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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.

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