The Child in Room 18

This week I did something I pray that none of us ever have to do. I visited a child who was actively dying and his family. There is no way to express the feeling of dread that welled up as I navigated the corridors of Scottish Rite. No way to express the rush of tears that were summoned by the sobs of those that stood vigil. No way to express the anger and confusion that come with standing beside a family that has been robbed of hopes and dreams. No way to express the sense of holiness and solemnity that comes with watching a grandmother stroking the hair of the child. No way to express the unpredictable decent of laughter into tears and back to laughter. No way to express what it means to speak to a child not knowing if he can hear. Not knowing what to say. Making promises that I must now pray to be able to honor. Promises to remember, to respect, to celebrate. No way to bracket images of my own children. No way to sidestep the theological implications. No way to empathize with the parents, drowning in the grief of anticipation. No way to assess what Amichai called the diameter of the bomb. No way to process the artwork drawn by the older brother with the caption, “Good luck in heaven!” No way to thank the nurses that patiently and attentively made handprints and footprints for loved ones. No way to express what it means to be able to turn around and walk away. No way to know if my counsel is that of a sage or an idiot. No way to hit send on an email that will wound people that I care about.

It’s not about me. It’s about all of us. Together we make order out of chaos. Together we make meaning out of biology. Together we mourn and eventually celebrate. We cry on one another’s shoulders. We stand behind, beside, and among brokenness. We gather shards, patiently, indignantly, courageously, and reluctantly. We stand within the breach and look toward the light. Sometimes in the light we see the face of a dying child. Sometimes the sun/son shines so brightly we can’t help but cry.

Open Up our Eyes

Part of Judaism’s daily morning liturgy includes a blessing that thanks God for “opening the eyes of the blind.”  It’s recited by everyone regardless of whether you’re actually, technically, literally blind, or have 20/20 vision. It’s a reminder that we can walk through life with eyes wide open and still not really “see.”

Today I taught a class for 5th graders. It’s a class I teach on a monthly basis. The yearlong course has 1 simple goal: to deepen our understanding. To deepen our understanding of one another, of Jewish tradition, of life in general, and, perhaps most importantly, our self-understanding.

The idea that we don’t automatically arrive at a place of deep self-understanding  is fairly obvious for adults, but it can be a bit counterintuitive for kids.

We started class with a “get to know you” game to which one student responded, “But we already know each other.”

As we debriefed together at the end of class I asked the student if she still held to her claim that they already know each other. She and others started to realize that just because they’ve been in school together for six years, just because they know some things about one another, there’s much that they actually don’t know about one another. Just because our eyes are open doesn’t mean we actually “see.”

In that same debrief another student made the point that sometimes she feels that other people know her better than she knows herself. It was a really “insightful” comment and something I know resonates with most, if not all, of us. Just as having open eyes doesn’t equate with truly “seeing,” sometimes our own eyes aren’t the best vehicle for showing us what’s going on inside of ourselves. Together we can help one another see.

God came up during class today as well. One student expressed his belief that, according to the Torah, God sees everything. His comment reminded me of one of my favorite films, Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (see the clip below, NB: it’s kind of a heavy moment in the film and not necessarily suitable for kids). Part of God’s godliness is that God isn’t limited to a single, finite, human perspective.

Insofar as I have a clearly formulated idea of God I think that the idea that God has infinite perspective  is a key for me. The beautiful flip side is that our human perspective is inherently single, finite, and (duh) human. For the most part we see with our eyes and our eyes alone. The eye is undeniably a miraculous organ, but it is definitely limited in terms of what it can take in. When we let others help us to see ourselves and our world more clearly we actually transcend our naturally limited human-ness. Bringing this line of thought to it’s conclusion, our collective seeing and sighting is a way that human beings can, together, draw nearer to God.

 

Torah in the Desert- Shavuot

Of all the places on earth that God could have chosen for giving the Torah our ancestors, why did God choose to give the Torah in the barren wilderness of the Sinai desert? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the giving of the Torah to have taken place in Jerusalem? Or anywhere else in Eretz Yisrael for that matter? Why, davka, did God choose to give the Torah in the desert?

The Desert
Hazal asked this very question and they came up with many explanations. As it turns out they believed that the desert was the ideal place for God to give the Torah. Through midrash Hazal teach us that if the Torah had been given in Eretz Yisrael it would have been disastrous. If it was given in the land of the tribe of Dan, then the leaders of Dan would say: The Torah belongs to us. If it was given in the land of the tribe of Reuven then they would say the same. In fact, if it was given anywhere in Eretz Yisrael our ancestors would have said that the Torah was meant for Jews and Jews alone. God gave the Torah in the desert so that all humanity and all creation would know that Torah is for everyone. While it was given to the Israelites, the messages and teachings of Torah are meant for all humanity.
At The Davis Academy we teach our children and our families that the Torah is for everyone. We unroll the Torah scroll for Simchat Torah and all of our parents and children sit inside. We learn how to write letters in the Torah scroll with a sofer, and all of our students learn to chant from the Torah. Our teachers help each child make their own personal connection to Torah, finding the relevance of her ancient words in our modern times. At The Davis Academy we teach that the Torah can be a lifelong eitz chayyim and source of inspiration whether you want to be a scientist, an artist, a fireman, an astronaut, a rabbi, or a lawyer. At The Davis Academy we teach that the Torah’s wisdom is meant for all of us.

The Face of God, Other, and Self: A Purim Reflection

“When You hid Your face, I was terrified.”

— Psalm 30:8

“The presence of the face is precisely the very possibility of understanding one another.”

 –Emmanuel Levinas, 1952

            Purim is once again at hand. In addition to the costume pageants, carnivals, school dance, school-wide scavenger hunt, and frozen yogurt cart, Purim also has a serious side. Consider the idea of Hester Panim (literally “Hidden Face”). Hester Panim refers to the fact that there is no explicit reference to God in the Megillah. It raises the theologically challenging idea that there have been times in Jewish history when God has hidden God’s face, or maybe even looked the other way. 

            The Jewish-French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, has an interesting take on Hester Panim and on the idea of the “face” in general. Levinas believed that seeing the face of another human being was always a transformational experience. Once we’ve looked into the eyes of another person, noticed the creases of their brow, and the slight asymmetry of their features, we immediately find ourselves ethically (and infinitely) obligated to them.  The face, more than anything, conveys both the uniqueness and the universality of what it means to be human.

           Through the mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor), Purim reminds us of our ethical obligation to see the many faces that comprise our community. On the other hand, Hester Panim reminds us of what happens when we hide from ourselves and others, when we look the other way, and when we mask our humanity. As we put on our Purim masks let’s take a moment to look in the mirror. As we see ourselves reflected in that image, so too may we see our shared humanity reflected in the faces of those who surround us. When we truly see our face and the face of the Other, we counteract the terrifying notion that God may, at times, be looking the other way.

In the Grave

First Clown:
A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! ‘a pour’d a flagon
of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was, sir,
Yorick’s skull, the King’s jester.

Hamlet:
This? [Takes the skull]

First Clown:
E’en that.

Hamlet:
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite
jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a
thousand times, and now how abhorr’d in my imagination it is!
My gorge rises at it.

Hamlet Act 5, scene 1, 179–188

Rabbi:

Where do you find God?

Kindergartener: 

In the grave.

Davis Academy Kabbalat Shabbat 

           One of the greatest joys of working with children is you never (yes, NEVER), know what they’re going to say. Early this week a 3rd grader shared with me that, “God created life by creating love.” Then, later that day, a 7th grader asked me if he could donate a portion of his bar mitzvah money to The Davis Academy as a way of “thanking the school for making him who he is.” And then, there’s the wonderfully macabre statement of the kindergartener shared above. When I say that there was a collective gasp from the 300+ adults that were present when this remarked was made, I mean it.

          Imagine the scene, a visiting rabbi, Rick Jacobs, the new president of the URJ, no less, asked the question: “Where can I find God?” Responses, “In the sky”; “In your heart”; “Everywhere”; “In the sky”; and then, “In the grave.” Followed by collective gasp.

         I couldn’t help but smile. Now I happen to know that this particular kindergartener has been curious about death lately. Thankfully he hasn’t suffered a recent personal loss or anything like that. Rather, he’s very curious about death and his parents have very open conversations on the topic. But I couldn’t help but smile because he’s absolutely right.

         When Hamlet confronted the skull of his old comrade, Yorick, his imagination was “abhorr’d”. He can’t grasp that something so vital could cease to be. It’s an affront to his desire to dwell in a meaningful and compassionate universe.

          When our kindergarten student thinks of death he, knowingly or not, is expressing his belief that death is a part of life. He’s expressing the belief that as God gives us life, so too God is present with us when the light of life is extinguished. He’s paraphrasing the traditional Jewish blessing, recited upon learning of someone’s death: Baruch Dayan Ha-emet, Blessed is the True Judge. He may even be making the point made by many an existentialist philosopher that the awareness of our mortality is the key fact that compels us to make the most of each day.

          How blessed we are to have children to teach us life’s most profound lessons!

The Unbearable Lightness of Judaism

For a more fully developed exploration of this idea click here.
“The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.”
“Before the beginning of the nineteenth century all Jews regarded Judaism as a privilege; since then most Jews have come to regard it as a burden.”
    How does Kundera’s notion of “the heaviest of burdens” as “an image of life’s most intense fulfillment” influence our reading of the opening line of Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization (above)? How can Jewish educators transform the feeling of burden that Kaplan describes, with its negative connotations, into the burden that Kundera describes?
     Kundera’s burden is one that connects the bearer with the earth, with reality, and with truth. It is the burden that leads to fulfillment and happiness. The heavier the burden the greater the reward.
     Kaplan’s burden is one that keeps the bearer bent, buckled and ultimately broken. It’s a burden that oppresses, defeats, and distracts.
    I believe that the burden of Judaism can be Kundera’s burden rather than Kaplan’s burden.  For starters, to speak of Jewish commitment is to speak of a life that is grounded in Judaism. To speak of Jewish commitment is to speak on one’s ability to take a stand with both feet planted firmly on Jewish soil. Judaism is a burden that should ground us, thrust us into reality, and make us feel like our actions and decisions have weight and impact.
    When Moses approached the burning bush and found his life’s destiny he was told, “remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Just as the bowler hat floating in midair is a central image for Kundera’s novel so too should be the bare foot planted firmly on the earth a metaphor for Jewish commitment. Jewish education that seeks to instill a sense of commitment must accustom students to “taking a stand” for what they believe in and a willingness to get their feet and hands dirty.

Love Your Neighbor

This week’s Torah portion contains the oft-recited verse, “V’ahavta l’reacha camocha” (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). Not bad as far as Leviticus goes! During tefillah with our kindergarteners I asked them who their neighbor was? As usual hands went straight up and I started calling on children:

“The person who lives next door to me.”
“The person on my street.”
“Mr. Raymond my neighbor.”

But it wasn’t long before they arrived at a deeper understanding of the concept of “neighbor”:

“The person sitting next to me.”
“Someone who is close to your heart.”

And then most profound:

“God, because God is all around us.”

I was reminded of our recent 7th grade trip to Washington DC. Sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall spread out before us, we read the words spoken by Rabbi Joachim Prinz who spoke these words in his speech at the March on Washington in 1963:

“In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”

I’m no longer surprised (and haven’t been for some time now) that I probably (dare I say definitely) learn more from the children I teach than they learn from me. To what can the matter be compared? To the following parable told by the Maggid of Dubno, an 18th century rabbi and teacher (retold by Rabbi David Wolpe in his book Floating Takes Faith):

“Once a father traveled for miles with his son to reach a castle. Whenever they encountered a river or mountain, the father lifted his son on his shoulders and carried him. Finally they came to the castle, but its gate was shut, and there were only narrow windows along the sides. The father said, “my son, up until now I have carried you. Now the only way we can reach our destination is if you will climb through the windows and open the gate for me from within.”

It occurs to me that if “neighbor” is indeed a moral concept, so too are “father” and “son.”

Communicating with God

A few hours from now it will be erev Purim. It’s my day to stay late and I find myself juxtaposing two experiences I had today: this morning’s Purim Assembly at our lower school, and my afternoon 5th grade Judaics classes.
This morning the entire lower school gathered in the gym for a Purim Assembly (davka NOT a Megillah reading). One of the great blessings of The Davis Academy is that we often have the opportunity to welcome (i.e. utilize) rabbis from the community. Several of my rabbinic colleagues had agreed to dress up and participate in a Purim skit. A good time was had by all and there are pictures!
Purim is a holiday of contradictions. I find it to be intermittently profound and mundane, deadly serious and uncontrollably silly. The Purim story invites us inter alia to consider if/how/where/why God is present even as God’s name does not appear in the Megillah. I don’t want to attempt to answer that question here…
This afternoon I introduced what promises to be a rich and intense unit of study with my 5th grade students. Initially I thought the unit would center on prayer fluency and the basic concepts of Jewish prayer. As I contemplated a set induction I knew that I wanted to give the students an assignment that was vague, open to interpretation, and also personal. The assignment I came up with was: “Communicate with God.” I tried to offer as little instruction as possible. Being a beautiful day I thought it would be good to go outside.
After giving the students time to think, write, explore, or do what they would with the assignment we gathered as a class to discuss. Let me say only that it took very little prompting for students to share and listen to one another with the utmost respect. For some the assignment was a breeze, for others it was paralyzingly difficult. A number of comments were made. Here’s a selection:

“This was easy because communicating with God isn’t something I need to be taught. I already have everything I need to know inside of me.”

“If God created all of us, then when we communicate with one another, we are, in a sense, communicating with God.”

“I am always communicating with God, God is everywhere. In all that I do I communicate with God.”

“I drew a picture of Moses kneeling upon a rock and praying, God is depicted as a hand reaching down from a cloud.”

“I communicate with God by finding a quiet place to sit and relax. I like to look around and see what comes into my mind.”

“I told God about my day, about my plans for Purim and Spring Break. It doesn’t have to be a big special thing to talk to God.”

As I reflect on these, and the many other responses that were shared during these conversations, I realize now that the juxtaposition of this “assignment” and the rapidly approaching holiday of Purim needn’t be random at all, but actually quite purposeful. Purim is a holiday that invites us to speculate about God’s role in human affairs or imagine a world without God. By opening a dialogue about God with my students I found myself presented with a variety of options for negotiating these often abstract and/or dogmatically rigid questions.

Chag Purim Sameach.