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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Yitro: Now I Get It!

When my daughter was 12 years old, she began learning her Torah portion during weekly tutoring sessions with our temple's cantor. One afternoon while she was practicing, the cantor noticed that her voice was too soft. "That was great," the cantor said. "But I need you to do it louder."

"I'm sorry, Cantor," my daughter responded. "But I'm just not a loud person."

The cantor recounted this story to me, because she found my daughter's very interesting. My daughter didn't say that she didn't want to speak loudly, or she didn't feel like speaking loudly. If she had spoken one of those sentences, the cantor could have tried to change her mind or reverse her feelings. But my daughter's statement wasn't specific to this particular tutoring session or activity. She wasn't talking about a temporary, fleeting emotion or condition.

Instead, she was defining herself; she was expressing her understanding that she was a whole person with ongoing traits and characteristics that needed to be respected.

I think of this interaction when I come across this week's Torah portion, Yitro, which describes how Moses acquired the Ten Commandments. To be sure, the Commandments are rich with meaning and could be the subject of countless blogs. But for now, I prefer to focus on Moses' experience in receiving them.

Think about it: Up until that fateful moment on Mount Sinai, Moses surely had been feeling a host of disquieting emotions -- fear, confusion, insecurity, reluctance. Having fled from Egypt to live a humble shepherd's life, he was suddenly confronted with a burning bush and commanded to stand up to Pharoah. His dealings with Pharoah led to huge and catastrophic events for the Egyptian people, after which he found himself in the position of leading a massive group of followers on a journey toward an unknown future.

But then God summons him and gives the Ten Commandments, and in that instant, everything becomes clear. The word often used to describe the moment when God is revealed is "revelation." But I think of it as the moment when Moses said to himself, "Oh, now I get it!"

Middle schoolers are a lot like Moses --they are asked to do things they don't understand or take on challenges they don't feel equipped for, or they find themselves following directions when they can't the point or purpose. They study math problems that don't seem to have answers, poetry passages that don't seem to make sense, friends who are inexplicably nice one day and unpleasant the next. But then, finally -- and often unexpectedly -- some strange, new connection forms in their brains between previously unrelated ideas. And that's when they blurt out, "Now I get it!"

If you've ever had the opportunity to watch a kid who finally gets it -- whatever "it" is -- you'll no doubt agree that it's a memorable moment. Their eyes light up; their mouths open wide in delight; their shoulders drop, and they fall back in their chairs, as if all the tension they've been carrying is washing right off of them. They may even let out a huge sigh, as the magnitude of this new understanding leaves them literally breathless.

How does the middle schooler in your life look when he or she finally "gets it"? What do you feel when you watch that moment of revelation, and what does your middle schooler feel? What kinds of revelations are most satisfying to him or her? What are some of the most exciting revelations he or she has ever experienced?

The difference between "I don't want to be loud" and "I'm not a loud person" may be just a few words, but it's grand developmental leap. When my daughter made her statement to the cantor, she was showing her understanding that she wasn't just a compilation of isolated thoughts and feelings, but a united, discrete whole of a person. In short, my daughter "got" herself.

No wonder the cantor and I took notice.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Beshalach: Can You Sing?

It happened when my daughter was ten years old. Her grandmother had given her a pink shoulder bag for her birthday, and she was simply delighted. I watched her show it to another girl, saying, "Look at my new bag!" in that tuneful, spirited way people speak when they're really happy.

The other girl lifted one side of her mouth, shrugged her shoulders, and tilted her head from side to side. "It's okay," she said.

Now I don't know what was going on with that girl, whether she was jealous or angry or just in a plain old preteen funk. But afterwards, I heard my daughter sing out in that tuneful, spirited tone a whole lot less.

My daughter was about to become a middle schooler, and as you know, middle schoolers are self-conscious; middle schoolers worry about what others think; middle schoolers get embarrassed.

In short, middle schoolers don't sing. I don't mean literally singing -- matching voices to notes on a sheet of music; I mean figuratively singing -- singing out, shouting with glee, letting the sheer power of one's joy pulverize any inhibitions and produce uncensored verbal expressions of delight. That's something that young children do -- but middle schoolers don't.

In this week's Torah portion, Beshalach, the Israeli people are beside themselves with delight. They are safely across the sea and can finally put their nightmarish existence behind them, slaves no more. And what do they do at this moment? You guessed it. They sing. They throw back their heads, open their throats, and sing. It's one of the most inspiring portions in the whole Torah.

Babies sing when they're happy, squeaking and shrieking and playfully experimenting with their voices. Toddlers sing all the time. To me, one of the most marvelous revelations about becoming a parent was that I got to sing! I sang lullabyes and wake-up songs and nursery rhymes, and silly songs. I sang because I was happy; if I wasn't happy, singing made me happy.

In fact, there's nothing more fun then watching someone so delighted and excited, there's no choice but to sing out loud. Some time ago the deaf actress Marlee Matlin won an Academy Award for an acting performance. She delivered her acceptance speech using sign language and an interpreter, but was so thrilled to have won that her self-control gave way, and as she communicated with her hands, she also burst out with audible, jump-for-joy gasps. The audience went crazy, clapping and cheering and enjoying her sheer delight.

When does the middle schooler in your life sing? Who gets to hear it? Does she sing in front of her peers? Will he sing in front of you? Can you help him or her sing more?

Some time back, country singer Lee Ann Womack had a hit song, "I Hope You Dance" -- an anthem about living life to its fullest. In the refrain, she implores her listener, "And when you get the chance to sit it out or dance...I hope you dance."

I don't know about dancing; but when it comes to the middle schoolers in my life -- I hope they sing.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Sh'mot: Who Becomes a Hero?

How does an individual choose a hero to admire? How does a group choose one?

I asked my students to think about this question as we prepared to discuss Sh'mot, the first portion in the Book of Exodus. It's the first time we meet Moses -- and he acts in ways that might be considered...well, unhero-like.

The portion tells the iconic story of Moses' birth -- how his mother placed him in a basket and sent him down the river to spare him from death at the hands of the Egyptians, which would otherwise have been his fate. Pharoah's daughter finds him and raises him as her own.

In time, Moses learns what his real heritage is, and he leaves the palace one day presumably to try to understand the way of life that should have been his. He comes upon an Egyptian slave-master who is beating a Jewish slave. This apparently enrages him, and he proceeds to kill the slave-master and hide the body. The next day, he comes upon two Hebrew slaves who are fighting, and he tries to break up the fight. This leads one of the slaves to assert, "Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?"

The question reveals to Moses that his killing of the Egyptian slave-master is no secret -- so he hightails it out of town.

After reviewing these events, I asked my students: What do you make of this? What do you make of a man who impulsively kills another, hides the body, and then flees? What do you make of a man who won't take responsibility for what he has done? How does a person like this become one of our most revered historic leaders?

The ensuing conversation was fascinating, as most of the students sought to find a way to excuse Moses for his actions.

Some maintained that Moses is very young in this part of the story, and that he matures from this point to the point where he leads the Jewish people from slavery.

Some pointed out that Moses, like many Torah characters, is flawed. They add that he also behaves impulsively later in the Torah --when he smashes the tablets, for example, and when he strikes the rock in search of water. Moses ultimately gets punished for his angry nature, they said, when he dies without having entered the Promised Land.

But interestingly, some students chose to focus on his encounter with the two fighting slaves. When Moses approached them, my students pointed out, they could have stopped fighting and praised Moses for killing the slave-master. They could have thanked Moses for putting an end to the slave-master's cruel behavior.

Instead, however, they refused to embrace Moses as their kinsman; quite the contrary, they rebuffed him and challenged him.

Essentially, my students told me, Moses was caught between a rock and a hard place. He didn't identify with the Egyptian--and yet, the Hebrews didn't identify with him. He was at one with nobody; he was alone in his struggle to understand the world in which he lived. No wonder he had to flee, they said. Perhaps he  removed himself from that violent world in a search for understanding about himself and his role.

In this way, my students once again found their own essential struggles in the stories of the Torah. Middle-school students live in an emotionally dangerous world. They know how it feels to think you're doing something right, but then get called on it by the very people you thought you were helping. They know how it feels to face insults and harshness from those you expected to welcome and embrace you.

My students told me that this experience probably taught Moses a great deal about human nature, and helped him grow into the leader he eventually became.

Sad to say, sixth graders know how it feels to have people turn on you when you least expect it, and they know how that can make you question yourself and refrain from stepping up and speaking out.

I  hope that my students also will know the satisfaction that comes with standing up for a cause and leading people towards something better.