If you want to talk Torah with a tween who professes to have no interest in the subject, Ki Tavo is a great place to begin. In this portion, to put it simply, Moses relays to the Israelites a clear ultimatum: If you follow God's commandments, life will be great; if you go against God, beware!
In my experience, middle schoolers, recognize immediately -- and perhaps more acutely than any other group of people -- that this ultimatum doesn't hold water. They know that kids who follow the rules often suffer dearly, whether they're teased for being "chicken" or ostracized for being a"dork" or "nerd." And kids who feel entitled to break the rules -- by being disrespectful, mean, disruptive, or worse -- are often glorified, romanticized, or considered intimidating and invincible.
So I ask my students: How does this portion make sense? How can you explain the fact that good people don't always get rewarded and disobedient people don't always get punished? As Reform Jews, we consider the Torah a guide for living a moral and spiritual life. What are we to make of this portion, which runs so counter to our own experiences?
After considering this issue from a number of different vantage points, they eventually came up with a response that I've come to regard as interesting, provocative and quite insightful. My students decided that you can't find meaning in this portion if you look at it in a short-term way. Doing something good, they said, won't automatically bring you a reward the next day, or the next week, or even the next year. The rewards, they told me, only become apparent in the long term.
I then paraphrased for them a line in the song "Seasons of Love" from the Broadway musical Rent, changing it from "How do you measure a year in the life?" to simply, "How do you measure a life?"
And their answer was: It takes a lifetime to measure a life.
Beautiful. And this was only our first class meeting.
It's going to be a great year.