Thursday, April 10, 2014

Heard It Through The Grapevine- Let It Stop With You

 “I heard it through the grapevine…People say believe half of what you see, son, and none of what you hear…” These are the words of a 1968 song sung by Marvin Gaye…and a point of discussion in our sixth grade Advisory this week. This lesson was part of their unit on Bullying and Social Exclusion as it focused on the harm of gossip and spreading rumors. One of the L.E.A.D.E.R.S. strategies the students learn about is “Rumors stop with me.” We discussed why people gossip, the harm it can inflict, and what we can do to stop the cycle. Through a humorous video by Netsmartz, we also discussed how gossip and spreading rumors is so much more powerful in the age of texting and internet. These are some things we asked them to think about:

1. When you hear something you have the urge to pass on don’t think about whether or not it’s true. Think about:
  • Why do I want to pass this on?
  • Would I want people to know this kind of information about me?
  • How will this person feel if he/she knows this information will be spread?
  • Will spreading this rumor reduce his status or cause exclusion?
2. Make the rumor stop with you. Take a stand.
3. Don’t be an audience. “I’m not interested. Thanks.”
4. Respect privacy. If it’s private, don’t spread it.

Our 7th and 8th graders also experienced the power of gossip when Ms. Debbie Nehmad came to speak to them on Wednesday. She shared her first- hand story of how she was in 8th grade and through a chat group, gossip was spread about her and made her an outcast. For 1 ½ years she experienced bullying and social exclusion in person and on the web, which even followed her to her new high school. She shared the terrible emotional state she was in and how she even began to believe that the way she was being treated by others was actually how she deserved to be treated. Debbie shared her story with the students as a reminder of how powerful their actions can be, even if their intention is to “make a joke” or only inflict a “little” harm. There was an overwhelming reaction from the students. They had numerous questions to ask, and when she left they shared with me what an impact she made on them. Here was a real-life person who experienced such pain and actualized for them much of which they learn about in Advisory.

In thinking about it, I believe that focusing on the harmful effects of gossip was perfectly timed to occur the week before Pesach. In essence, gossip or Lashon Hara is what brought us to Mitzrayim in the first place. In the Haggadah it describes that Yaakov went down to Egypt “Anus al pi hadibbur.” We usually translate those words as “compelled by the Divine decree.” In a haggadah called the Commentator’s Haggadah , by Yitzchak Sender, he quotes the Maggid of Plotzk, (a student of the Vilna Gaon), from the Siddur Shaar Rachamim, to explain these words differently. He says that the words al pi hadibbur mean “because of the words/speech” of Lashon Hara that Yoseph spoke against his brothers. He adds that Yoseph got the sin for speaking it and Yaakov sinned by listening to it. (Which is an interesting point to share with our children. We encourage them not to pass on gossip. How about not listening to it in the first place!) The Maggid says that the punishment for this Lashon Hara was the exile in Egypt.

In 2008, it was also was a Jewish leap year. Rabbi Mayer Twerski pointed out then that this allowed the parshiot of Tazria and Metzora- parshiot that deal with the halachot of tzara’at (a leprosy- like disease), which was a punishment for speaking Lashon Hara, to be closer to Pesach. It is very fitting that we focus on the sin of Lashon Hara and its consequences before Pesach, as he also states that the exile of Mitzrayim was caused and prolonged by Lashon Hara. He refers too to the Lashon Hara of Yoseph. He then quotes another proof from Shemot 2:14. After Moshe killed the Egyptian he then sees two Jews fighting and tries to stop them. One of the Jews says, “Are you going to kill us like you killed the Egyptian?” The pasuk then states that Moshe was afraid, since “…behold the matter is known.” The pshat is that the matter was now known that Moshe killed the Egyptian. The Midrash says something different. Moshe had been wondering what terrible sins the Jews had committed to be worthy of such slavery. Now he understood! Clearly people had been gossiping about the crime he had committed. This nation was full of people who speak Lashon hara. How will they ever be redeemed?
Rabbi Frand quotes the Chofetz Chayim on this puzzling Midrash. We know the Jews had sunk to the 49th level of impurity- why could Moshe not figure out the cause of their exile? The Chofetz Chaim states that Lashon Hara is THE sin that causes G-d to not to be able to overlook all of our other sins. “If you focus on the negative, I will focus on the negative as well.” The way we judge others is the way G-d judges us. Once Lashon Hara was prevalent among the Jews, He could not overlook their other sins, and they were worthy of Exile.
In fact, this issue of Lashon Hara appears elsewhere when Moshe received his mission from G-d. Moshe was worried no one would believe him and Hashem told him to do three signs before Pharaoh when he first came to him- To turn a staff into a snake, the water into blood and place his hand in his bosom and remove it and it would be full of tzara’at. But, that last sign of tzara’at was not shown to the Egyptians. Why? Hashem said to Moshe that it should be a sign for “you.” Rashi 4:6 comments why the tzara’at? “A hint for Moshe that he spoke Lashon Hara about the Jews when he said, “They will not listen to me.’” (A snake also often represents Lashon Hara- a loose tongue).
In these days before Pesach as we clean our house from Chametz, we also need to cleanse ourselves from bad character traits and sin. Gossip causes much pain on the interpersonal level and on the national level. This past week, our middle schoolers had the opportunity to think about how they can prevent bullying and gossip, and how they can bring the Redemption one step closer.
L’shana haba’a b’Yerushalayim!
Advisory Update:
6th Grade- Focused on the topic of gossip in today’s world of technology.
7th Grade- As part of their political action unit “Do Not Stand Idly By” they have learned about the BDS movement that threatens Israel and the role they can play.

8th Grade- As part of unit on The Changing Parent-Child Relationship in Adolescence they discussed, “What if they could switch places with their parents?” Would we understand each other better? What issues is the other facing? 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Everyday Miracles

            "An amazing instance of right place at the right time..." stated The Week magazine. I beg to differ.  This past week, in Burbank,  California,  Konrad and Jennifer Lightner were moving and carrying their mattress out into the street.   Suddenly, they looked up and saw a three year old boy dangling from a chord out of a third-floor window.  Konrad positioned the mattress under the boy, and broke his fall.  Amazing, yes. How about the Hand of G-d?
            Months ago, Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons retired.   "Thirteen years ago, Gonzalez was tackled out of bounds and sent crashing towards photographer Mickey Pfleger."  Gonzalez's 240 lbs practically flattened the much smaller Pfleger, knocking him unconscious.  Gonzalez felt terrible and checked in on Pfleger.  He found out days later that Pfleger had had a seizure, and the medical team performed an MRI.   The MRI revealed a brain tumor  which was life-threatening.  Over the years, when Gonzalez and Pfleger would see each other, Pfleger hugged Gonzalez and reminded him how he was supposed to be leveled by Gonzalez, supposed to have a seizure and all that to save his life.  Coincidence? I think not.  The Hand of  G-d.  At the time, no one could have realized G-d's plan, as Yonatan Rosenblum reported.
            These newsworthy items are "teachable moments" for our children.  How can we help them see the Hand of G-d in their daily lives?  It need not be the saving of a person's life.  It can be the small things that often go unnoticed- the forgetting of your jacket  only to run in and see you also left your homework on the table.  Phew! Or, how about not making it on to the basketball team, only to be available for the new soccer team that was just started and thereby becoming the star player? 
            When I was in seventh grade, I had a teacher named Mrs. Naomi Sutton. I will never forget many of the activities and assignments we did that year.  One such activity was a "Hashgacha Pratit" (Divine providence) journal where we had to record when we saw the Hand of  Hashem in our lives.  It absolutely changed the way I perceived G-d in my life. It also changed my relationship with G-d. More importantly, it changed the way I davened.
            Helping teens connect to Tefilla has been a topic on my mind for some time.  Over the years, I have been privileged to be involved in a number of activities that I believe did make a difference in the ability of adolescents to connect to Davening. I am always searching for new answers.
            In a recent article found in the Jewish Action magazine of the OU, written by Steve Lipman, they discussed why students have such a hard time with Tefilla. In fact, Chana Tannenbaum of Bar Ilan University surveyed more than 350 Yeshiva Day School graduates who were spending their year in Israel.  When she asked them whether "Tefilla was a spiritually uplifting event," only 16.4% said it was in contrast to the "20% ... who found participation in a sports team to be fairly or extremely meaningful to their religious growth."  In truth, rather than davening by rote, we want our teens' Tefilla to be "a genuine connection with,  a conversation with, the Creator." 
            The best way to have them think about that connection during Tefilla is to have them think about it often.   I want my students to think about G-d - not only when they are in shul or in Chumash class.  I want them to search Him out  in their daily lives.
            The story of Eldad and Meidad in Bamidbar 11:24-29, struck me in a new way this past week, (as I tested my son on his test material!) .  The new elders appointed to lead the Jewish nation were to go to the Mishkan and the Presence of Hashem dwelled upon them and they prophesied.  But, two elders, Eldad and Meidad, who felt they were unworthy, stayed in the camp and prophesied there.   When he heard, Yehoshua wanted to imprison them.  Moshe, on the other  hand, disagreed and said, "If only all of Hashem's people could be prophets and Hashem would put His spirit upon them."   If only we all could speak to Hashem as a prophet does,  and feel His presence at all times.  We would be able to see Him daily, and we would be better "daveners" and better people.  We would want to do the right thing if we truly felt Hashem was watching.
            The holiday of Pesach is full of miracles and obvious demonstrations of  the Hand of Hashem. The climax of the Exodus is Keriat Yam Suf- the splitting of the Red Sea.  Rabbi Tzvi Sobolofsky points out that one may notice that that incredible miracle is found in Parashat Beshalach- the same parasha as the man(manna) , slav (quail), the finding of  water in the desert and the battle against Amalek.  This is not merely a lesson in chronology.
            There are two ways to respond to the outright miracles of the Exodus.  One could be like Amalek "asher karcha baderech" who claim that everything is "mikreh" a coincidence.  Even the splitting of the sea could be explained away with unusual natural phenomena.  They are skeptical.
             The other way to respond to a miracle is by saying that it was a one time demonstration of Hashem's daily involvement in the world.  The Ramban in Parshat Bo explains that "the ultimate purpose of a revealed miracle is to enable people to realize that they are surrounded by miracles every day. What the world calls nature is also a miracle." To prevent one from saying that he/she recognized miracles such as the splitting of the sea, but not everyday miracles,  the story of Keriat Yam Suf is immediately followed by the events of the slav, man, and the finding of water in the desert. Hashem, who performs great miracles, also provides for our daily needs such as food and water. As we say daily in Shmoneh Esrei,  "...for Your miracles which are with us daily, and for Your continual wonders and beneficences."

            Rabbi Knapp, (I hope it is okay that I share without his permission), mentioned that he often does an exercise with his own children, "Where did you see Hashem in your life today?"  Do we ever ask our children to seek Him out?  Pesach is the holiday where the Jewish people create and craft their relationship with G-d.    May the lessons of  Pesach last all year long, as we continually challenge our children to find the Hand of G-d, create a relationship with Him, and to talk to Him, at least three times a day. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sam's Philosophy For A "Very Happy Life"

               I have been spending much time this past school year thinking about happiness. On Simchat Torah I was privileged to give a shiur at my shul on the Jewish Pursuit of Happiness.   A different spin on this same concept was the basis for the shiur I delivered at the Yachad Shabbaton in Fair Lawn. (For those of us who have ever attended Yachad- a happier bunch you will never find!)  Most recently, the theme of my family Mishloach Manot was "Mitzvah gedolah l'hiyot b'simcha tamid"- "It is a mitzvah to be in the constant state of happiness." (R' Nachman M'Breslov).  Needless to say, happiness has been on my mind.
               This search for happiness led me to Sam Berns.  Sam Berns was a boy from Sharon, Massachusetts who died this past January at the age of 17 from the rare disease called progeria.  Progeria is a genetic disease which strikes less than 350 children in the world which causes accelerated aging.  I first read of Sam Berns in an article by Yonatan Rosenblum and it spurred me on to learn more. 
               One month before his passing, Sam delivered a TED talk on the topic of  "My philosophy for a happy life." (You can watch this talk at    Some time ago, he shared, he was interviewed and asked, "What is the most important thing that people should know about you?"  He responded, "My answer was simply- I have a very happy life. Even though there are  many obstacles in my life, I don't want people to feel bad for me... I don't think about these obstacles all the time and I can overcome them anyway." He then continued to offer his three tips for happiness:  
1.  "I am okay with what I ultimately can't do because there is so much I can do.  Most of my time is spent thinking about things that have nothing to do with progeria at all. I know what I am missing out on, but instead I choose to focus on things I can do.  Sometimes I need to find a different way to do things by making adjustments and I want to put those in the can -do category. (Isn't this a lesson we wish to relay to our children? We want them to see the cup half full instead of  half empty.  Through maintaining positive attitudes, finding solutions when they think a challenge is insurmountable and through taking some risks our children can be raised with Sam's tip #1. I call this tip: "Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot." (Avot 4:1). )
2. " I surround myself with people I want to be with- people with high quality.  We see each other for who we are in the inside... I am at the highest point when I am with the people that surround me every day.  They provide the real positive influence in my life... I hope you appreciate and love your family, friends, and acknowledge your mentors and community... My family and mentors always make me feel whole and good about myself." (We all know the power of positive peer pressure. We ask our teens to evaluate- do I feel good about the person I "become" when I am with this friend? Do my friends influence me to do the right thing?  Do my friends support me or often do they "walk all over me"?  Do they appreciate me for who I am in the inside?  These conversations start from a young age.  I actively say out loud to my own children why I have chosen some of my own friends- how their special qualities bring out the best in me-even as an adult. I call this tip: "Make for yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend..." (Avot 1:6)).
3. "Keep moving forward.  Walt Disney said, 'Around here we don't look backwards for very long...We keep moving forward. Opening up new doors and doing new things.' I always try to have something to look forward to and something to strive for. It doesn't have to be something big.  There is a bright future ahead that might get me through some difficult times. Staying in a forward thinking state of mind. I try not to waste energy feeling sorry for myself. If I do, I get stuck in a paradox where there is no room for happiness or any other emotion. It's not that I ignore when I'm feeling badly. I let it in so I can acknowledge it, and do what I need to do to move past it."  (Wow! The ability to learn from past mistakes and experiences rather than be scarred by them is a skill we want all our children to have.  Dwelling in upset is simply "wasting energy feeling sorry" for oneself. How can we take that energy and put it towards planning a better future situation?  We all need help in letting go of hurt and using it for self-improvement and improving the situation around us. We teach our children to say, "Okay. I am hurt. The situation is not what I want. Now what can I do about it? I know it will get better".  I call this tip "Who is wise? He who can see the future" (Tamid 32a))
               Sam ended his talk speaking about a recent illness the year before. He stated that being brave is not easy.  He then asserted that "no matter what I choose to become I will change the world..."   ( Sam then ended with his last tip for achieving happiness, "Never miss a party if you can help it."  Let's not forget that sometimes having fun causes happiness!).
               In Sam's short lifetime, he did change the world.  His parents, (both doctors), founded the Progeria Research Foundation.  The Foundation discovered in 2003 that the disease is caused by a tiny mutation in a single gene.  Sam was also part of a research study conducted by the foundation which paved the way for the first treatment for progeria.  Research they conducted provided information about aging in general.   And, as Yonatan Rosenblum noted at Sam's passing, "Just one month ago, he said publicly, 'I believe I can change the world.'  And he did. No matter what our challenges, there is no one who could watch Sam describe his “happy life” without being strengthened."

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Leaving Your Comfort Zone For Courage Zone

             Courage.  This past week Mrs. Shifra Srolovitz, a Child Life Specialist at The Stephen D. Hassenfeld Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at the NYU Langone Medical Center,  presented to our 7th graders about the  true courage she witnesses daily. What is a Child Life Specialist? In short, they are “pediatric health care professionals who work with children and families in hospitals and other settings to help them cope with the challenges of hospitalization, illness, and disability.”  Mrs. Srolovitz described to our students what her center is like through taking them on a virtual tour of the facility, describing to them some of the challenges faced by the patients, and her role in helping them cope with some of the difficulties of undergoing treatments. 
             Our students then decorated stuffed animals (gorillas) with encouraging phrases and pictures that will be delivered to patients by some of our students.  Speaking about illness and asking our students to perhaps deliver some of the gorillas asks them to step outside their comfort zones.  For most children, and adults, connecting with someone with illness is awkward. They do not know what to say. They do not know how to act.  In Advisory, they learn about the power of the words we say to ourselves when faced by challenge, and the words we can share with others. 

             I feel that stepping outside their comfort zones is essential for teens. Dr. Marilyn Price Mitchell highlights that particularly teens may be best suited for this as they are known for their risk-taking behavior.  She states that we always associate risk-taking behaviors as being negative and leading to dangerous behaviors.  There is, however, a positive side to risk-taking which encourages teens to stretch their comfort zones.  “Happiness is not just about doing things you like.  It also requires growth and adventuring beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone…Curious people invest in activities that cause them discomfort as a springboard for higher psychological peaks.” In her research study she found that this kind of  risk-taking” led to teens feeling a “sense of accomplishment and self-esteem that came from learning to solve problems, working with others and pushing their comfort zones.”  All these benefits came despite their noting that they felt “scared.”  In today’s society we often find people who avoid discomfort at all costs.  Discomfort is essential in building resiliency.  Since the teenage brain craves risk-taking, we can help them utilize this natural inclination for the positive. When was the last time your teen went out of his/her comfort zone for the good?   Risk-taking can increase happiness, Dr. Mitchell stresses.

            Margie Warrell from Forbes demonstrates how “getting comfortable with discomfort” is essential for success in life. “… no worthwhile aspiration can be accomplished from within our comfort zone.  Only in giving up the security of the known can we create new opportunity, build capability, and grow influence.  As we do, we expand the perimeter of our ‘Courage Zone’ and our confidence to take on bigger challenges in the future.”   I would like to borrow her term “Courage Zone.” We need to step out of our comfort zones and out into our courage zones where we risk the chance of failure, are willing to face criticism, and are able to deal with the discomfort.  Let’s help our children step into and expand their “courage zones.”

            This term courage reminds me of when Mrs. Srolovitz most poignantly described a program they run called Beads of Courage. As the Beads of Courage website describes, “Children who participate in the program receive colored beads that represent milestones, procedures, and acts of bravery. For instance, they get a yellow bead for an overnight hospital stay, a white one for chemotherapy, and a glow-in-the-dark bead for radiation treatment. It's not uncommon for children to amass 10, 20 -- even 35 -- feet of beads. It helps young patients track and celebrate their progress, but it also gives them a way to get through upcoming procedures, says Gwendolyn Possinger, the coordinator of Children's Memorial Hospital's Beads of Courage program in Chicago.   ‘A child facing another needle can look at his beads and realize that he made it through before so he can do it again,’ she says.”  These beads testify to the courage these children use to face life’s challenges.  In Advisory we share that all challenges- from the big test the next day, a fight with a friend or, G-d forbid, an illness, they all take courage. 

            In Megillat Esther we read of Esther’s struggle in going before Achashveirosh as Mordechai had asked her.  She responded in 4: 11, “All the king’s servants, and the people of the king’s provinces, know, that whoever, whether man or woman, shall come to the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is a law; to put him to death, except such to whom the king shall hold out the golden scepter, that he may live; but I have not been called to come to the king these thirty days.”  Esther ultimately acquiesces, but she needed to step out of her comfort zone and into her courage zone.  She was truly afraid. 

            Using the Purim story and Esther as an example, we relay the message to our children that being courageous does not mean not being fearful. It means doing what you need to do even though you are afraid.  We do not admire people for being fearless. Overcoming those fearful feelings, and expanding our “courage zones” is that which is admirable.  



Friday, March 7, 2014

Let It Go

“Let it go. Let it go. Can’t hold it back anymore…” At any given moment one can hear one’s children singing that song at home or even at school between periods. (There is even a rumor that  a whole class sang it recently together! )  “Let it go” is the song that was awarded Best Original Song at the 86th Academy Awards this past Sunday.  It is from the Disney movie Frozen, which won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.   Children all over the globe are singing “Let it go”- in all different languages. (My children found it in Hebrew on youtube).
As we know, research  indicates that there is clear impact of lyrics on childhood behavior. I, therefore, am always the first to try to hear the lyrics. Here are some:
The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn't keep it in;
Heaven knows I've tried
Don't let them in,
don't let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don't feel,
don't let them know
Well now they know
Let it go, let it go
Can't hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don't care
what they're going to say
Let the storm rage on.
The cold never bothered me anyway
                In thinking about these lyrics, I considered that the song is really advocating the importance of letting out ones feelings and not concealing them.  In the discussion of whether one should suppress or express ones feelings, the song highlights the freedom one feels when one expresses all that he/she has been keeping inside.   (Parents, please note:  I am utilizing this song and movie as a “teachable moment” with which to engage our children, and not as a source for wisdom!)
             As parents, should we be encouraging the “venting”  of feelings and letting loose?  While Elsa was unable to share her powers to turn things into ice (i.e., she was concealing), she was miserable and separated from others.  On the other hand, as one can see in the movie, once the character Elsa “let it go” it caused great destruction and fear in the country and caused for her to be isolated from others.  We know quite well the wrath of a teenager who vents all that he/she is thinking towards their siblings, or even a teacher with deleterious effects. 
            We nowadays know  intuitively that bottling up one’s emotions is not healthy- emotionally and physically. In fact, a recent September study by Harvard’s School of Public Health showed that those who suppress their feelings can be 1/3 more likely to die young and 70% more likely to have cancer.  Suppressing and ignoring feelings can lead to stress, anxiety and other mental health issues.
            However, I believe in teaching our children the power of controlled venting.  (Going back to the movie, the problem with Elsa once she “let it go” was that she did not know how to control her powers or her emotions).   It is important to understand and express our feelings, but we cannot allow our feelings to rule.  Dr. Miriam Adahan calls this “emotional modesty.”  When sharing our emotions with others will overwhelm them it is “immodest,” as the person is unable to “receive your pain with empathy and compassion.” It is not always appropriate to expose ones feelings.   She uses the example of adults letting go in front of their children who typically cannot handle those emotions.  Adahan also adds that at times venting about ones problems can allow one to feel better for a short time, but may “exacerbate self-pity and despair.”  (Interestingly enough, University of Buffalo psychologist Mark Seery demonstrated in his research study that after experiencing a collective trauma it might actually be better  not to express one’s feelings, leading to more resiliency). 
Furthermore, Adahan continues, often sharing one’s feelings can cause the humiliation of others.   And, of course, there are times that sharing one’s internal thoughts and feelings can lead to others “using the information against you.”  Letting one’s boss know how irritating his habits are can obviously lead to dismissal.  One must vent in a savvy manner.  I often work with students on evaluating, what is the best way to express what I want without causing more trouble for myself? Children need to be trained on stopping to think about the possible consequences before they express. 
            We should not necessarily control our emotions, but learn to use them.  Locking up our feelings inside does not help.  First we need to understand our emotions, perhaps what causes them, and then use that understanding to improve oneself and the situation at hand.
            This discussion of whether one can control one’s emotions is an interesting discussion to have with one’s teen.   Are you responsible, according to the Torah, for feelings that you feel? (i.e. feeling jealous, angry?) It says in Bamidbar 15:39 “V’lo taturu acharei l’vavchem v’acharei aineichem” “Do not stray after your hearts and after your eyes.”  This pasuk implies that one must exercise control over one’s thoughts/feelings.  The Gemara in Bava Batra states, “No person is saved from thoughts of sin.”  How is it possible for G-d to command us to control our thoughts and feelings? 
            Rabbi Dovid Hochberg says the answer to that question lies in understanding the difference between having a thought/feeling and responding to that thought/feeling.  G-d has created us with having powerful desires and feelings. It is our response to those feelings that we are asked to control.  We can’t just “let it go.”  We need not act on feelings.  We have free choice.  The initial feeling may not be controllable, (although with therapy, one can learn to change one’s thoughts/feelings), but our response and subsequent actions are.  We understand how angry, for example, our son was at our daughter when she took the remote controls from him. We do not, however, excuse the actions- his pulling her hair until a piece was ripped from its roots. (Purely an example- not a real-life scenario!)
            Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman, in his article “The Book of Her Life” speaks about a congregant in his shul he calls “Sylvia” who couldn’t even read Hebrew.  On her 75th birthday she handed the rabbi her journal and said, “This journal contains my life’s work. I know I am not the most learned or educated person in the shul.  However, this journal is the ‘evidence’ I intend to exhibit at my Final Judgement.”  She told him he could read it after her death until the funeral. At the funeral, she wants it buried with her.  He could not imagine what was inside. When she passed, he read the book.  “March 1961 Morris forgot my birthday.  I told him I was upset, but although I was upset, I successfully restrained myself and did not get angry…October 1965 Steven decided to raid the refrigerator and ate all of my pies for the shul’s pie sale. I disciplined him however I did not raise my voice or display any anger…”   Rabbi Eisenman stated that the journal detailed all the times she wanted to get angry but didn’t.  “As I touched the yellowing pages of the 44 year old journal, I realized I was touching a masterpiece on self-control,” Rabbi Eisenman said.  And, to his son, who asked what was inside he said, “When they read her journal upstairs, it will move Heaven and earth. Indeed it is her personal Torah. It’s your mother’s passport to the Next World. Every single page has the scent of Gan Eden.” 
            Rabbi Eisenman’s story struck me as another type of control of one’s feelings. Not denying them, but containing them as realizing that losing control will only make things worse.  Perhaps that is a different form of “letting go”- letting go of emotions that can be destructive.
            Getting back to the movie…As long as Elsa was unable to control her power she needed to stay isolated from the rest of the world.  The inability to control one’s feelings does not make for successful social interactions / relationships or success in life in general.  Only once Elsa learned how to redirect her powers for the good was she able to return to life.  The message of “Let it go” is not to let loose for it is better for one’s health and who cares about the consequences or the collateral damage, (i.e. all those we hurt along the way).  Rather, the message we need to relay to our children is that controlled expression of oneself  leads to greater life satisfaction and to better results.

Advisory Update:
6th Grade- They have begun a unit on bullying and have learned what true bullying is. They also  discussed why children tend not to approach  adults when faced with bullying- and what we can do to change that.
7th Grade- They have had a program with Child Life Specialist, Mrs. Shifra Srolovitz, who trained them to decorate toy gorillas for ill children with “affirmations” and encouraging words. They did this activity based on what they learned in Advisory about coping statements they can use when faced with adversity in life in their unit “When Life Gives You Lemons.”
8th Grade- They targeted the moral issue of lying and the pressures that cause us to lie and the ramifications.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

True Heroism The Jewish Way

            Yesterday, February 22nd,  was  George Washington's birthday.  As we commemorated  Presidents'  Day this past week, and memorialized Presidents Washington and Lincoln, their birthdays were more thought-provoking for me than in the past.  During winter break my family travelled to Washington D.C.  Since this was not our first visit as a family, we added two new destinations to our itinerary.  We toured Ford's Theater and the museum which was about Lincoln's life, contributions, family and his death.   We also visited Madame Tussaud's Gallery of Presidents, where every past President is featured in a wax figure.  Our children took photos with every President, (as they sang the Presidents' song they learned in 2nd grade), and we took time to read about each President.   So, while Presidents' Day is often a day off from school, or a sale day to purchase end of the season items, for our family this year it was a day that came alive to commemorate heroes. 

            At the same time, I am beginning a unit in Navi with my seventh graders on  whether characters in Tanach should be viewed as perfect, or can they still be heroes and role models while having flaws. As the students learn the story of Kind Dovid and Batsheva, there are parshanim who defend Dovid's actions as being halachically correct.   This school of thought stresses the importance of placing our leaders on pedestals, establishing an ideal to which to aspire.  The belief that perfection does exist inspires us to achieve more.             Other commentaries admit that King Dovid's act was a sin, (as it relates in the pasukim, and Dovid himself admits),  and even tzaddikim do sin, "Ein tzaddik ba'aretz asher yaaseh tov v'lo yechtah," "There is no such thing as a righteous man in the land who does good and never sins."  

            These different schools of thought  are often found throughout Tanach when it comes to the mentioning of sins of characters in Tanach. Ramban and Rav Hirsch, among others, ascribe to the philosophy that "The Torah never hides from us the faults, errors, and weaknesses of our great men.   Just by that it gives the stamp of veracity to what it relates..."(Rav Hirsch, Bereishit 14:10).  Rav Hirsch continues to state that these faults do not minimize the greatness of these leaders, but rather makes them more instructive. We can look at them and state that they have the "same nature" as we do, and we therefore can emulate them.

          This difference of opinion as to whether our heroes and ancestors are to be considered flawless or as having human character flaws is interestingly noted by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book Team of Rivals where she quotes Abraham Lincoln himself  and his view of George Washington.  "Years later, Whitney [a Lincoln legal colleague from 1850s] recalled a lengthy discussion about George Washington. The question for debate was whether the first president was perfect, or whether, being human, was fallible. According to Whitney, Lincoln thought there was merit in retaining the notion of a Washington without blemish that they had all been taught as children. 'It makes human nature better to believe that one human being was perfect,' Lincoln argued, 'that human perfection is possible.'"  Do we want to know that George Washington cut down that cherry tree? Do we want to know about JFK's indiscretions, and does that affect how we think about his legacy?  Perhaps we are too tolerant of flaws in our leaders today?

            Rabbi J.J. Schacter, in his lecture,  "Must Biblical Heroes Be Perfect?" notes that in today's society we have a much easier time with the perspective that highlights the flaws of our biblical heroes.  Our "anti-authoritarian" culture has a hard time accepting placing leaders on pedestals.  This does lead to a difficulty in accepting rabbinic authority and the ease at which we criticize our leaders.  Is this a good thing?
            Rabbi Schacter continues to wonder how this relates to our notion today of our parents.  How old were  you when you realized your parents were not perfect?   How does that affect our notion of parental authority in today's society?  

            As parents, we know we are not perfect.  There is some importance to letting our children know that we are not perfect and having them see that we are fallible.  The primary reason is that our acting as if we are perfect does not at all fool them. It also gives them permission to be imperfect too. We can make mistakes,  and then we model for them what a "hero" does to fix a mistake and to move on.  They also grow up not striving for unachievable perfection and not feeling as if they can never be good enough.

            What are some good ways to show that we are fallible?  When we make mistakes we should "laugh it off" and not make it into a big deal.  We need to say, "I'm sorry" when we make an error and own up to our mistakes.  We can even model our thought processes and analyze why we made the mistake and we can do to do better next time.  Demonstrate how we learn from our mistakes, but we do not dwell on them. 
            Rabbi Shmuley Boteach speaks about our quest to be perfect parents.  "We live in a society that invites constant comparison and, in a desire to be perfect, people actually become imperfect.  What happens when you try to be the perfect parent is that you bring an unrealistic standard into your home that no one can live up to', Rabbi Shmuley says. 'Nothing is ever good enough and, as a result, you raise your children to feel stressed, under pressure and unable to forgive themselves for being human.  The healthy parents are the ones who show their humanity. Humanity is found in the struggle and hard work,' he says... . 'Remember, it is far better to have a human household filled with light and laughter than one filled with so-called 'perfect people.'"

            In this past week's 8th grade Advisory we discussed Alex Rodriguez and his being suspended due to his involvement in using performance enhancing substances.  We recalled with the students how he was accused in 2006 of using steroids in 2003 and at first denied it.  Then, he later admitted it.  Now, he again denies use of illegal substances. Do we believe him?  After he admitted in 2006, would you still be comfortable with his being a role model for Americans?  Is it okay for heroes to falter, as he did then, as long as they "come clean"?  And, now that it is happening again- how much faltering is he allowed while still maintaining his hero status?

            The discussion of who makes hero,  and when does that hero lose our admiration is an important discussion to have with our children.  Recently, I read another column of Rabbi Boteach about Justin Beiber.  A few weeks ago he was arrested in Miami when he and his "entourage" blocked off a residential street to drag race high-end sports cars.  "The society that turned a boy into the Bieb also deserves blame. There's something sick in turning celebrities into gods..."  

            Cleary the "Bieb" and "A-rod" are not the role  models we want for our children.  L'havdil, we want their role models to be Dovid HaMelech,  Moshe Rabbeinu, the Avot and the Imahot who may have had flaws, (according to some), but were better people for those flaws.  More importantly,  by exposing those flaws, the Torah allows us to become better people. That is a hero.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Lessons of Inclusion and "Behold"

 “Hiney ma tov u'manaim shevet achim gam yachad.” “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to to dwell together in unity.” The words of Tehillim 133:1 were on our minds this past Shabbat's Yavneh -Yachad Shabbaton. The name of the organization Yachad explains its mission- the inclusion of every member of the Jewish community. In fact, February is National Inclusion Month. One can clearly see the benefit for our students as they work with the Yachad members. It creates a sensitivity and caring that cannot be taught. (And, it is no coincidence that we hold this Shabbaton each year at the shul called Ahavat Achim. We thank the community for opening their homes and shul, and showing our students what true unity is about).

There is also the message of “Hiney” “Behold” that our students learned this weekend. What is this lesson? The secret to this lesson is found in pasuk 2 in Mizmor 133, where it states, “As the good oil on the head runs down upon the beard, the beard of Aaron, which runs down on the mouth of his garments.” What does Aharon's beard have to do with brothers sitting in unity?

Interestingly enough, in a shiur I was privileged to share this past Shabbat, we discussed the reaction of Moshe when Hashem shared with him that he would be the leader to take the Jews out of Egypt. In Shemot 3:10, Moshe asks Hashem instead to send Aharon, as Rashi points out in 10:14, as he was afraid that Aharon would be resentful that his “little brother” was chosen instead of him. But, Hashem responds in Shemot 4:14 that “Behold, he is going out to meet you and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart.” There will be no jealousy, but only happiness for his brother. Aharon was able to overcome the sibling rivalry that many children and adults feel. But, still Moshe refused to take the leadership position for seven days. He was therefore punished that he would not be the Kohen Gadol, as was the original plan. His brother Aharon would play that role.

This transferring of the High Priesthood to his brother is born out this week's parasha. The entire Parasha of Tetzaveh does not even mention Moshe's name. It is in this parasha that Aharon was chosen to begin the kehunah, and it is as if Moshe symbolically is stepping aside to allow his brother to have the limelight. In Tehillim “like precious oil upon the head...” is referring to when Moshe annointed his brother as Kohen Gadol. Rabbi Mordechai Willig points out that the Midrash Vayikra 3:6 highlights that the word “beard” is repeated since “when Moshe saw the oil on Aharon's beard, he rejoiced as if it was running down his own. Moshe reciprocated Aharon's expression of joy and lack of jealousy.”

Rabbi Willig continues to point out that the word “behold” is used above when Aharon was joyful with Moshe's leadership, (Shemot 4:14), and also when Hashem shared with Aharon, "Behold I have given you the gift of kehuna," (Bamidbar 18:8). And, then again in Tehillim “Behold, how good and pleasant is the dwelling of brothers together.” “Behold" (Hineh) is an expression of joy, as in 'Behold...he will rejoice in his heart'(Rashi)... This is the meaning of the expression 'Behold.' One must recognize that his lot is ordained by Hashem, and be happy with it. Everyone will be called by name, set in place and given a position. No one shall encroach upon your wealth or kingdom, even for as much as a hairsbreadth (Yoma 38b-39a)... 'behold', describes the joy of these two great brothers, Moshe and Aharon. It also challenges all of us to eliminate jealousy and to happily accept the lot that Hashem has ordained for each and every one of us. Only then will we all be able to dwell as brothers in unity. How good and pleasant will it be!”

 (In fact,  new research indicates that true friendship does not only mean being "there" when a friend has trouble to support him/her.   A true friend is able to be "there" for you when things are going right for you- without any jealousy. It's the ability, as we say in Yiddish and Hebrew,  to "fargin" the other having better than you. And, even more so, the research continues that the" happiest people are the ones who are present when things go right for others—and whose own wins are regularly celebrated by their friends as welll").

The message of “behold” is one our students receive when they interact with the Yachad members. Despite having developmental disabilities, the sheer happiness these children have reflects the ability to “happily accept the lot that Hashem has ordained for each and every one of us.” It puts it all into perspective for our typically developing students, as they realize the importance of being happy with their lots in life. As Rabbi Willig said, “ Everyone will be called by name, set in place and given a position.” In a community that believes in and practices inclusion, everyone does have a place. As parents, we need to constantly remind ourselves and our children of the lessons of “behold”- how lucky we are and how thankful we are to Hashem for granting us the lot we were given. “Eizehu ashir, hasameach b'chelko” “Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot.” (Avot 4:1) Isn't raising happy children our goal?

Advisory Updates:

Sixth Graders- Discussed the differences between spoken (direct) and unspoken (indirect) peer pressure.

Seventh Graders- Discussed resiliency and the skills needed for resiliency.

Eighth Graders- Continued practical discussions about cheating and the high stakes and pressures many students face in school.