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Monday, November 15, 2010

Vayeitze: There is a God!

It was a difficult September for our local community. The school year started off with a brawl that sent two kids to the hospital, and when the principal tried to investigate the matter to determine whether consequences should be levied, he was met with silence. No one was willing to take responsibility for participating in the fight, or even to admit having knowledge about the participants. Even adults in the community were silent, causing the local media to denounce the parent body as lacking in integrity.

The principal was frustrated; the teachers and coaches felt powerless; parents felt attacked and defensive; and the students were demoralized, viewing the prospect of another summer ten months away as the only bright spot in an otherwise cheerless year.

 And then, an amazing thing happened.

The soccer team began to win.

And win.


Game after game, through divisionals, sectionals, and regionals, the teammates played their hearts out. Gradually the stands started to fill with spectators cheering the team on. By the time the state championship rounds started, the school was transporting busloads of enthusiastic kids, who were happy to travel more than an hour to each game, because they were proud of their team, proud of their school, and glad to be part of the moment.

I asked my sixth-grade students: So what did I say to myself as all this excitement was building?

And because they had been prepped, they sang out the answer: God was in this place and I did not know it!

It's a famous line in the portion Vayeitze, and arguably one of the most joyous of moments in the whole Torah. Jacob, having tricked his father and stolen his brother's blessing,  has fled from home to escape his brother's wrath, and is wandering in the desert at night with nothing but a stone to use as a pillow. But once he falls asleep, he dreams of a unique and marvelous ladder that stretches from earth up to heaven, with angels traveling upwards and downwards. He awakes with the revelation that God was right there with him, even though he hadn't known it.

I asked my students whether they had ever experienced a similar realization, and as expected, many kids recounted stories of sports teams that unexpectedly had winning seasons. But then one particularly insightful student spoke up.

"What are you saying -- that you really think God made your team win?" she asked. "Are you really saying that a miracle happened when your team won?"

It's a great question, given that we invoke God's presence all the time when something that could have gone wrong, goes right. "Thank God!" we sigh when a toddler who appears to be missing shows up around a corner. "There is a God!" we exclaim when a perennial cheater or scammer finally gets caught.

One girl in my class said she felt like saying "God is in this place and I didn't know it," one morning at school when she couldn't find her English homework and then discovered it hidden beneath a seam in her book bag. Another girl, a competitive figure skater, talked about going through a practice where she couldn't land any of her jumps, and then skating perfectly a short while later during the actual competition. She described feeling confused and unsettled during the practice because her difficulties didn't make sense -- and then feeling relieved when she ultimately performed the way she knew she could.

Ultimately we came to the conclusion that when we say, "God was in this place..." it's because we're feeling that the universe somehow makes sense, and that our actions are bringing on expected results and consequences. We feel safe and at home in our skin and in the world. Things feel right.

When I dismissed the kids later that morning, I felt good. I had prepared a good lesson, and all my students had been engaged and involved. There hadn't been any unexpected surprises. The morning went the way it was supposed to.

I smiled as I turned off the lights and left the classroom, thinking, "God is in this place, and I didn't know it."

Monday, November 8, 2010

Tol'dot: Did You Squirm?

When I was in tenth grade, I tried out for a lead part in a school play. I was a veteran member of the drama club and thought I had things pretty much sewn up. But my director ended up casting me in a small, walk-on role. To my dismay, she gave the lead to an enthusiastic but inexperienced soccer player who had decided on a whim to audition.

Looking back, I think the director believed the girl might bring freshness to the production -- but it was a gamble that didn't pay off. The soccer player was stiff and awkward on stage, couldn't project her voice,and had trouble memorizing her lines. All the other cast members thought she was ruining the production, and as opening night neared, even the director seemed frazzled.

So one day when the girl had to miss a rehearsal, the director asked me to fill in -- and that's when my friends hatched their plot. As I made all my cues and delivered the lines flawlessly, they urged the director to give the soccer player the boot and keep me in the lead for good.

It's a memory that haunts me at this time of year, when the portion Tol'dot rolls around. Tol'dot contains the famous story of Jacob, who disguises himself as his older brother, Esau, to trick their father and capture the blessing to which Esau was entitled.

Who in this portion is most to blame? Is it Jacob, who tricks his dad and steals his brother's blessing? Esau, who is careless with the privileges he automatically inherits thanks to his status as first-born son? Rebecca, who favors one son over another and devises the dastardly deception? Or Isaac, who, though he clearly suspects that something amiss,  doesn't bother to investigate?

I don't want my sixth-graders merely to talk about this portion; I want them feel uncomfortable with it. I want them to squirm. Because I think when you get right down to it, we all play the roles of Jacob, Esau, Rebecca, and Isaac at one point or another. And I think that recognizing the complexities we bring to our interactions with others is a key step in learning how to make mature decisions.

So I tell my students about my drama production, and I help them find corresponding characters in the Jacob story and my story. Typically we all agree that there was something at least slightly justified in what my friends (aka Rebecca) did by trying to win me the coveted lead role. The director (God) had made a casting mistake, and the soccer player (Esau) was unable to handle the role she was assigned. The rest of the cast (Isaac) would have been happy to turn a blind eye, so to speak, if I (Jacob) assumed the lead.

Then I ask my students to think about a time when they were in a Jacob-like predicament.  It's not hard for them to do this. Middle-school assignments often involve group work, and the group leader -- who is typically chosen by chance, when the teacher pulls his or her name out of a hat -- often seems unfit for leadership.

I ask my students: Is it best to rally behind a more suitable leader? Does a grade of "A" for the entire group justify deposing the original leader? Or should the members let the chosen leader plod on, even if that means that the whole group must settle for a "C" or worse?

In my situation, the director kept the soccer player in the role, and while the production was pretty terrible, we all got through and moved on. In retrospect, I think the director made the right decision.

But what if there had been an admissions officer from Juilliard in the audience, and what if one of the other leads had been up for a full scholarship, and what if the soccer player's performance had ruined the show to such an extent that the other lead lost out on the scholarship? Would the director's decision still have looked good if this had been the result?

So I lead my sixth-graders through this and other scenarios that involve difficult moral judgments and uncomfortable positions. 

I know I've gotten through to them when I see them squirm.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Chayei Sarah: Love at First Sight

I like to teach Chayei Sarah by asking my students to think about two people in their family who are happily married. How, I ask, did those people meet?

Over the years, I've heard some wonderful stories. For example, one time  a student told me that his grandparents met on a beach, when his grandfather walked up to his grandmother and said, "That is an ugly bathing suit!"

But my favorite story came from a boy whose parents -- I'll call them Jackie and Seth -- met while they were traveling through Europe on a post-college jaunt. Jackie was with some girlfriends and Seth with some guys, when their paths crossed in southern Italy. Although they didn't have a lot of time together, Jackie and Seth saw something in one other that they didn't want to lose, so they exchanged phone number for when they got back to the States.

But things weren't easy when they returned home, as they lived in different states and each had careers underway. Still, they made room for one another in their lives, eventually building a life together. And today, they are soon to celebrate 20 years of marriage, with a beautiful family to show for it.

I think about fateful encounters like that serendipitous meeting in Italy the unlikely when I read Chayei Sarah, a portion that which  arguably the most beautiful love story in the Torah -- the story of Isaac and Rebecca.

As the portion begins, Sarah has died, and after arranging for her burial, Abraham goes about finding a wife for their son, Isaac. He tells his servant to travel to the land of his birth to find a suitable young woman. The servant is understandably nervous, because he wants to please his master. So when he arrives at his destination, he prays for God to send him a sign so he'll know what girl to choose.

"The girl to whom I say, 'Tip your pitcher and let me drink,' and who replies, 'Drink; and let me water your camels too' -- let her be the one You have designated for Your servant Isaac," he prays.

And at that very moment, out comes Rebecca, who says just what the servant prayed she would. What's more, when the servant proposes that she come with him to Canaan to marry Isaac, she agrees on the spot; and when Isaac sees her arrive, he immediately finds a comfort that has eluded him since his mother died.

It is love at first sight, and in many ways, a match made in Heaven.

It seems to me that we all make deals and strike bargains just as Abraham's servant did, as we try to make sense of the mysterious and incomprehensible process by which we fall in love. "If he calls me tonight, it means he likes me," we'll say, or "If she looks up at me, then I'll go over and say hi." How else can we cope with the uncertainties of attraction? How can we accept that we have no control over the  unknowable moment when an ordinary person turns into "the one"?

I like to talk about coincidence and chance with my students, because it gets them to look at themselves and their lives in a new way. After all, they are only eleven, and from their perfectly appropriate narcissistic perspective, parents exist in the world only to take care of them. I like to get them to think about these lucky and entirely coincidental encounters that set the course for their very existence.

What if that bathing suit hadn't been so ugly? What if the grandfather had decided not to go to the beach that day? What if the girls in Europe had not walked right into the boys' path? What if they had headed north that day? What if Rebecca hadn't spoken the precise words of the servant's prayer? The fact is, we are each the product of a sequence of events that may not have happened -- but did.

The girls could very well have headed north, but they didn't -- and as a result, there's an eager 11-year-old sitting at his desk, with his mother's smile and his father's sense of humor, raising his hand to the ceiling, dying to tell me how his mom and dad met.