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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.