned the story of the rabbi in Peretz’s story, I thought such goodness was unattainable. In watching the students of CJDS, however, I have been inspired. We do not have to aim higher than heaven to make a difference, we can just try a little bit each day to be “kinder than necessary.”
Rachel Arcus-Goldberg is head of school at Columbus Jewish Day School.