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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."


"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.

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