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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.

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