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Friday, September 28, 2012

Haazinu: Why A Rock?


Not too long ago, I took a class about God led by a very imaginative rabbi. When we arrived, there were several items placed on table in the center of the room, including a bunch of wildflowers, a clock, a Bible, and a container of Elmer's Glue. He asked us: Which of these items most closely match your concept of God?

It was a provocative and intriguing task. Who would chose the flowers, believing that God was expressed in nature? Who would choose the clock, thinking of God mainly in the passage of time and the experience of different life stages and lifecycle events? Did God mainly exist for some of us in the realm of prayer, religion, and sacred texts? Or was God the glue that held us together during our darkest moments?

The most interesting result of this exercise was not what we chose, but how strongly we felt about our choices. Each of us had a specific concept of God that was expressed in one of the items on the table.

I think of these lessons and teachings around this time of year, when I discuss Haazinu, one of the last portions in the Torah, with my students. Sometimes called "The Song of Moses," this portion is part of the set of instructions that Moses offers shortly before he is to die, and includes a section written in verse that seeks to express the relationship between the Israelites and God.

The song describes God as "The Rock--whose deeds are perfect," and later "an eagle who rouses its nestlings." My students' reaction, in a word, was "Why?'

Why a rock? Why an eagle? Why compare God to anything? Why not say what God is, instead of what God is like?

The thing is, 11- and 12-year-olds, they crave concreteness and certainty, and they hate ambivalence. They live in a world of tests and grades and rules, where the answers are clear, and right and wrong are obvious. They want to know what God is. They hate that I have no answer.

So they tell me their own images of God, perceptions they've had as long as they can remember. Some cling to the age-old image of an old man with a beard. Some continue to use the pronoun "he," even while asserting that God has no gender, because God is not a person.

Then I ask them if they can find any answers in Moses' words -- "The Rock!"

And they tell me:

A rock is strong.
A rock is forever
A rock is dependable
A rock is always there.
A rock doesn't really change.
And finally... a rock is as large and unmoveable as a mountain, but also as small and portable as a pebble in your pocket.

I think they know more about God than they realize.






Friday, September 21, 2012

Yom Kippur: Is it all about the Rules?

Not too long ago, my teenage son was invited to join a group of friends who were attending a nearby event. Now, I don't know exactly what was going to happen at this event, but whatever it was, my son said he was uncomfortable going. 'Nuf said.

Still, he didn't want to be the guy who wimped out, so he asked my husband and me, "Can I tell them you guys are making me do something else that night?"

"Of course," we said. "Blame it all on us. Make us the bad guys. We're happy to be the heavies."

Even when you're a teenager, authority can sometimes come in handy.

I think of that story at this time of year, which can be an anxious time for sixth graders. Yom Kippur is just days away, and as twelve year olds, they think it's the last time they can decline to fast and not feel guilty about it.

"Next year, we have to fast," one says.

"I'm going to try this year," another comments.

"But you don't have to," a third responds. "Next year, you have to."

Inevitably this leads to a conversation about different family members and their Yom Kippur habits and routines. One student mentions that her mother refrains from eating but still drinks a morning cup of coffee, or else she'll get a migraine. Another says that his grandfather passed out in synagogue one year when he hadn't eaten, and since then he has never fasted. All fully understand that when one's health is at stake or one may truly suffer physical distress, then it's okay to eat on Yom Kippur.

But for these young, strong, and able-bodied students, no waivers are acceptable -- at least according to them. As far as they're concerned, there are no exceptions when you're thirteen.

I understand their anxiety. Not eating from sunset to sunset is hard! Plus, it's an experience they've never had. All they know is that when lunchtime comes at school, they're hungry, and if they go to a restaurant where there's a hour wait, it's almost too much to bear. They don't know how their body will respond as the hours go by. They don't yet know what coping mechanisms they will use to get them through.

But at the same time, their view of this solemn holiday troubles me. It's not a marathon, it's not endurance test, and it's definitely not a competition. There's no finish line and no medal given once the 24th hour as passed. Fasting is less about the absence of food and more about the decision behind that absence. Its's less about what you're doing and more about why.

In the past, I've tried to offer this alternative way of thinking to my sixth graders, but typically they refuse to enter this more nuanced realm of thought. "No you have fast at thirteen," they tell me. "You have to."

Common wisdom tells us that preteens and teens abhor rules. Tell them what to do, experts say, and they'll rebel; it's best to give them the tools to make a good decision on their own. And yet, sometimes kids this age appreciate rules (even though they'll never admit it). Rules trump doubt and ambivalence, so they can sometimes be a great help in relieving anxiety.

So I've decided that this year, my sixth graders can talk about rules.

So maybe in a year or two, they can talk about reasons.


Friday, September 14, 2012

Nitzavim: "And I'll Be Watching You"


I remember the day my daughter decided she wanted to walk home from school. She was in eighth grade, so it seemed a reasonable request, but the path home took her across a five-cornered intersection that even an adult would find challenging. Of course, she had to cross streets by herself sometime; I couldn't guard her from oncoming traffic for the rest of her life. And so I agreed that she could do it -- if she consented to a few simple instructions.

"Make sure you press the button and wait for the 'walk' sign," I said.

"I will," she agreed.

"But it's not enough to just wait for the 'walk' sign," I added. "Don't start to cross until you see that all the cars have stopped."

"Okay," she said.

"A complete stop."

She nodded.

"But don't just assume that the drivers know you're crossing, even if the cars are stopped," I said. "Make eye contact with the drivers so you know they see you."

She nodded.

"And call me just before you cross, so I know when you've started."

"Okay."

"And call me again after you reach the other side, so I know you got there safely."

She sighed. "Forget it, Mom," she said. "Just pick me up in the car like usual."

I like to tell this story to my sixth graders when we study the portion Nitzavim, because I find it to be one of literature's most beautiful expressions of parental love. Moses, who will be allowed to view the Promised Land but will die before he can ever enter it, speaks to the Israelites like a parent about to bid goodbye to a cherished child, giving final instructions before he must leave them to fend for themselves.

You can feel the urgency in his voice, the pressure of time bearing down, as he urges his followers to keep God's commandments, to love God completely, and above all, to "Choose life" whenever the opportunity to make such a choice arises.

So I ask my sixth graders to think about the times when their parents felt like Moses did -- and then, I ask them to think about a time when they may have felt like Moses. When, I ask, did you ever have to go away and let someone else take care of something you loved?

Not surprisingly, the subject of pets often comes up during this discussion, as many of my sixth graders have had to say goodbye to a beloved dog or cat upon leaving for summer camp or vacation. Some of them describe the elaborate instructions they give parents or grandparents, detailing how their cherished animal should be fed, stroked, and put to sleep at night.

Ultimately, my students come to realize that my concern for my daughter, like their worries about their pets and Moses' exhortations to the Israelites, is not about power or control; it's all about love.

And yes, I did insist that my daughter take my warnings with a grain of salt, and walk home that day.

That was all about love as well.