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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.

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