What’s in a Name?

I hope you will be inspired by my remarks from the moving dedication ceremony held this past Sunday.

On this beautiful late summer morning, I stand before you overflowing with pride and excitement. There is a buzz in the air that is coming not just from the bees and birds who are chirping, but from the energy and passion that has brought us to this moment. Shortly, we will sing shehechiyanu, a blessing which helps us to pause and appreciate a special moment.  This morning it is to recognize all the people and the milestones that have come before – milestones like breaking ground on this building, the burning of the mortgage – and the first gala featuring Peter, Paul, and Mary. To recognize…

  • the generations of parents and students who have passed through these doors
  • the devoted staff and faculty who have taught here over the years
  • the dedicated board members and administrators who have steered the school AND
  • the longstanding community partners, visionaries and friends who have been supported us, guided us and inspired us.

It warms my heart to see so many people from different generations and constituencies here this morning. This school has meant so much to so many. On Wednesday night, we had a group of alumni from a wide range of classes, who blessed our school by putting up new mezzuzzot on classroom doorways – ceremoniously linking the generations – l’dor vador- of the past to the students of today and those in the future.

On Tuesday, September 5th, 2017,  we will proudly open the doors for our 62nd year. At 62 we are a middle-aged day school. For some, middle-age describes a period of crisis. However,  a friend of mine who just celebrated what she called a “big birthday” said it’s not a time of crisis, rather a time for midlife questions: What’s next? What’s my purpose? What’s my contribution?

My legacy?

With courage, questions can be catalysts for change that bring opportunity and creativity.  At 62, we are excited about what’s next. We have a vision for the future that is outlined in our new strategic plan. Our purpose is clear: we provide the finest secular education grounded in Jewish values. We see our students’ contributions and legacy through our alumni. Our graduates think beyond themselves and live this value into their adult lives. So many lifelong friendships of students, parents, and teachers have been forged from time spent at our school.

With Arthur’s extraordinary lead gift in our Nitzan campaign, we are securing our future. Nitzan in Hebrew means bud, and we are excited about another new beginning. We are incredibly fortunate to have Arthur share his name with our school. In Pirkei Avot chapter 4 verse 13, we learn from Rabbi Shimeon:

. רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, שְׁלשָׁה כְתָרִים הֵם, כֶּתֶר תּוֹרָה וְכֶתֶר כְּהֻנָּה וְכֶתֶר מַלְכוּת, וְכֶתֶר שֵׁם טוֹב עוֹלֶה עַל גַּבֵּיהֶן:

Rabbi Shimeon says: There are three crowns. The crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship. But the crown of a good name exceeds them.

What does this verse tell us? We know that a crown is a symbol of preeminence where the bearer identifies with the mission. Kingship and priesthood are honors – and one attains them by birth and without any reference to character. Even the crown of Torah, could conceivably be acquired by a student who is learned, but not living a life of virtue. 

But the crown of a good name, shem tov, personal character, supersedes any other acquired dignity. Shem tov is the tribute paid to a person’s integrity. Ultimately, the only thing a person leaves behind is his/her name – how much did s/he help others and make a difference in life?  It is what brings shem tov – a good name.  This is the Epstein name.

The Maharal of Prague, a 16th century rabbi and Talmudist commented on this verse. He said that shem tov is not counted as a separate crown because it includes the other three, and symbolizes the composite whole. He taught that human beings are made up of three parts: the physical body, the emotions or soul, and the intellect. For a person to achieve shem tov, s/he must elevate and unite all three dimensions. Arthur J. Epstein is such a person.

The Talmud also tells the well known story of an older man who plants a carob tree that will not bear fruit for seventy years. The man says he has been able to enjoy a fruitful world because his ancestors planted it for him, so he goes about planting a tree that will not yield fruit for at least 70 years as an obligation to his children. Arthur has set this example for all of us. His children didn’t attend our school, his grandchildren live too far away to consider Epstein Hillel, and yet with his longstanding and ardent support, he has planted the seeds for generations to come. Students will learn what it means to have shem tov, and at the same time will have an outstanding secular education that provides opportunities and lessons to build character and make a difference.  May we all aspire to to be like Arthur and earn the crown of shem tov through our words and actions today and in the future.

I invite you to be a part of the school’s historic milestone by making a donation in honor of the newly dedicated Arthur J. Epstein Hillel School.

Shabbat Shalom,