Follow by Email

Monday, March 24, 2014

Tazria: The "Yuck" Portion!

What are sixth graders to make of a Torah portion that turns their stomachs?

Tazria -- it's the portion that sends b'nei mitzvah students into hysterics, cursing their parents for bringing them into the world during the spring, rather than in the fall, when the Torah portions come from Genesis. Countless rabbis have started sermons with memories of the horrible day they learned that Tazria was their bar or bat mitzvah portion -- so many, in fact, that it would seem that chanting Tazria at age 13 is a prerequisite for joining the rabbinate!

What's so terrible? Well, this portion (which is combined this week with the following portion, M'tzora) enumerates in great detail what the high priest needed to do when  someone in the community developed a skin eruption. The descriptions of such eruptions are graphic, with references to white inflammations, red streaks,  and scaly patches with white hair. Few sixth-graders can get through even a few sentences in the English translation without cringing, squeezing their eyes shut, or exclaiming, "Yuck!' and "Gross!"

So how can sixth graders have a productive conversation about Tazria?

I decided to open the conversation by telling them about my dog.

Last week, my dog picked up some kind of stomach bug. I called the vet and said that he had vomited three times during the night. The first thing the vet asked was, "What did it look like?"

Well, it wasn't exactly my pleasure to spend time on the phone describing my poor dog's vomit; but since that was the only way my vet determine if my dog's condition was serious, I gritted my teeth and did it.

I asked the students to tell me if they had ever had to do something that made them uncomfortable, but they did it anyway, because the consequences of turning away would be worse.

They responded with some interesting comments. One student mentioned that she had once chosen to taste a Japanese food that she thought looked disgusting, because she didn't want to insult the Japanese friend who had offered it. Another mentioned that a recent school lesson on puberty as an example of an experience that was distasteful -- but necessary.

I finished the discussion by talking about how the Torah is full of contradictions and separations, a theme we have covered before. There's darkness and light, masters and slaves, earth and sky, joy and grief, and so on. I reminded them that there are many beautiful portions in the Torah, but many less-pleasing ones as well, and as Tazria reminds us, attention must be paid to both.

Yes, there are times in life when you can mull over the glorious majesty of the land of Israel, as viewed by Moses after years of wandering through the desert. Sometimes you can relish the sublime mystery of love at first sight, as experienced by Isaac when he meets Rebecca.

And sometimes, you have no choice but to buckle down and describe what the dog's vomit looks like.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Shemini: Rules, Rules, Rules!

"I broke Passover last week!" one of my sixth-grade students proclaims as she enters the classroom. She looks around at the other students, and one by one, they all similarly confess that they "broke Passover" too.

Listening to them retell the circumstances surrounding their transgressions, I found myself struck by the language they used. To them, Passover was some kind of spiritual line in the sand, and in breaking it, they severed their tie to the holiday for this year.

 But is that really what Passover is -- a challenge? a endurance test? a race toward a finish line? 

Rules about food abound in Jewish life, specifying how we are to celebrate holidays from Passover to Yom Kippur. But perhaps no food rules are as problematic as those we read about in this week's Torah portion, Shemini -- the rules about keeping kosher. In this portion, the Israelis are told that they can eat only animals that (1) have clefts in their hooves; and (2) chew their cud. Other types of animals -- such as swine, camels, and hares -- are labeled "unclean" and thus unfit to eat.

As for seafood, the Israelis can eat only those creatures that have fins and scales; other creatures (such as shellfish) are "an abomination." There are also restrictions on eating birds and insects.

In my experience, middle schoolers love talking about keeping kosher. I think this is because they find the subject of rules in general totally absorbing. After all, their lives are full of rules -- you can't be late to class without a pass; you can't get an A for the quarter if you haven't turned in all your homework; you can't go on the field trip if you don't return your permission slip. Middle schoolers are rule experts.

If I gave them the chance, my sixth graders would talk about the kosher laws for hours. They would question the reasons behind the laws, and try to parse the meaning of the term "unclean." They would try to come up with animals who might not fit precisely in one category or another. And they would play out imaginary scenarios in their heads: What if a kosher person were to eat something non-kosher without knowing it was non-kosher? What if he only were to eat a teeny bite of the non-kosher stuff -- would that be as bad as eating a whole meal?

As a teacher, my goal is to get them to look at kosher rules from a broader perspective. I ask them: What effect do religious food rules have on a person's life? Can a person ever really be perfect when it comes to being kosher, and is perfection even a worthy goal? How is the kosher/non-kosher dichotomy similar to other important Jewish separations -- such as evening versus morning; earth versus sky; and Shabbat versus the rest of the week?

Most important: Should the Torah's rules about food be viewed as fences that break? Or as paths from which we may occasionally choose or need to step away?

One rabbi I know likes to tell a story about a time when he was working in the Midwest, among people who were unfamiliar with Jewish ways. He was staying with a family who desperately wanted him to feel comfortable. So when they found out that he kept kosher (and they learned what that meant), the mother traveled to a city far away, where she was able to purchase a kosher chicken. She came home and proudly served it to him -- along with a scoop of mashed potatoes made with milk and butter.

Despite the fact that the chicken was kosher, if he ate the meal, he would be violating the kosher law regarding milk and meat.

So what do you think he did? Refuse the potatoes? Or eat the whole meal, potatoes and all, in the belief that mixing meat and milk was the more "kosher" way to behave in this situation?

I'll leave it for you and your middle schooler to decide.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Tzav: Taking a Lesson from Idina Menzel

One night, I found my sixth-grade daughter sleepwalking.

It was almost midnight, when I heard an unexpected noise coming from the family room. I peeked in, and there she was, turning over sofa cushions and moving the DVD cases and Wii controls on the coffee table.

"What's going on?" I said, assuming that she was awake. "Why are you down here?"

"I'm looking for the book. I can't find the book!" she muttered angrily.

"What book?"

"The book...the one that...uuuugh!" she growled in frustration. Her loss for words helped me realize that she was still asleep, so I put my arm around her and led her back to her bed.

The next day she didn't remember a thing.

Sad to say, this wasn't the first time that my daughter had had a troubled sleep. Twice before, I heard her talk in her sleep -- once she said she needed to hurry to a restaurant, and the other time she mumbled something about a misplaced board game. She had started middle school that year, and I had no doubt that the pressure of switching classes and managing many projects and tests had taken its toll. I think that during the night, she was wrestling with the same stress she felt earlier in the day.

Why did she hold onto all that worry? Why couldn't she--to quote Idina Menzel in her award-winning Disney anthem--simply "let it go"?

In this week's Torah portion, Tzav, we learn about rituals that the ancient priests needed to carry out when making sacrifices. Among them is the rule that after making a burnt offering, the priest was not to let the ashes lie; instead he was required to gather the ashes and take them away from the altar. In this way, there would be no remnants from a previous sacrifice when it was time to perform one anew.

I can't help but think about my daughter's sixth-grade year when I consider this aspect of Tzav. After all, there are many days when the last words she said before she went to sleep were the same ones she said when she awoke -- that she was worried about how she did on a test, or she didn't know how she was going to have the time to complete an upcoming project.

Wouldn't it be great if she could have gathered up all her worries each evening -- like the priests with the ashes -- and put them away, so she could start the next day fresh?

Worrying is tough -- it can be unhealthy, too -- so it's unfortunate that middle schoolers often take on this disturbing habit while they are still so young.  One likely cause of their worrying is the big workload that comes with moving from elementary to middle school, and I've been involved in PTA committees that try to partner with teachers to keep middle-school homework assignments reasonable and reduce stress on kids. But I know it's a parent's job, too, to make sure their kids know that they have choices each night.

They can hold onto those ashes from the day, or they can remove them.

To be sure, it may take some experimentation on a child's part to figure out just how to get rid of those ashes for good. It may take some deep breaths before bedtime, and some internal effort and determination. They may try listening to music before bed, or losing themselves in a funny book or TV show.

I hope that in time, and with parents' loving help, the middle schoolers I know can learn to remove the ashes at the end of each day. That way, they'll have a much better start in the morning.

And they'll certainly sleep better at night.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Vayikra: Do Tweens Know How to Sacrifice?

It was great news when my sixth-grade daughter was promoted to a new ballet level -- but our excitement was dampened when we realized that the timing of new dance class made it impossible for her to continue with ice-skating lessons. We found ourselves at the kitchen table having one of those "You can't do everything," discussions, until finally she decided to forego the skates.

But it bothered me, that she had to make that choice. I wondered if she'd end up regretting it. In my mind, I saw all the bows she would never take, all the trophies she would never accept, her mittened fingers outstretched, her cheeks pink from the cold and excitement. I saw her hot pink skate bag and her white figure skates resting unused in her closet.

She was only eleven. Why should she have to give up one favorite activity just to progress in another?

Sacrifice -- it's at the heart of Vayikra, this week's Torah portion. In Vayikra, God gives instructions to the Israeli people about how to make sacrifices. Our ancient forefathers had plenty of experience in this activity. Among the most famous sacrifices, Abraham killed a ram and made a burnt offering after God stopped him from killing his son Isaac; and Moses commanded the Israeli people to sacrifice lambs so they would have blood to apply to the doorposts of the Egyptians.

In Vayikra, we learn that sacrifices were sometimes intended as a way to atone for a sin. But they were also a way to express thanks, awe, or reverence toward God.

These days, we generally think of sacrifices as trade-offs. We sacrifice -- or let go of -- something we currently find desirable to attain something more valuable in the long run. Sacrifices involve a weighing of options; they can be easy or painful, but ultimately we hope to be left with the feeling that we've done something correct, moral, or noble.

Parenthood is all about sacrifices. We sacrifice career growth to take care of our children; we sacrifice vacations and other indulgences to save for a house or a child's college education; we sacrifice sleep to comfort a child who has had a nightmare; and we even may sacrifice our blood pressure -- hopefully only on a temporary basis -- when our teenagers start to drive. 

But I'm not a fan of asking middle schoolers to give things up. Oh sure, I'm all for making sure that my kids cut back on candy to maintain a healthy body, or trade the fancy sandals for winter boots when it's 32 degrees outside. But when it comes to pursuing passions or seeing how far they can take a new activity -- I say, go for it. I think middle schoolers should ice skate and dance, play soccer and write for the school newspaper, learn Hebrew and act in the school musical, play piano and make pottery, swing a tennis racquet and ride a horse.

I think middle schoolers should play outside on the first warm day of spring, even if it means spending not quite enough time on homework; I think middle schoolers should grab any chance they may get to see a World Series game, even it comes on a school day.

In short, I don't think middle school is a time for shrinking options; I think it's a time to expand options, and to see much that life has to offer.

So while my daughter needed to miss a few ice-skating classes that year, I was determined to get her back on the ice you can bet she'll be back on the ice as soon as I could. And the only sacrifice I hope she'll make as a tween is the kind that involves reverence.

 I hope that every once in a while she'll stop and think about how big and awesome the world is, and how thankful she is to be a part of it.