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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.

"Fine."

"What happened at school?"

"Nothing."

"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.