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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Vayeishev: The Power of Words

A few years ago, a friend and I took our ten-year-old daughters to participate in a community art activity. At lunchtime, we walked into the one nearby deli. It was the type where  you get your food at the counter, and because it was so busy, so my daughter and I quickly ordered a couple of kosher hot dogs.

As my daughter went to get mustard and I looked around for a free table, I heard my friend's daughter from behind me, talking loudly enough so there was no doubt I'd hear. "Mom, even if it's kosher, you'd never let me eat a hot dog, right?" she said. "They're really unhealthy, right?"

Now, I don't usually let kids' offhand comments bother me, but that one went through me like a knife. I'm not a big server of hot dogs, but they are easy and tasty, and they seemed like a good choice at the time. Still, I couldn't help feeling embarrassed and regretful for feeding my daughter something that others considered off-limits. I'm sure this little girl didn't intend for me to feel bad (and, incidentally, her mom ended up buying her a bag of  greasy chips that were probably more unhealthy than the hot dogs); but I did. The fact is, words can hurt.

I think about this event when I teach Vayeishev, this week's Torah portion, which centers around the famed character Joseph and his tense relationship with his 11 brothers. As you probably know, Joseph is his father Jacob's favorite son. He showers praise on the boy, which makes the other brothers mad, and gives him -- and only him -- a fancy, colorful coat. The brothers' jealousy gets the best of them, and they end up selling  him to a slaveowner and convincing their dad that Joseph died. They think this will make their lives better.

Much has been written about the character flaws that drive the action. Joseph, some suggest, is at fault for flaunting his colorful coat in front of his brothers, and for recounting dreams that suggest he is bound for greatness while his brothers are not. Many say that Joseph, at least at this point is the story, is a vain, boastful boy.

But I don't agree that Joseph has a personality defect, and I don't think he is narcissistic or insensitive. I think he is simply young.

Because I teach middle schoolers, I tend to see coming-of-age themes in many works of literature, but I think it's a particularly important aspect to this Torah portion. When Joseph recounts his dreams, he seems, at least to me, as free of malice as my friend's daughter was. He and she were both relaying stories and thoughts entirely about themselves. They didn't realize what impact their words would have, because they just weren't thinking about others.

One of the most important changes that happen in the middle-school years is that children start thinking more about what others are thinking. Considering how others hear comments or perceive actions boosts clarity and often leads to better decisions. As adults and teachers, we can help them get in the habit of always looking for other perspectives. With both my students and well as my own children, one of my favorite things to say is, "I know how you feel, but how do you think he (or she) feels?"

"We can't invite her to the concert because there would be too many of us!"
"I know how you feel, but how do you think she'll feel when she learns you're all going?"

"We don't want him to be in our study group because he talks too much."
"Okay, but how do you think he'll feel when he sees you studying without him?"

The Joseph story concludes with Joseph engineering a plot that shows not only that he has learned to think before he speaks or acts -- but that he is ready to teach that lesson to others. But that's for another week.

Not too long ago, I observed a teacher trying to manage a fifth-grade class. Now, these kids were being unruly, perhaps even disrespectful. But rather than asking them to think about how she felt, and helping them become more aware of the effects of their behavior, this teacher proceeded to single individual students out, stand over them, bark orders at them, and basically intimidate them. Sure, they behaved; but they also felt humiliated and defeated.

Sometimes adults need to learn the lessons of Joseph as well.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Veyeitze: There is a God!

It was a difficult September for our local community last year. 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."