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Monday, November 15, 2010

Vayeitze: There is a God!

It was a difficult September for our local community. The school year started off with a brawl that sent two kids to the hospital, and when the principal tried to investigate the matter to determine whether consequences should be levied, he was met with silence. No one was willing to take responsibility for participating in the fight, or even to admit having knowledge about the participants. Even adults in the community were silent, causing the local media to denounce the parent body as lacking in integrity.

The principal was frustrated; the teachers and coaches felt powerless; parents felt attacked and defensive; and the students were demoralized, viewing the prospect of another summer ten months away as the only bright spot in an otherwise cheerless year.

 And then, an amazing thing happened.

The soccer team began to win.

And win.


Game after game, through divisionals, sectionals, and regionals, the teammates played their hearts out. Gradually the stands started to fill with spectators cheering the team on. By the time the state championship rounds started, the school was transporting busloads of enthusiastic kids, who were happy to travel more than an hour to each game, because they were proud of their team, proud of their school, and glad to be part of the moment.

I asked my sixth-grade students: So what did I say to myself as all this excitement was building?

And because they had been prepped, they sang out the answer: God was in this place and I did not know it!

It's a famous line in the portion Vayeitze, and arguably one of the most joyous of moments in the whole Torah. Jacob, having tricked his father and stolen his brother's blessing,  has fled from home to escape his brother's wrath, and is wandering in the desert at night with nothing but a stone to use as a pillow. But once he falls asleep, he dreams of a unique and marvelous ladder that stretches from earth up to heaven, with angels traveling upwards and downwards. He awakes with the revelation that God was right there with him, even though he hadn't known it.

I asked my students whether they had ever experienced a similar realization, and as expected, many kids recounted stories of sports teams that unexpectedly had winning seasons. But then one particularly insightful student spoke up.

"What are you saying -- that you really think God made your team win?" she asked. "Are you really saying that a miracle happened when your team won?"

It's a great question, given that we invoke God's presence all the time when something that could have gone wrong, goes right. "Thank God!" we sigh when a toddler who appears to be missing shows up around a corner. "There is a God!" we exclaim when a perennial cheater or scammer finally gets caught.

One girl in my class said she felt like saying "God is in this place and I didn't know it," one morning at school when she couldn't find her English homework and then discovered it hidden beneath a seam in her book bag. Another girl, a competitive figure skater, talked about going through a practice where she couldn't land any of her jumps, and then skating perfectly a short while later during the actual competition. She described feeling confused and unsettled during the practice because her difficulties didn't make sense -- and then feeling relieved when she ultimately performed the way she knew she could.

Ultimately we came to the conclusion that when we say, "God was in this place..." it's because we're feeling that the universe somehow makes sense, and that our actions are bringing on expected results and consequences. We feel safe and at home in our skin and in the world. Things feel right.

When I dismissed the kids later that morning, I felt good. I had prepared a good lesson, and all my students had been engaged and involved. There hadn't been any unexpected surprises. The morning went the way it was supposed to.

I smiled as I turned off the lights and left the classroom, thinking, "God is in this place, and I didn't know it."

Monday, November 8, 2010

Tol'dot: Did You Squirm?

When I was in tenth grade, I tried out for a lead part in a school play. I was a veteran member of the drama club and thought I had things pretty much sewn up. But my director ended up casting me in a small, walk-on role. To my dismay, she gave the lead to an enthusiastic but inexperienced soccer player who had decided on a whim to audition.

Looking back, I think the director believed the girl might bring freshness to the production -- but it was a gamble that didn't pay off. The soccer player was stiff and awkward on stage, couldn't project her voice,and had trouble memorizing her lines. All the other cast members thought she was ruining the production, and as opening night neared, even the director seemed frazzled.

So one day when the girl had to miss a rehearsal, the director asked me to fill in -- and that's when my friends hatched their plot. As I made all my cues and delivered the lines flawlessly, they urged the director to give the soccer player the boot and keep me in the lead for good.

It's a memory that haunts me at this time of year, when the portion Tol'dot rolls around. Tol'dot contains the famous story of Jacob, who disguises himself as his older brother, Esau, to trick their father and capture the blessing to which Esau was entitled.

Who in this portion is most to blame? Is it Jacob, who tricks his dad and steals his brother's blessing? Esau, who is careless with the privileges he automatically inherits thanks to his status as first-born son? Rebecca, who favors one son over another and devises the dastardly deception? Or Isaac, who, though he clearly suspects that something amiss,  doesn't bother to investigate?

I don't want my sixth-graders merely to talk about this portion; I want them feel uncomfortable with it. I want them to squirm. Because I think when you get right down to it, we all play the roles of Jacob, Esau, Rebecca, and Isaac at one point or another. And I think that recognizing the complexities we bring to our interactions with others is a key step in learning how to make mature decisions.

So I tell my students about my drama production, and I help them find corresponding characters in the Jacob story and my story. Typically we all agree that there was something at least slightly justified in what my friends (aka Rebecca) did by trying to win me the coveted lead role. The director (God) had made a casting mistake, and the soccer player (Esau) was unable to handle the role she was assigned. The rest of the cast (Isaac) would have been happy to turn a blind eye, so to speak, if I (Jacob) assumed the lead.

Then I ask my students to think about a time when they were in a Jacob-like predicament.  It's not hard for them to do this. Middle-school assignments often involve group work, and the group leader -- who is typically chosen by chance, when the teacher pulls his or her name out of a hat -- often seems unfit for leadership.

I ask my students: Is it best to rally behind a more suitable leader? Does a grade of "A" for the entire group justify deposing the original leader? Or should the members let the chosen leader plod on, even if that means that the whole group must settle for a "C" or worse?

In my situation, the director kept the soccer player in the role, and while the production was pretty terrible, we all got through and moved on. In retrospect, I think the director made the right decision.

But what if there had been an admissions officer from Juilliard in the audience, and what if one of the other leads had been up for a full scholarship, and what if the soccer player's performance had ruined the show to such an extent that the other lead lost out on the scholarship? Would the director's decision still have looked good if this had been the result?

So I lead my sixth-graders through this and other scenarios that involve difficult moral judgments and uncomfortable positions. 

I know I've gotten through to them when I see them squirm.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Chayei Sarah: Love at First Sight

I like to teach Chayei Sarah by asking my students to think about two people in their family who are happily married. How, I ask, did those people meet?

Over the years, I've heard some wonderful stories. For example, one time  a student told me that his grandparents met on a beach, when his grandfather walked up to his grandmother and said, "That is an ugly bathing suit!"

But my favorite story came from a boy whose parents -- I'll call them Jackie and Seth -- met while they were traveling through Europe on a post-college jaunt. Jackie was with some girlfriends and Seth with some guys, when their paths crossed in southern Italy. Although they didn't have a lot of time together, Jackie and Seth saw something in one other that they didn't want to lose, so they exchanged phone number for when they got back to the States.

But things weren't easy when they returned home, as they lived in different states and each had careers underway. Still, they made room for one another in their lives, eventually building a life together. And today, they are soon to celebrate 20 years of marriage, with a beautiful family to show for it.

I think about fateful encounters like that serendipitous meeting in Italy the unlikely when I read Chayei Sarah, a portion that which  arguably the most beautiful love story in the Torah -- the story of Isaac and Rebecca.

As the portion begins, Sarah has died, and after arranging for her burial, Abraham goes about finding a wife for their son, Isaac. He tells his servant to travel to the land of his birth to find a suitable young woman. The servant is understandably nervous, because he wants to please his master. So when he arrives at his destination, he prays for God to send him a sign so he'll know what girl to choose.

"The girl to whom I say, 'Tip your pitcher and let me drink,' and who replies, 'Drink; and let me water your camels too' -- let her be the one You have designated for Your servant Isaac," he prays.

And at that very moment, out comes Rebecca, who says just what the servant prayed she would. What's more, when the servant proposes that she come with him to Canaan to marry Isaac, she agrees on the spot; and when Isaac sees her arrive, he immediately finds a comfort that has eluded him since his mother died.

It is love at first sight, and in many ways, a match made in Heaven.

It seems to me that we all make deals and strike bargains just as Abraham's servant did, as we try to make sense of the mysterious and incomprehensible process by which we fall in love. "If he calls me tonight, it means he likes me," we'll say, or "If she looks up at me, then I'll go over and say hi." How else can we cope with the uncertainties of attraction? How can we accept that we have no control over the  unknowable moment when an ordinary person turns into "the one"?

I like to talk about coincidence and chance with my students, because it gets them to look at themselves and their lives in a new way. After all, they are only eleven, and from their perfectly appropriate narcissistic perspective, parents exist in the world only to take care of them. I like to get them to think about these lucky and entirely coincidental encounters that set the course for their very existence.

What if that bathing suit hadn't been so ugly? What if the grandfather had decided not to go to the beach that day? What if the girls in Europe had not walked right into the boys' path? What if they had headed north that day? What if Rebecca hadn't spoken the precise words of the servant's prayer? The fact is, we are each the product of a sequence of events that may not have happened -- but did.

The girls could very well have headed north, but they didn't -- and as a result, there's an eager 11-year-old sitting at his desk, with his mother's smile and his father's sense of humor, raising his hand to the ceiling, dying to tell me how his mom and dad met.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Vayera: Who Knew What When?

Several years ago, I had a student who spoke her mind a little too freely. During class discussions, she'd periodically blurt out her less-than-diplomatic observations -- calling one student's ideas "stupid," for example, or complaining that another took "so long" to get his words out. I tried, of course, to step in when I sensed an insult was coming, but I was not always successful -- which meant that occasionally other students would respond by bursting into tears or by hurling insults back at her.

But one Shabbat morning, her lack of self-control had a remarkably wonderful outcome. We were at our "Sharing Shabbat" service -- a relatively short family service that proceeded class time each Saturday morning. One woman in our congregation had recently suffered the tragic loss of her brother to cancer, and became quite emotional during the Mourner's Kaddish. My student -- I'll call her Jackie -- didn't personally know the woman or her family. Nevertheless, she approached the woman when the service was over, and said, "I am so sorry for your loss."

Several people overheard this, and and were truly amazed. The infamous Jackie had shown sympathy? She actually comforted someone? But to me, Jackie's actions were totally in character. While other kids no doubt had thoughts that inhibited from them from reaching out to others -- What if I say the wrong thing? What if she cries more? What if she tells me to leave her alone? -- Jackie's tendency to act before thinking made her capable of an enormous act of kindness.

What does Jackie have to do with this week's Torah portion?

Vayera means "And He appeared," and in this week's portion, we have three stories in which God is apparent in Abraham's life. First, God appears in the form of three strangers, whom Abraham welcomes into his home; second, God bargains with Abraham regarding the possibility of saving Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction; and third, God appears in the form of a ram to stop Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac.

When I discuss this portion with my students, I like to ask is: What did Abraham know and when did he know it? After all, the name of the portion suggests that God is present; but when was God present, and when did Abraham know it -- and  and what effect did that have on Abraham's behavior?

Did Abraham know know that God sent those three strangers? Was he trying to trying to score point with God by treating the strangers so kindly?

Did Abraham know that God would allow him to bargain for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah? Did he challenge God because he suspected this is what God wanted him to do?

Did Abraham know that God was only testing him with Isaac? Did he willingly bind Isaac because he knew God would stop him before things got out of hand?

Eleven- and twelve-year-olds are typically the most self-conscious of people, constantly examining themselves from other vantage points. If I sit next to that girl, will she realize I like her? If I answer the teacher's questions, will I look like a dork? If I take off my coat, will people notice my ugly shirt? If I tell a joke, will people think it's funny? No wonder sixth-graders always hang back and need to be prodded even just to walk down a hallway; from their perspective, every move they make provokes scrutiny and judgment!

Which is why I love thinking about Jackie, and how she responded that morning. It was a pure act of the heart.

In this week's Torah portion, we think about God's presence. Ironically, while Jackie's act was sacred, it   didn't involve thought at all.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lech L'cha: Go Forth With (Fill in the Blank)

Lech L’cha is hitting me especially hard this year because in just a few short months, my oldest child will graduate from high school and then take off for college.  Alas, my life has gotten to the point where "going forth" -- the common translation of Lech L'cha -- means leaving a lifestyle I love.

How, then, do I teach Lech L’cha to my sixth-grade students?

Funny enough, when we began to discuss Lech L’cha, I found that my students had melancholy feelings of their own. Some were facing sad family situations -- there was one sick grandfather and an upcoming unveiling for an aunt who had died very young. These children talked about wanting to go back to a happier time, before illness struck their families.

Other students were adjusting to more benign but nevertheless significant changes. Many had recently begun middle school, and were missing their old, familiar elementary schools. They said they didn't get to see their old friends that much, and they hadn't made many new friends. They, too, weren't so sure that "going forth" was all it was cracked up to be.

And yet...who says that "going forth" automatically entails unmitigated pleasure? In this week's portion, God tells Abram (whose name will soon be changed to Abraham) to leave his native land and his father's house. Two short verses later, we learn that Abram does indeed do what God has commanded. To be sure, the the outcome of Abram's obedience is spectacular: Abram learns that he will be the progenitor of an entire people, his name will be made great, and he will be blessed, as will his descendants. We might assume that Abram feels...what? Honored? Delighted? Eager? Proud? The Torah doesn't tell us; it just says that he was commanded to go...and he went.

I asked my students for adjectives to describe how they would feel if they were Abram. One said she would be surprised, while another said she'd be shocked. One student said he would feel "outrage." Maybe I should have expected this level of ambivalence and negativity. Eleven- and twelve-year-olds spend a lot of time doing what authority figures tell them to do, even though they are anxious to assert their independence and make their own decisions.

But I think that this Torah portion is particularly revealing for what it leaves out. Abram's feelings are simply beside the point.

Sometimes, when I'm able to disconnect myself from all the emotions tied in with the passage of time and my children’s eventual departure from our home -- panic at growing older, disappointment at what I've not yet accomplished -- I imagine a future that doesn't seem half bad. I picture a time when I can fall in love with my husband all over again. We can eat late dinners together and snuggle on the sofa watching mindless TV shows and talking, the way we used to do before we had kids. I see a rich, satisfying life moving through its natural stages, the way a life should.

 My students and I came to realize that the Torah’s key lesson in this portion is simply this: Time marches on. And it’s by accepting this fact -- rather than reacting to it – that we can begin to develop a larger and richer understanding of life, and of ourselves.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Vayikra: The Price of Sacrifice

It was great news when my sixth-grade daughter was promoted to a new ballet level this year -- but our excitement was dampened when we realized that the timing of new dance class made it impossible for her to continue with ice-skating lessons. We found ourselves at the kitchen table having one of those "You can't do everything," discussions, until finally she decided to forego the skates.

But it bothered me, that she had to make that choice. I wondered if she'd end up regretting it. In my mind, I saw all the bows she would never take, all the trophies she would never accept, her mittened fingers outstretched, her cheeks pink from the cold and excitement. I saw her hot pink skate bag and her white figure skates resting unused in her closet.

She was only eleven. Why should she have to give up one favorite activity just to progress in another?

Sacrifice -- it's at the heart of Vayikra, this week's Torah portion. In Vayikra, God gives instructions to the Israeli people about how to make sacrifices. Our ancient forefathers had plenty of experience in this activity. Among the most famous sacrifices, Abraham killed a ram and made a burnt offering after God stopped him from killing his son Isaac; and Moses commanded the Israeli people to sacrifice lambs so they would have blood to apply to the doorposts of the Egyptians.

In Vayikra, we learn that sacrifices were sometimes intended as a way to atone for a sin. But they were also a way to express thanks, awe, or reverence toward God.

These days, we generally think of sacrifices as trade-offs. We sacrifice -- or let go of -- something we currently find desirable to attain something more valuable in the long run. Sacrifices involve a weighing of options; they can be easy or painful, but ultimately we hope to be left with the feeling that we've done something correct, moral, or noble.

Parenthood is all about sacrifices. We sacrifice career growth to take care of our children; we sacrifice vacations and other indulgences to save for a house or a child's college education; we sacrifice sleep to comfort a child who has had a nightmare; and we even may sacrifice our blood pressure -- hopefully only on a temporary basis -- when our teenagers start to drive. 

But I'm not a fan of asking middle schoolers to give things up. Oh sure, I'm all for making sure that my kids cut back on candy to maintain a healthy body, or trade the fancy sandals for winter boots when it's 32 degrees outside. But when it comes to pursuing passions or seeing how far they can take a new activity -- I say, go for it. I think middle schoolers should ice skate and dance, play soccer and write for the school newspaper, learn Hebrew and act in the school musical, play piano and make pottery, swing a tennis racquet and ride a horse.

I think middle schoolers should play outside on the first warm day of spring, even if it means spending not quite enough time on homework; I think middle schoolers should grab any chance they may get to see a World Series game, even it comes on a school day.

In short, I don't think middle school is a time for shrinking options; I think it's a time to expand options, and to see much life has to offer.

So while Alyssa may need to miss a few ice-skating classes this year, you can bet she'll be back on the ice ice next year. And the only sacrifice I hope she'll make is the kind that involves reverence. I hope that every once in a while she'll stop and think about how big and awesome the world is, and how thankful she is to be a part of it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Vayakhel-Pekude: What Can I Give?

It happens nearly everyday when I pick up my sixth-grader, Alyssa, from school.

"How was your day?" I ask.


"What happened at school?"


"Come on!" I tease. "You gotta give me something!"

She looks at me from the back seat, her backpack nearly bursting, her eyes tired from a long day at school.  And yet she might as well be barefoot and empty-handed, with the pockets of her cut-off jeans turned out: "Nothin', Mom. I got nothin'."

This week, we have a combined Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekude, in which Moses relays God's instructions for building the Tabernacle and other structures.  He tells the Israeli people that if their hearts are so moved -- that is, if they feel like it -- they should they should give their finest goods to God: their gold, silver and copper; their linens and yarns; their animal skins and wood; their oil and spices; and their precious stones. These will be used as raw materials for the building effort.

And what do the people do? They give their possessions willingly, with outstretched hands.

How did they get all this stuff? The Torah tells us that the Egyptians let the fleeing Israeli people have all their silver, gold and clothing. God intervened, we're told, and made the Egyptians look favorably on the former slaves.

But I think that subsequent verses hint at a more profound answer as to how the Israeli people were able to offer valuable gifts.

You see, the Torah goes on to explain that among the Israelis were designers and artisans and crafstmen -- people with specific and useful skills and abilities. It was the job of these skilled people to take the people's gifts and use them to fabricate the Tabernacle.

In this way, I think the Torah is encouraging us to understand that we all have gifts to share -- even when, as my daughter so eloquently put it, we think that we "got nothin'." The people, though only recently liberated from slavery, were willing to share anything they had -- and in so doing, they helped build the means to see God.

I know that Alyssa has many "gifts" she can give me when she gets in the car every afternoon. She can tell me about an enjoyable conversation she had with a good friend, or a step she took to help someone, or a story about how someone helped her. She can tell me about a teacher who said something that made her feel good about herself, or a moment when random sparks connected in her brain and miraculously, an idea was formed.

But it's up to her to decide when her heart is so moved as to share these gifts with me.

Which means that it's my job to be there when her arms are outstretched and the gifts are there for the taking.

I'm reminded of a scene in the movie "Pretty Woman" -- not necessarily an appropriate movie for middle schoolers, or even a very good movie at all, but there's a moment in it that I like. It's near the end of the movie, when Julia Roberts is about to leave, and Richard Gere is sorry to see her go. "Impossible relationships," he mutters. "My special gift is impossible relationships."

As she walks toward the door, she gently tells him, "I think you have a lot of special gifts."

Middle schoolers have a lot of special gifts. And that's one of the most precious bits of knowledge that a parent can ever own.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Mishpatim: Behold the Stranger

One summer when my son was in middle school, my husband and I agreed to send him to a two-week sports camp held on the grounds of a New England prep school. He was thrilled to go, but he had never before been away from us other than for an occasional sleepover, so we wondered how he would adjust.

We didn't have long to wonder. David didn't have cell phone back then, but he did have a calling card, and at around eleven o'clock each night he would leave his room and find a phone to call us, imploring us to come get him. He couldn't sleep; the bed was uncomfortable; the room was too hot; his roommate's breathing was too loud; he wanted to come home.

He sounded panicked, as though he didn't even know who he was anymore. He couldn't understand why he hated a camp that should have been exciting and fun.

I can still hear his voice when I think about this week's Torah portion, Mishpatim. For the most part, Mishpatim is little more than a list, a dispassionate rundown of laws that God for the Jewish people. But ironically, this dry portion includes one of the most haunting and evocative pronouncements in the Torah.

That pronouncement: "You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt."

Clearly, God is urging the Israeli people to treat outsiders with empathy. He wants them to remember how it felt to be a stranger, and to let the memory of that unhappy feeling guide their behavior. But I'm struck by the implication that being an outsider is a universally familiar experience. We try so hard throughout our lives to connect with people -- building communities, joining groups, developing friendships, searching for "soulmates" -- but in the end, as God says, each one of us knows "the feelings of the stranger."

Middle schoolers in particular spend a lot of time feeling like strangers. They leave the familiarity of elementary school while they are still young, they enter new classes with new teachers as often as every quarter, they join new teams and clubs, and encounter new faces continually. They often take on unfamiliar and grown-up responsibilities -- earning their own money by baby-sitting or shoveling snow, taking charge of a house key, deciding whether to meet with a teacher for extra help before a test day.

And don't forget -- they are also strangers in their own bodies. Doctors say that physically, middle schoolers are changing more quickly than at any other stage of life other than infancy.

These days, middle schoolers are trained to do just what God demands of the Jewish people -- put themselves in other kids' shoes and behave accordingly. Many schools have a formal empathy curriculum, with guest speakers, reading assignments, and structured discussions.

But are kids equally equipped for the times when they feel like strangers to themselves? Do they know how to talk about it and work through it? Do they have ways to cope?

David eventually got through those long nights at the sports camp, and one of the most important outcomes was that he learned a little about who he was. He knows now that he's the kind of person who takes time to adjust to new situations. He's since gone away further from home and for longer periods of time, but he knows what to expect. And he always remembers to pack his ipod and earphones, an issue of his favorite sports magazine, and a booklight, which will help him cope with those first few nights.

When he leaves home, my husband and I always remind him that he has faced long, lonely nights before, and he's made it through.

Just like God reminded the Jews.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Yitro: "Now I get it!"

When my daughter Rachel was 12 years old, she began learning her Torah portion during weekly tutoring sessions with our temple's cantor. One afternoon while she was practicing, the cantor noticed that her voice was too soft. "Rachel," the cantor said. "That was great, but I need you to do it louder."

"I'm sorry, Cantor Abramson," Rachel said. "But I'm just not a loud person."

The cantor recounted this story to me, because she found Rachel's remark very interesting. Rachel didn't say that she didn't want to speak loudly, or she didn't feel like speaking loudly. If she had spoken one of those sentences, the cantor could have tried to change her mind or reverse her feelings. But Rachel's statement wasn't specific to this particular tutoring session or activity. She wasn't talking about a temporary, fleeting emotion or condition.

Instead, Rachel was defining herself; she was expressing her understanding that she was a whole person with ongoing traits and characteristics that needed to be respected.

I think of the cantor's interaction with Rachel when I come across this week's Torah portion, Yitro, which describes how Moses acquired the Ten Commandments. To be sure, the Commandments are rich with meaning and could be the subject of countless blogs. But for now, I prefer to focus on Moses' experience in receiving them.

Think about it: Up until that fateful moment on Mount Sinai, Moses surely had been feeling a host of disquieting emotions -- fear, confusion, insecurity, reluctance. Having fled from Egypt to live a humble shepherd's life, he was suddenly confronted with a burning bush and commanded to stand up to Pharoah. His dealings with Pharoah led to huge and catastrophic events for the Egyptian people, after which he found himself in the position of leading a massive group of followers on a journey toward an unknown future.

But then God summons him and gives the Ten Commandments, and in that instant, everything becomes clear. The word often used to describe the moment when God is revealed is "revelation." But I think of it as the moment when Moses said to himself, "Oh, now I get it!"

Middle schoolers are a lot like Moses -- asked to do things they don't understand or to take on challenges they don't feel equipped for, following directions when they can't yet see the point or purpose of what they're doing. They study math problems that don't seem to have answers, poetry passages that don't seem to make sense, friends who are inexplicably nice one day and unpleasant the next. But then, finally -- and often unexpectedly -- some strange, new connection forms in their brains between previously unrelated ideas. And that's when they blurt out, "Now I get it!"

If you've ever had the opportunity to watch a kid who finally gets it -- whatever "it" is -- you'll no doubt agree that it's a memorable moment. Their eyes light up; their mouths open wide in delight; their shoulders drop, and they fall back in their chairs, as if all the tension they've been carrying is washing right off of them. They may even let out a huge sigh, as the magnitude of this new understanding leaves them literally breathless.

How does the middle schooler in your life look when he or she finally "gets it"? What do you feel when you watch that moment of revelation, and what does your middle schooler feel? What kinds of revelations are most satisfying to him or her? What are some of the most exciting revelations he or she has ever experienced?

The difference between "I don't want to be loud" and "I'm not a loud person" may be just a few words, but it's grand developmental leap. When Rachel made her statement to the cantor, she was showing her understanding that she wasn't just a compilation of isolated thoughts and feelings, but a united, discrete whole of a person. In short, Rachel "got" Rachel.

No wonder the cantor and I took notice.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Beshalach: Can You Sing?

It happened when my daughter Alyssa was ten years old. Her grandmother had given her a pink shoulder bag for her birthday, and she was simply delighted. I watched her show it to another girl, saying, "Look at my new bag!" in that tuneful, spirited way people speak when they're really happy.

The other girl lifted one side of her mouth, shrugged her shoulders, and tilted her head from side to side. "It's okay," she said.

Now I don't know what was going on with that girl, whether she was jealous or angry or just in a plain old preteen funk. But afterwards, I heard Alyssa sing out in that tuneful, spirited tone a whole lot less.

Alyssa was about to become a middle schooler, and as you know, middle schoolers are self-conscious; middle schoolers worry about what others think; middle schoolers get embarrassed.

In short, middle schoolers don't sing. I don't mean literally singing -- matching voices to notes on a sheet of music; I mean figuratively singing -- singing out, shouting with glee, letting the sheer power of one's joy pulverize any inhibitions and produce uncensored verbal expressions of delight. That's something that young children do -- but middle schoolers don't.

In this week's Torah portion, Beshalach, the Israeli people are beside themselves with delight. They are safely across the sea and can finally put their nightmarish existence behind them, slaves no more. And what do they do at this moment? You guessed it. They sing. They throw back their heads, open their throats, and sing. It's one of the most inspiring portions in the whole Torah.

Babies sing when they're happy, squeaking and shrieking and playfully experimenting with their voices. Toddler sing all the time. To me, one of the most marvelous revelations about becoming a parent was that I got to sing! I sang lullabyes and wake-up songs and nursery rhymes, and silly songs. I sang because I was happy; if I wasn't happy, singing made me happy.

In fact, there's nothing more fun then watching someone so delighted and excited, there's no choice but to sing out loud. Some time ago the deaf actress Marlee Matlin won an Academy Award for an acting performance. She delivered her acceptance speech using sign language and an interpreter, but was so thrilled to have won that her self-control gave way, and as she communicated with her hands, she also burst out with audible, jump-for-joy gasps. The audience went crazy, clapping and cheering and enjoying her sheer delight.

When does the middle schooler in your life sing? Who gets to hear it? Does she sing in front of her peers? Will he sing in front of you? Can you help him or her sing more?

Not too long ago, country singer Lee Ann Womack had a hit song, "I Hope You Dance" -- an anthem about living life to its fullest. In the refrain, she implores her listener, "And when you get the chance to sit it out or dance...I hope you dance."

I don't know about dancing; but when it comes to the middle schoolers in my life -- I hope they sing.