Wednesday, December 19, 2012

From a Teacher's Heart

I hope you all will forgive me if I digress a bit from the usual themes of this blog, in order to focus on something that has been dominating my mind for the past several days.  In all likelihood, this deviation from the norm is harder for me than it will be for you--in my mind, I have "rules" for this blog (Must be recovery!  Must be Jewish!) and it is challenging for me to be flexible and acknowledge that this week, I have something else that I want--need--to write about.  But, never fear--I'll do my best to bring it all together at some point!

Last Friday afternoon, my students were reading quietly as they always do after lunch, and I took advantage of the quiet to check the news on my laptop.  Expecting the usual mix of political and entertainment headlines, I was shocked at what I found instead:  reports of a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, details of which were still unfolding.  The rest of the afternoon passed in a surreal blur: I would teach a lesson, then check the news during a lull, then simply turn and watch my kids in all their vibrant vitality.  By the time I dismissed my class of third graders, I knew the gruesome outcome of the brutal assault on Sandy Hook Elementary School: 28 people dead, including 6 educators and 20 six- and seven-year-old children.

For the first few days after the shooting, my mind was consumed with thoughts about the tragedy.  Not being a parent myself, I couldn't really conceptualize the grief that the parents of the slain children were feeling.  But, as a third grade teacher, I felt complete empathy for the teachers at Sandy Hook.  I thought about what it would be like to lose colleagues and students in such a sudden, tragic way.  I worried about where I would hide 23 nine-year-olds in my own classroom if, G-d forbid, we ever faced a similar situation.  I watched and read interviews with teachers who had protected their students by hiding them in bathrooms, closets, and cabinets, teachers who had kept their kids calm by reading to them and telling them to "wait for the good guys."  As a teacher, I am deeply devoted to my students and feel fiercely protective of them...and the idea of NOT being able to shield them from such trauma is just about the worst thing I can imagine.  For me, thinking of what it must have been like for those teachers is absolutely devastating.

This week, I've had to give myself plenty of space to feel grief over what happened in Connecticut.  I'm also conscious of the fact that five years ago I probably would not have been capable of having such an intense emotional reaction to a story in the news--I had numbed myself into emotional flatline.  This week, however, I've felt the full force of sadness as I've tried to wrap my mind around the deaths of so many children and the adults who cared for them.  Years ago, I would have run from such strong feelings as quickly as possible.  Now, however, I am able to recognize that being able to have emotions is also what helps me be connected to other people who are going through a similar experience.

It has been a tough week to be an elementary school teacher...but, it has also been a special one.  On Monday morning, my colleagues and I met for an emergency staff meeting to discuss what we might face during the day.  We expressed our fears, we cried, we hugged each other...and then we went to meet our students, who came through the doors full of precious energy and reminded us of why, exactly, we do the work that we do.  I have never felt more privileged to be a teacher than I have this week.  My heart is with the teachers from Sandy Hook, and I pray that they will find the strength to guide themselves and their students through this dark time--emerging, once more, into the light.

"I have learned two lessons in my life:  first, there are no sufficient literary, psychological, or historical answers to human tragedy, only moral ones.  Second, just as despair can come to one another only from human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by human beings."  --Elie Wiesel

Monday, December 10, 2012

This Little Light of Mine...

A few moments ago, I lit the menorah for the third night of Chanukah.  As I write this post, the candles stand upright and proud in their holders, casting small yet hardy flames into the air above them.  True, Chanukah isn't considered among the holiest of days in the Jewish calendar, but it does carry powerful messages for us to consider as we try to find our path in a world that often seems cast in darkness and shadows.

One of the central themes of Chanukah is the victory of the small band of Hasmoneans against the much larger Syrian-Greek army.  As a classic culture, the Greeks had a lot to offer, and they were eager to share their Hellenist rituals and beliefs with the Jews--but the Jews weren't interested.  Simply put, the Jews didn't want what the Greeks were selling.  They appreciated many things about Greek culture--in fact, Judaism has often praised the ancient Greeks for their linguistic and philosophical contributions to the world.  But although they were able to see the virtues of the Greeks, the Jews didn't want to be Greek--they wanted to be Jews, and they had to fight for their right to remain true to themselves.

This is a predicament that continues to face us today.  As we grow and develop into ourselves, there is no shortage of people who are waiting to give us advice and tell us how they think we should live our lives.  Sometimes, outside influence comes in the form of family or close friends who tell us what we should consider, what we should prioritize, what we should value.  Other times, input comes from our surrounding culture that informs us, in no uncertain terms, of how we should dress, how we should speak, how we should behave.  It is easy to be intimidated and confused in the face of all those "shoulds," and when we let those "shoulds" dictate our choices, that's when we start to lose ourselves.  As a person who tries hard to avoid confrontation, I fully appreciate the challenge and scariness of bucking the trend.  But, I also know that I spent many years of my life believing there were only two options--conform, or disappear--and neither of those was entirely successful (or satisfying).  Slowly, I began to wonder if there might be a third option...and Chanukah teaches us that there is.

Chanukah is about the fight that we all must undertake to live by our own light.  It's about remaining true to ourselves in the face of intense cultural pressure and not losing sight of our own priorities and visions.  Chanukah reminds us that this is indeed a fight worth fighting, and that if we are willing to go through the struggle that growth entails, we will emerge stronger and more vital.

We light the Chanukah candles in accordance with the tradition of Beit Hillel:  one candle for the first night, two for the second, and so on in an increasing manner.  Hillel based his ruling on the principle of ma'alin ba'kodesh ve'ayn moridin--one increases in matters of holiness, and does not diminish.  So it is with ourselves--if we do the work of living authentically and speaking our truth, our strength and virtue will increase, as will the light that we are able to share with others.

This Chanukah season, may we all have the courage to use our own light to guide us out of whatever darkness in which we find ourselves.

!חג חנוכה שמח

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Mother's Love

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about Rachel, our matriarch, whose story began in parasha Vayetzei and concluded last week with her tragic death during childbirth in Vayishlach.  I should admit to being just a teensy bit biased towards her, as we do share the same name...but in all seriousness, what I learn from Rachel extends far beyond that one point of connection.

When Rachel dies, Jacob buries her on the side of the road on the way to Efrat as his family makes their way back to their homeland.  Her tomb is solitary, separated from that of her husband and the other matriarchs and patriarchs who are buried in the Cave of Machpelah.  A Midrash reveals the critical significance of Rachel's burial "on the road" by explaining that centuries later, when the Jewish people were exiled after the destruction of the First Temple, they passed by her grave on their way out of their homeland...and Rachel wept for them, begging Hashem to be merciful toward her children.  In response to her heartfelt pleas, Hashem promised Rachel, "There is hope for your destiny...the children shall return to their borders."  (Pesikta Rabbati, piska 2)

But not only is Rachel the mother of children in exile, she herself also knows all too well the feeling of being stuck "in process," not yet at her desired destination. Much of Rachel's story chronicles the ways in which she is "on the way," close-but-not-quite-there.  First, she must become the second wife of Jacob, when she should have been the first.  Then, there are all the years in which she is barren, unable to conceive children while she watches Leah give birth to son after son.  When she finally does give birth to Joseph, her first son, Rachel is prays to Hashem to give her another baby...but she dies bringing that much-desired second child, Benjamin, into this world.  

I recently read an article about Rachel that describes her in this way:

"It seems that Rachel's entire existence symbolizes "the way," the process.  Her life is a story of constant grappling with processes, and it is from Rachel we learn the significance of process.  
Something that is attained easily is of lesser value in a person's eyes.  When a person lacks something, he has a better understanding of its value.  When he must work hard in order to attain something, he appreciates it more, and is more attached to it.  In addition, the very process that he undergoes--even if he never achieves his final objective--causes his personality to grow and develop."

Recovery is a colossal process, if ever there was one.  Although we're not exiled from our homelands anymore, we have endured the experience of being in exile from ourselves.  We've been lonely, confused, lost, and fact, we may be feeling those emotions right now, depending on where we are in our process and how far removed we feel from where we want to be.  Rachel is the quintessential comforter of people who feel stranded "on the road."  She watches over us, shining her light on the path that we follow to our destinations.  Rachel loves us unconditionally with a compassion that comes from having been through her own rocky process in the name of a greater vision.  By caring so deeply for us, Rachel teaches us to care for ourselves--to be gentle with ourselves as we navigate the twists and turns on the roads leading back to our cores.  

As we press forward on our journeys, may we be comforted by the wise, maternal love of Rachel Imenu...and may we use her tenderness to propel ourselves onward, out of exile and back to our true selves.