Friday, October 23, 2009

Shabbat Noach

Earlier this week, I was trying to get caught up on some of my internet reading and I happened across a blog written by a friend and colleague on Jewish Family Living. The questions she posed for families reading her blog focused on words. One in particular resonated with me: Why do you think God names things? What is the importance of a name?

I began to think of the names – the labels – we apply to the children we work with (whether our own children, or someone else’s) and the profound impact the use of those names can have on the individuals so addressed. I also was reminded anew how the use of names/labels – even when used privately, in my own mind and never spoken aloud – affects how I view a particular student. “Motor-mouth,” “whiner,” “naysayer” – all carry a connotation that’s best not even allowed to enter my mind.

Labels applied in frustration, anger or fatigue color my perspective indelibly. How much more positive are interactions with students that I describe as “eager,” “sensitive,” or “cautious.”

Those were the thoughts that framed my view of this week’s parshah. Beginning with “This is the line of Noach…” through the story of the world around him, his building the ark, the flood, the receding waters, the covenantal sign of the rainbow, the Tower of Babel, the listing of generations to the birth of Abram, and ending with the death of Terah (Abram’s father) in Haran. There’s a wealth of commentary on the story of Noah. Much less is readily accessible (ie, available online) on the remainder of the parshah.

This year’s triennial portion is Chapter 11 of B’reisheit. It begins with the words: Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.

We know from our studies that repetitions are like flashing lights which say, “Pay attention to me!” I wonder why the repetition of “language” and “words.” They seem to mean the same thing. How are they the same? And how are they different?

The Big Question for this story seems to be “What’s so bad about building a Tower?” And in fact, our text never gives an explicit answer to this question.

Chapter 11:8 Let us build us a city, and a tower with its top to the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.

God, in essence, then says, “Well, if that’s how you’re going to behave, then I’ll scatter you anyway.”

But it doesn’t really say what specifically God was objecting to – building a city; building a tower; building a tower to the sky; or making a name for themselves. That’s called “Missing Information,” and all commentators can do is try to fill the gaps.

And so, over the course of time, a variety of “explanations” have been suggested:

  • Rabbi Boruch Leff: When man can accomplish all that he wishes to accomplish, he does not need God. Witness that they left 'from the east.' The previous reference to 'the east' was to the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8). They wished to leave the closest possible place to God that existed then and wanted to forge their own destiny without God's assistance. They wished to build a unifying city and tower but specifically wanted to begin the building in a valley. Although the usage of a hill or mountain would facilitate making the tower as high as possible, they didn't want to use anything natural or 'God-made'. There was no room for God's involvement in their project.
  • Louis Ginzburg, Legends of the Jews; "Come, let us build us a city and a tower." Many, many years were spent building the tower. It reached so great a height that it took a year to mount to the top. A brick was, therefore, more precious in the sight of the builders than a human being. If a man fell down and met his death, none took notice of it; but if a brick dropped, they wept, because it would take a year to replace it. So intent were they upon accomplishing their purpose that they would not permit a woman to interrupt her work of brickmaking when the hour of travail came upon her. Moulding bricks, she gave birth to her child, and tying it round her body in a sheet, she went on moulding bricks.
  • Rabbi Matt Carl: The Torah indicates a second problem with Babel-esque development. It says that the people built the tower "to make a name for ourselves (Genesis 11:3-4).'" The builders had reputation and status on their agenda. The midrash adds that cultivating a reputation, "a name," is usually accompanied by inequality at the deepest level. Nimrod's project required enslavement of his people and abject inequality, all in the service of ego, arrogance and narcissism.
  • Rabbi Avi Geller (in The Lively Parshah overview) writes: The descendants of Noah all decided to live together in the great valley of Babel. They appointed the first dictator and all spoke the same language (Hebrew, according to tradition). They then decided to wage war on their Creator. "We will build a Tower to ascend Heaven and battle the Almighty!"

    Others explain that they denied God's Hand in the Flood, and saw it simply as a quirk of nature. Thus it was imperative to build supports for the Heavens, to insure that they don't fall down again!

Most of these “explanations” – attempts to fill in “missing information” - are more or less familiar to many of us. I found none of them particularly satisfying to me, at this point in my life, in the year 5770.

I kept hearing the echo in my mind from verse 1 of this chapter: Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.

Words … scrambled languages…. failure to communicate …

Within the recent past, in my professional life, there have been several instances in which communication between individuals became terribly mangled – feelings were hurt; frustration experienced; anger expressed at perceived slights.

Words….in the same language…scrambled meanings … failure to communicate

And then I stumbled across these words from Arthur Koestler, a prolific writer in 20th century Europe, a secular Jew, and recipient of the Sonning Prize at the University of Copenhagen in 1968 for “outstanding contribution to European culture.”

Language promotes communication and understanding within the group, but it also accentuates the differences in traditions and beliefs between groups; it erects barriers between tribes, nations, regions, and social classes. The Tower of Babel is an archetypal symbol of the process that turns the blessing into a curse and prevents man from reaching into heaven. According to Margaret Mead, among the two million aborigines in New Guinea, 750 different languages are spoken in 750 villages, which are at permanent war with one another.

As much as we focus on being part of one huge melting pot – or tossed vegetable salad, depending on your current frame of reference – sometimes our biggest misunderstandings arise when what I hear is not what you meant, even if I understand the words that you used. Our meanings become “babbled,” if not the actual words themselves.

So, for me, the message behind the Tower of Babel is to be mindful of the words I use – and to check for understanding as carefully in English as I do when I speak to my non-English-speaking friends.

Shabbat shalom.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Book Review: Toolbox for Teachers and Mentors

Earlier this summer, a colleague sent me a link to a new book that he thought might be of interest to me. I scanned the review, ordered it, and added it to my pile of "books I really should read sooner rather than later." It's a great stack of books and currently includes the following:
  • Isa Aron's The Self-Renewing Congregation: Organizational Strategies for Revitalizing Congregational Life
  • Olitzky & Sabath's Striving Toward Virtue: A Contemporary Guide for Jewish Ethical Behavior
  • Rabbi Levi Meier's Seven Heavens: Inspirational Stories to Elevate Your Soul
  • Sedlar & Miners' Don't Retire, REWIRE!
  • Just ASK's Strategies in Action
  • Paula Rutherford's The 21st Century Mentor's Handbook

Given the fact that much of my work so far this academic year has been focusing on working with madrichim and their supervising teachers, I bumped Richard and Elaine Solomon's Toolbox for Teachers and Mentors to the top of my list.

I'm glad I did!

It's a fairly easy read, since much of the "teaching" is done in the form of a dialogue between madrichah (about to become co-teacher on her way to being a novice teacher) and mentor. Educationalese is translated into English (I'm not as well versed in educationalese as I might be); pragmatic examples for a Jewish educational setting are provided (either day school or supplemental school); there are charts and forms to use in helping to categorize or plan out specific strategies.

As I was reading, and thinking.... and then reading and thinking some more.... the thought occured that this could well be a handbook or source text if we ever were able to get our Midrashah L'Morim program going again. There are also huge segments that we could use in our regional training programs for beginning/novice teachers. The only area I think gets a little short-shrift is the area of learning disabilities - although they do a good job of presenting learning differences and multiple intelligences.

The challenge for me, now, is to go back and engage in some of the exercises the Solomons suggest for their teachers-in-training in order to see if I can plug what I'm doing into the format they suggest. If I can do that, it will make it easier for me to teach others to do so.

My specific challenge? I get stuck on the words "enduring understanding" and "essential questions." I know why I think what I'm teaching is important, but have trouble articulating that importance in that specific terminology. HELP!

The book is excellent. I highly recommend it for schools looking to start a mentoring program for older madrichim; for those that have frequent staff turnover and want to provide novice teachers with a solid foundation; and for teachers who have agreed to mentor others. And it's available through Amazon.

Addendum: After writing this piece, I happened to mention to my daughter that I was struggling to articulate an enduring understanding for the madrichim course. She looked at me quizzically and said, "That's easy."

"Huh?" I responded.

She paused a moment and said, " 'All students learn differently.' That's your enduring understanding."

"Doesn't it have to include something about teaching or Jewish Ed?" I asked.

"No," she responded firmly. "All students learn differently. That's why you teach what you teach."

"Oh," I answered humbly. And then demanded: "How do you know thus stuff?"

"I took an ed course in college. Even though it was taught horrendously, I did learn stuff."

In the words of Yehuda haLevi: Much I have learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but most from my students. Substitute "daughter" from "students" and that describes it perfectly!

Monday, October 12, 2009

End-of-the-Holidays: A Look Ahead

So what might the new year bring? "What changes can I effect to improve myself and the world I live in?" That's one of the key questions of the Fall Holiday liturgy.

In early September, I went to see my internist for a long-overdue general physical (about 3 years overdue). As we reviewed my general health and he began to order some tests and referrals (also long overdue), it dawned on me that I'd spent the last decade focusing on other family members' health and other concerns, and continuously deferred my own. (Except for the gall bladder surgery - and the sleep apnea diagnosis).

My doctor is very direct - and doesn't believe in spreading guilt or mincing words. How he is able to accomplish those two things at the same time, I will never know. But I admire him immensely for his ability to do so and am a grateful recipient of his expertise. He's also an excellent diagnostician, has a superb group of specialists he refers out to, and does a great job of serving as "case manager."

So when he looks me in the eye and says, "You've got some things to pay attention to," I sit up straight and listen.

BP - very high; LDL cholesterol is high; HDL is too low; blood sugar numbers are in the "glucose intolerance" range. He also gives me a referral to a gastroenterologist for a colonoscopy, and to a radiologist for a mammogram (long overdue, especially with my history). He prescribes a BP med, vitamin D, recommends the Mediterranean Diet, exercising, and we schedule several follow-up visits in order to monitor progress.

My dentist tells me I need dental work done.

My ophthalmologist has me scheduled for my second cataract surgery and toric implant surgery on October 14th.

I leave their offices feeling vulnerable. A little angry. Guilty for letting things get to this point.

I cling to two thoughts: my dad's favorite saying: You can't control the cards you're dealt, you can only control how you play 'em. And my internist's final comment: Change what you can - diet, exercise - but realize that part of your health and these numbers are determined by genetics. You can't control genetics.

Both are helpful - they have become my mantra.

So, changes I can make:

  • We've joined a CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture group) for the fall season and will get a share of fresh vegetables each Monday to use in building our meals around.
  • I picked up a couple of cook books and have scanned the internet for recipes that are both kosher and fit the Mediterranean Diet.
  • I've begun to do a little walking - got thrown off base by Yom Kippur but will get back to it.
  • I'm using my CPAP machine for my sleep apnea a little more consistently - my goal is to use it 5 nights out of 7.
  • I've determined to pick up my knitting needles again.
  • Before I leave a doctor's office, I schedule my next appointment.
  • I had my colonoscopy - even if it was my first child's 28th birthday!
  • I've decided to jetison the "guilt" thing - I was busy with other people's health issues these past 10 years - and that's okay. It's done. Now it's time to take care of my own - and that's also okay.
Other changes the new year offers:

I'm teaching a course (training madrichim) at the very first synagogue I ever attended services at - where I converted with Rabbi Gene Lipman, z'l, and where my husband and I joined. Many warm and wonderful memories - it's interesting to be "on staff" there. So far, I'm loving it!

I'm also doing a series of madrichim workshops at a synagogue where I had taught for 8 years and directed for 2 years. Our "classroom" is the library, where we used to have senior staff meetings. I was surprised that there were parents who still remembered me - I left there almost eight years ago - a lifetime in a supplemental school setting!

[Note: my husband's taken to calling this year "The year that Mary revisits her roots"!]

I'm part of a planning committee that's working on our regional training in November. We're drastically changing the way we'll do things. More about that later, as things evolve.

I'm leading two Torah study sessions in the next two months: Shabbat Noach at Tikvat Israel and Shabbat Vayeshev at Oseh Shalom.

Next weekend, we celebrate the 70th birthday of a dear friend - someone who's been a mentor and helped sustain me through many of the challenges the last decade presented. Without her loving and caring, it would have been much more difficult than it was.

"To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven" (Eccl 3:1)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

End-of-the-Holidays: Reflections on the Past

For many of us, this time of year is filled with introspection, reviewing the past year and looking forward to the coming year. Some years, moreso than others. This has been one of those seasons for me.

I realized as some point in the middle of the holiday liturgy that this last decade has been a most difficult one for us. Beginning in January 2000, here's an abbreviated chronology:
  • January 2000 - a dear aunt died after heart surgery
  • February 2000 - my mother-in-law died unexpectedly in her sleep
  • Spring 2000 - trying to help one child find the "right" college, all while
    grieving his grandmother
  • Spring 2000 - one child is grappling with clinical depression
  • September 2001 - one child leaves for college
  • September 2001 - September 11th - particularly close to home for those of us in the greater Washington DC area. Almost every family I worked with at that time was impacted directly - or had a co-worker who was.
  • September 2002 - our second child leaves for college; I began a new job
  • October 2002 - the Washington area sniper struck - six victims were killed within five miles of our house
  • January 2003 - I was "let go" from my job (first time ever! Two weeks before my 50th birthday)
  • June 2003 - began a job as interim religious school director
  • May 2004 - one child graduates from college; is unable to find a job
  • July 2004 - gall bladder surgery
  • July 2004 - my mother's health continues to decline; she becomes a recluse
  • Spring 2005 - one child developes a health condition, which results in a 10-day period of hospitalization
  • May 2005 - second child "walked" across the stage; graduation pending completion of several credits
  • November 2006 - auto accident: hit head on, car totaled; walked away with "only" a broken toe and some mobility issues
  • November 2006 - second child returns home, needing to complete some coursework by January
  • Winter-Spring 2007 - child's health problems increase
  • June 2007 - leave job and open my consulting business
  • Winter 2007-08 - child hospitalized twice
  • September 07 - my father has emergency surgery; does not go well; hospitalized for almost 2 weeks
  • Summer 08 - mom's dementia is constant; losing weight; my father struggles
  • Winter 08-09 - my father-in-law meets a new health challenge; we feel helpless to assist
  • December 09 - mom goes into home hospice care
  • February 09 - mom goes into a nursing home for hospice care
  • April 09 - spend a week with my dad and mother - dementia is total; there's no time but "right this instant" - the strain on my father is worrisome
  • June 09 - my mother dies - her death a release for all
  • August 09 - I have cataract surgery on one eye (second eye scheduled for 10/14)
  • September 09 - a friend of my son's from college days dies unexpectedly - from an infection picked up in the hospital. We are shell-shocked.

There have been some blessings along the way: children both graduated from college, both currently gainfully employed in jobs they like and which allow them to contribute to the communal weal; I find that my consulting business is doing well - I'm grateful for the colleagues who support me; my husband and I have celebrated 31 years of marriage - and we're still going strong! My mother's death has provided a release for many of us. It was good to spend time with my brothers and sisters-in-law when we were home for the funeral. I've been involved in starting a non-profit tzedakah organization; and currently sit on the board of another (educational) nonprofit. My child's health appears to have stabilized - and we're all rejoicing about that! Cousins' children get married - it's nice to gather for something other than funerals! We've found a place we dream about retiring to... and anticipate that the best is yet to come. We traveled to Israel.... and are determined to return. Our finances, which took a hit because of high medical costs and job changes, are beginning to stabilize and improve. Perhaps most importantly, all four of us are working -- the three of them full-time and me part-time.

In the listing of our challenges (above), I am struck by two things: 1) how truly my husband and I fit the profile as members of the "sandwich" generation; and 2) that the feelings of being overwhelmed and/or sad that I sometimes have stem from reasonable causes.

Some thoughts on looking ahead tomorrow.