Thursday, May 8, 2014

They Made a Difference

Teachers from K-12

This is Teacher Appreciation Week, and I've been thinking a lot about the teachers I have had - particularly those who have made a positive difference.

The first teacher I remember being such an influence, was Sister M. Deborah, CSA.  I had Sr. Deborah for 3rd and 4th grade, at St. Joseph's - a four room Catholic grade school in Berlin, Wisconsin.  Sr. Deborah was young, maybe nineteen or twenty at the time.  Word had it that she was pulled out of the convent early because there was a teacher shortage and she had a gift for teaching.  I can't verify the first part of that statement, but I can attest to the second part.

Our classroom had approximately 40 students in it - half in third grade and half in fourth grade.  Each grade had its own curriculum for reading (4 separate reading groups in each grade!), math, and spelling.  We had religion, music, art and physical education all together in one group.  Long before the days of experiential education, I remember clearly two things I learned from Sister:  that learning was fun, and that if I finished my work before everyone else did, there was always a book from the "library shelves" I could explore.  My favorites?  The dictionary and the encyclopedia!  I learned that in some situations, I was responsible for my own learning.

The second teacher I remember "making a difference" was Sister Mary Patriciana, OP. Sister Mary Patriciana was tiny - even shorter than I was in 8th grade.  She was new to St. Dennis Catholic School in Madison, Wisconsin my 8th grade year.  St. Dennis was a much larger school - grades 3-8, in a twelve-room school.  She was not only the 8th grade teacher, she was also the principal, replacing a much-loved teacher/administrator.  Although I'd only been in the school for one year before she came, many of my classmates felt much closer to her predecessor.  We weren't particularly nice to her: we were respectful to her face, yes - but not nice. Behind her back, we called her "Mighty Mite."

At that time, I had volunteered to play the organ for weekday mass.  I wasn't particularly good - I could pick out a song on a piano keyboard, but not much more than that.  But we didn't have an organist and I was raised to volunteer to help when I could.  For reasons I won't go into, the parish priest chose to make negative comments about my "playing."  One day, he was particularly cruel in scolding me in front of the congregation.  After I finished playing that specific song, I closed the organ (without being told we were done) and tried to hide my tears.  Sr. Mary Pat came up to me, put her arm around me, and pulled me into a less public corner as I cried.  She wiped my tears and then said words I never thought I'd hear from a Catholic Sister: "Father was wrong to speak to you that way.  He should not have been mean to you. He was wrong."  With her support, I found it possible to walk into my class composed and not respond to my classmates' curiosity.

What I learned from Sister Mary Pat was that people in authority are not always right, and that no one has the right to humiliate someone else.  That was a brave message to teach me, back in those pre-questioning days.  She must have said something to the priest because he stopped picking on me in class as well.

I had some good teachers at Edgewood High School in Madison, too - Sister Alfred Marie, SND,  who taught 9th grade World History and was absolutely fanatical about how to write a research paper.  The first day of class, she informed us that our semester exam would be a research paper entitled, "The Causes and Effects of the French Revolution."  When we all panicked - she reassured us that she would teach us how to take notes, organize materials from multiple sources, make proper citations, and write a research paper.  She kept her word.  From Sister Alfred Marie, I learned that structure and organization have a critical role in education.

Sister Tobias, SND, taught Spanish, through immersion.  Our first day of class, she explained that would be the last day we could use English in her classroom - and that she would only speak in Spanish from then on.  She assured us that we knew more than we thought we did - and that we could figure out the rest from the cues she would give us.  I suspect she used a lot of pictures and movements - but we learned.  From Sr. Tobias, I learned that sometimes we just need to immerse ourselves completely in a new situation, even before we figure out all the answers. 

When I was a sophomore, we moved to Watertown High School.  I had a number of good teachers there - but two stick out in my mind:  Bruce Wittenwyler and Earl Hennessy.

Mr. Wittenwyler taught 10th grade English - American Lit.  He was enthusiastic and asked great questions.  Even though we weren't sure it was "relevant," we learned a lot about different eras of writing, how they differed from each other, and how they reflected the times in which they were written.  What I remember most about Mr. Witt, however, was how he made a new kid - who joined the class 2nd semester Sophomore year - feel a part of the classroom community.  Without making a big deal about it - he just included me and made me feel a part of his classroom community.  I was "one of the gang" - a fairly new experience for someone who at that point was attending her fifth school in 10 years.

Mr. Hennessy taught 12th grade Sociology (second semester, Senior year) - and by that time, I really had become "one of the gang." The group of us thought we were really something pretty special - and we discovered early on that we could distract Mr. Hennessy from book work by asking questions about current events.  And there were plenty of current events to ask questions about.  The Vietnam War was at its height - and some of my classmates would be drafted after graduation.  Campus unrest (including in Madison) was at an all-time high - we were just a year after Kent State.  We were seeing the effects of the Civil Rights Movement - not only in black/white relationships, but also in the use of some of the nonviolent protests for addressing other issues.  Finding an issue was easy - and so was getting Mr. Hennessy to facilitate our discussion of those topics.

We really thought we were quite clever, until one day, when he asked a question during our "diversion" and then cited six of us who were not allowed to respond - "to give someone else a chance to express themselves.  Discussion needs to have more than just a few people involved," he told us. From Mr. Hennessy, we learned how to disagree agreeably - how to disagree with someone's idea without attacking the individually personally.  The lesson may not have been in the text book, but it was a critical lesson for us to learn as we prepared to take our place in the adult world.

So those were some of the educators in my life who made a difference.  There were others during those twelve years, but these six were remarkable. The lessons I learned were not included in any curriculum, but they were life-lessons which helped shape the person (and teacher) I've become.

Thank you, Sister Deborah and Sister Mary Pat, Sister Alfred Marie and Sister Tobias, Mr. Witt and Mr. Hennessy.  You made a difference.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

In the Image of a God Who Can't Be Seen

The Torah portion for the intermediate days of Passover is Exodus 33:12-34:26.

In the narrative, these verses occur shortly after our exodus from Egypt, and after Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the two tablets with the Ten Commandments.  While he is gone, the people become frightened at his absence.  They plead with Aaron to make a god for them, since they didn’t know what had happened to Moses.  In response, Aaron tells them to collect their gold, which is then melted and used to form the Golden Calf.  Moses returns from Mount Sinai, sees what the people have done and becomes furious with them, smashing the tablets as he proclaims his anger. 

And then he turns to bargain with the Eternal to allow the Israelites to continue to live.  “The people have sinned,” he argues, “but forgive them or erase me from the record.” God sends a plague to destroy the sinners and tells Moses to lead the people to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Moses continues bargaining with God. “Let me see Your face,” Moses begs, “You’ve singled me out to do Your work.  If You really want me to lead Your people, let me know Your ways. 

God is adamant:  “No one can see Me and live – you can tell I am with you by observing My goodness and My compassion.”

Moses persists.  God finally relents and tells Moses to stand in a cleft in a rock and God’s hand will protect him as God passes by – and then God will take away the protection of God’s hand and Moses will be able to see God’s back.  God repeats, “My face must not be seen.”

As we build a new relationship with someone, it’s typical for us to try to look beneath the surface to the real essence of the person we are encountering.  We look for all types of indicators of personality, values, and character.  As our relationship deepens, we often gaze intently into the other’s eyes, in order to glimpse the essence of who they are.  What is it they really want from us?  How do they really want us to be?  How far will this relationship go?

We are limited in our understanding of God because of our own humanity and because our language is incapable of describing the indescribable.  And, like Moses, if we try to fit God into our understanding – we encounter the same response: “My face must not be seen.”

And yet, it is a tenet of Judaism that we are all created b’tzelem eloheim (in the image of God).  How is it possible that we are created in the image of Someone Who cannot be seen? 

The Etz Hayim commentary reminds us that “in the words of the Hatam Sofer, we cannot see God directly.  We can only see the difference that God has made after the fact.  We can recognize God’s reality by seeing the difference God has made in people’s lives.”

Most of us can remember people who have “made a difference” in our lives – a parent or older relative, a teacher, a colleague, a student we have taught.  We look to our heroes – people who have made a qualitative difference in the lives of many by the leadership they demonstrated, the injustices they’ve tried to right, or the beauty they’ve brought into the lives of countless individuals. 

The difference they make, however, is not always readily apparent in the moment.  Many times, it’s only “after the fact” and upon reflection that we see the impact they’ve had upon us and others. 

Sometimes, we too are privileged to make a difference in the lives of those we touch.  Sometimes those differences are huge – saving a life; mentoring a student; donating generously of our time, money and energy to bring tikkun (repair) to the world. 

Other times, we’re unaware that our actions have made a difference – a phone call to a lonely friend, greeting a store clerk with courtesy, reaching over to hold the hand of a person in distress, letting someone else go first in line.  None of these actions (or others like them) are necessarily significant, at least to the initiator.  But to the recipient, they can truly “make a difference.”

By engaging in Godly behavior, we will help others (and ourselves) recognize God’s reality.

Questions for Discussion:

  1.  Identify someone who made a difference in your life.  Who was that person?  What were the circumstances? How did knowing that person make a difference in your life, in your circumstances, or in the person you’ve become?  Share your story with someone else.
  2. Identify a public person who you admire for the difference that he or she made in the lives of others?  What values did that person exemplify? What impact is still being felt as a result of her or his actions?
  3. Think about some of the values that you consider important.  What everyday actions can you do to make a difference in someone else’s life?

Published by the Washington Jewish Week on April 17, 2014

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Torah of Pete Seeger

With the death of Pete Seeger earlier this week, I’ve been reading a lot about his music, his practices, and his commitment to justice/tzedek and repair of the world/tikkun olam.  I’d like to share the Torah/teachings of Pete Seeger, as I understand them.

I.   Say what you believe, regardless of the consequences.  During the “Red Scare” of the 1950’s, Pete was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and  refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights: "I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” (Wikipedia).  He was indicted and later convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to “name names.” The conviction was ultimately overturned, so he didn’t have to serve any of the 10 years he was sentenced to.  In the meantime, his mobility was restricted, and he was blacklisted from appearing on television until the mid-60’s.  He was willing to pay the price for adhering to his First Amendment rights.

II.  It’s not enough to “talk the talk,” we must be willing to “walk the walk.”  There was a solid consistency between the words that Pete sang, and the activism he engaged in.  Starting with his involvement in the labor movement of the 30’s and 40’s, through his protests against nuclear proliferation (1950’s), and his work on behalf of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, Pete’s presence and his music spoke loudly on the behalf of the disenfranchised.  In the mid-1960’s, he began his work on environmental education and action, which continued up until the time of his death.  He was also heavily involved in the Jewish camping movement – specifically with the Surprise Lake Camp in New York.  The Camp’s mission statement says they "provide a high quality Jewish camping experience where children and young adults will be safe, have fun, and grow as they engage in programs and activities that enable them to learn values and skills that will help them lead fulfilling lives and be assets to their communities." [emphasis added]

III.  When one problem is “solved,” move on to the next.  We have not yet reached the point where we’ve brought repair to the entire world (tikkun olam).  By his words and actions, Pete exemplified the following quote from Pirke Avot (The Wisdom of the Fathers): "We are not obligated to complete the task, neither are we free to desist from it." (Pirke Avot, 2:16).  Or, put another way – in the language of the 1970’s – “We have to keep on keeping on.”

IV. We must use our gifts to try to bring repair to the world.  Pete dreamed of being a journalist and took courses in journalism and art, taught music, worked as a puppeteer, and an archivist for the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folksong.  But it was his gift as a singer/performer and a song writer that changed the landscape of social justice.  “We Shall Overcome” has been the anthem of every group of people protesting for equality for over 50 years.  From “The Talking Union Blues” (early 1940’s) through his performance at Farm Aid in September 2013, Pete used his music and influence to bring attention to the issues of our times.

V.  To bring repair/tikkun, you must collaborate with others.   And Pete showed by example how critical this collaboration is.  Some of the finest songs he sang were in conjunction with other noted  musicians – the Weavers, Peter Paul and Mary, Woody Guthrie and – later  – Arlo Guthrie.  From the Musar Movement, we learn that one should occupy “no more than my place, no less than my space.” Pete wasn’t afraid to lead… but he also was willing to share the responsibility for leadership. Which leads to the next bit of teaching…

VI. Involve those who look to you for leadership. A Pete Seeger concert wasn’t a Pete Seeger concert, unless the audience sang along at full voice.  We weren’t passive observers, but active participants in this experience.

VII.  If they don’t know the words, coach them!  Pete never assumed people knew the lyrics to his songs.  As he encouraged us to sing along, he reminded us of the lyrics for the next time.  Let’s not be afraid to “coach” each other in this job of working for tzedek/justice.

VIII.  We’re never “too old” to be involved in the work of bringing justice to our world.  As late as 2013, at the age of 93, Pete was performing on behalf of Farm Aid.

IX.  Values are timeless.  The values Pete espoused through his music and the words of his songs are truly timeless – and resonate through the ages. As our words and actions should be.  

X.  In the tradition of prophetic Judaism, we are obligated to speak up when we see wrongs around us.  If we don’t, by our silence, we allow them to perpetuate.  His legacy will live in the words we sing and the actions we complete. As one Facebook poster wrote, “And thank you for showing us that we ALL have a hammer, a bell, and a song to sing... 

In Pirke Avot 4:13, we read that Rabbi Shimon said: “There are three crowns--the crown of the Torah [learning], the crown of the priesthood [service to God], and the crown of royalty [leadership].  But,” said Rabbi Shimon, “the crown of a shem tov/good name surpasses them all.”

Pete Seeger, of blessed memory, wore the crown of a shem tov.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Religion of TIme

Parshat Bo is a familiar one to many of us – it contains a recounting of the last three plagues before Pharaoh finally tells the Israelites to leave Egypt immediately.  But there’s an interesting insertion between the ninth and tenth plagues. 

We read: “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” (12:1-2). And then, even before the Israelites leave Egypt, the mitzvot associated with the observance of Passover are given. The narrative of the Exodus resumes at 12:21, with Moses instructing them how to prepare for the final plague: the death of the first-born of all Egyptian families.

Upon rereading these verses (12:1-20), several questions came to mind:  Why is the first mitzvah/commandment given the one that deals with the calendar and marking time? Why is this considered the “first month of the year for you” – what about Rosh Hashanah? Why are the mitzvot/commandments about how to observe Passover given before the event occurs?

On the surface, the response to the first question is very pragmatic:  in order to celebrate the exodus on the fifteenth of the month, one needs to know when the month begins.  But perhaps the establishment of a unique calendar including human responsibility for keeping time (declaring the new month after witnesses testify their viewing the moon at the Sanhedrin) is less a technical command and more a spiritual gift.

Rabbi Ari Kahn from Aish added another dimension to the discussion by saying, “Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, z’l, explained why this commandment was given here, and now. The Jews in Egypt were slaves, and therefore lacked a sense of time. They needed to acquire a sense of time in order to be truly liberated, transformed from objects to independent people.”

It is our ability to delineate time which gives us both the freedom AND the responsibility to carve out meaningful lives for ourselves.  

All joking about “Jewish time” aside, Jewish time is an interesting phenomenon: it’s both fixed and flexible.  It’s fixed in that it’s based on the cycles of the moon – the waxing and waning that occurs every month on a predictable pattern.  We know when Sukkot, Purim and Pesach are approaching, by the moon’s increasing fullnessWe know when Rosh Hashanah, a new year, is here – just as we see the new moon.  Chanukah’s end is announced by the sighting of the new moon, as well (plus one!).

It’s flexible in that the days begin and end at different times, depending on the season and the latitude at which one lives. And we must acknowledge that it’s just plain confusing to have our days begin at sundown the night before- confusing only because we spend much of our lives removed from the natural world in which we live.  Our lunar calendar also needs to be flexible so that our cherished marking of the harvest festivals, dependent on the solar cycle, will fall on the appropriate seasons. And so we get that quaint phenomenon of needing to ask if Passover is "early or late" each year.

Why is this considered the “first month of the year for you”? Our tradition lists four different “new years” – that of the civil year, the religious year, the beginning of the tax (tithing) year, and that of the trees.  A number of commentators make the distinction between Rosh Hashanah as the celebration of creation, which applies to all; while Passover is the celebration of OUR liberation (think of the difference between January 1st and July 4th for Americans).

Finally, why are such detailed instructions given for observing an event which hasn’t even occurred yet? A number of commentators make the point that the Israelites don’t automatically become a free people when they leave the land of Egypt.

Rabbi Lucy F.H. Dinner, in the Women’s Torah Commentary, reminds us that “To be truly free, individuals need faith in their identity as a free people and in their own unquestioned autonomy.  As much as liberation is about release from forced servitude, it is also about the psychological and spiritual strength required to act according to one’s own will.” Liberation then requires individuals to “act as if” they are liberated – even if they don’t quite feel it.

The great modern philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us that Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time.  It may be a fair contrast to note that the Egyptian civilization enslaved people to build storehouses, royal cities, and perhaps some pyramids.  It was a kingdom of sacred places.  The new Israelite nation had to escape the boundaries of space created by human technology and architecture, and learn to use what Heschel called "the architecture of time" in which to build lasting "palaces in time" like Shabbat and the festivals.

We send our children off to conquer the world with a list of instructions and reminders about those events and activities which are important to us and, hopefully in time, to them as well. We adults who manage home and office schedules, the balance between work and rest, know how critical time management is to our success.  And we can see how time challenged people find it difficult to prepare for, and celebrate with calm and joy, holiday and life cycle events. So we can surely appreciate the tradition that notes that the Israelites leave Egypt with a prescription for how to cope with time for physical and spiritual success in whatever circumstances they find themselves.  It is a gift worthy of study and transmission to our children and grandchildren.

Published by the Washington Jewish Week, January 2, 2014