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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.