Thursday, May 20, 2010

"Right" (or Wrong?) of Passage -- A Bar Mitzvah D'var Torah Reflection

Dear Logan,

The weekend of your Bar Mitzvah in Chicago was such a whirlwind!  Mark and I were thrilled to travel from Denver to be a part of such a meaningful event in your life.  It has been a few weeks now since the overwhelming celebration, and I'm sure you have already resorted back to life as usual (for the most part, anyway).

As you continue on your journey with one huge rite of passage under your belt, you will have a greater awareness of how the entire experience had an effect on you, and how it will continue to transform you as a person in the future.  What you may not know, is how your Bar Mitzvah experience touched the lives of others; your family, friends and beyond.  I can't personally speak for anyone else, but I'd like to share how your D'var Torah talk inspired me to reflect on my own life and what it means to be a good person (and I apologize in advance if this gets a little long!  Bear with me, ok?)

I want to thank you  for allowing me to share your D'var Torah talk in such a public format.  As I will mention later in this post, you are truly wise beyond your years.  I have told you and your brother Eli this before; although we are not related by blood, Mark and I love you both as if you were our nephews.  Needless to say, we are proud of you and all of the hard work and dedication that you contributed to the process of becoming a Bar Mitzvah.

I am blessed to know you, Logan.  Strangers who read this post will be blessed to learn from you.  I hope your "little voice" reminds you often of how blessed you truly are!

All my love,
Intrinsic Insight Into the Cycle of Morality

A few weeks ago, I attended my very first Bar Mitzvah.  Given my Catholic upbringing, I had no idea what to expect.  I was, however, eager for the experience because lately, I have been on a mission to make some decisions in regard to my own faith.  This will give you a little background... 

I was honored to be invited to support Logan, the Bar Mitzvah, as he embarked on such a sacred milestone.  It was his choice to honor this tradition along his spiritual journey, which required countless hours of studying, reflection and commitment. 

For those unfamiliar with some aspects of Judaism, please click here for a quick, bare bones background on Torah Study, which is a large portion of a Bar Mitzvah's responsibility.  (Keep in mind the source -- Wikipedia.  It is certainly convenient, but not always accurate...wink, wink!) 

In particular, the Bar Mitzvah shares a talk called the D'var Torah, related to the weekly Torah portion of the service (Click here for specific information on D'var Torah).

It was during Logan's D'var Torah talk at his Bar Mitzvah service that I realized how much he had grown up in the short time since I had seen him last.  I was stunned by his insight and maturity.  Flabbergasted by the connections he made between his Torah portion and his own life and to the world.  Astonished at how wisely he conveyed what he had learned from his studies so succinctly in his writing.  And pleased with how confidently he shared his written speech to a synagogue filled with his family and friends.

I did expect to witness a symbolic spiritual transformation in Logan, even though I didn't know exactly how it would manifest itself.  A mysterious and powerful calling to reflect on my own faith and morals, however, I did not expect.

The "old" Logan...dancing with me on my wedding day, July 2008
Photo credit: Andy Andrews

Logan provided countless tidbits for reflection in his D'var Torah talk.  So many, in fact, that I had to ask him to send me a copy of his talk so I could read it to refresh my memory.  I have included a portion of his talk below, with highlighted snippets to show exactly what spoke to me then, and continues to challenge me now to seek out meaning in my life and guide my spiritual path.
***The following text is original work belonging exclusively to Logan Faber.  Please respect his thoughts by refraining from duplication or use without obtaining specific permission.  Thank you.***

Logan's D'var Torah Talk

"When I was little, I used to love watching Loony Toons on Sunday mornings. In this show, the bad guys always fall short of getting the good guys, because they did very awful things, and the good guys always ended up with the prize because they were innocent and did the right thing.

My Torah portion, Bechukotai, explains this very same process. It explains that if we follow God’s laws and commandments excellent things will happen to us. If we don’t, horrific things will happen to us. But is it really that simple?

I think we can all agree that real life isn’t always like it is in a cartoon or in the Torah. Terrible things do happen to good people. And nice things do happen to not so nice people.

So, is Bechukotai meaningless? I don’t think so. I think there is still a message we can gain from this portion. Let’s start with an example. Imagine being a young child standing on the edge of a very deep lake. Our parents call over to tell us to stop and be careful, because we might fall in. Our parents aren’t trying to control us like puppets—rather, they are setting some reasonable boundaries for us. They want us to be safe.

I think that God is setting boundaries for us too so we can be safe. Let’s remember, at the time of this portion, the Israelite people were only a few years out of slavery. They had hundreds of years where they couldn’t really think for themselves—their slave owners decided everything for them. But God set up these rules not only so they would be safe, but also so they can feel satisfaction. Behavior that can lead to satisfaction can also be helped by setting up rewards and punishments. 

For example, do you ever get the feeling where you just want to do the right thing? Not because there’s a reward, or a punishment, or someone yelling at you to do so? I think that by offering rewards and punishments, God is giving us some incentive get this feeling more often.

When I was little, I wanted what I wanted right away . Whenever I did something wrong, my mom would say, “what did your little voice say” and I would say, “it didn’t say anything”. But now I realize that of course it did say something. I knew when I was doing something wrong because my parents set boundaries and rules for me.  The little voice was my conscience, telling me when I was violating those rules.

I think that Bechukotai is not saying simply that if we follow rules good things happen, and if not, unpleasant things happen. That would leave a ton of questions, like what could a sick child have possibly done to deserve his or her illness? Or what did a family to do to be punished by being born into poverty with less opportunity than most of us? 

Instead, perhaps Bechukotai is God’s first step in helping us develop our own little voice—our own conscience. There are good things and bad things.  Like a child, at first we choose the good things because we fear punishment. But eventually, we should choose good simply because it is the right thing to do. That doesn’t mean we are guaranteed a life free of problems…just that we are on the path toward making good decisions.

In my opinion, God intends for us to make choices between good and bad—in other words—gives us free will. We have choice when multiple paths lie in front of us.  We have to learn from the choices we make. Sometimes they are the right ones for us. Like going with your gut on that test question, and then getting it right. Other times, we make the wrong choice. Like when we take something without asking and it ends up to be a present for a cousin. We can only learn from our mistakes and try to make better choices in the future.

I believe that another reason God gives us free will is because God wants us to develop a sense of social justice and act on it. I think this is the case because God wants us to prosper by ourselves, and not control us like puppets all the time. Even God needs a coffee break sometimes. In Hebrew, we refer to these acts as mitzvot. Literally “commandments”—so God is commanding us to work toward social justice.

Since the age of 5, I have been working with a great organization called Circ-Esteem. The mission of Circesteem is to unite youth from diverse, racial, cultural, and economic backgrounds and help them build self-esteem and mutual respect through the practice of circus arts. In the process of working with the other kids, I have found that even though we come from diverse backgrounds we aren’t much different at all.  I have made many friends and learned many skills like juggling, balancing on a wire, and being very silly in clowning. I have also learned to become a great team mate with all the group acts and trips we go on. Currently, I have been working with a program called “Homework and Circus Work” in the Circ-Esteem curriculum, helping to tutor kids who need help with their studies. This is my way of contributing toward social justice by giving everyone an equal opportunity to learn. This is also for the common good—looking beyond myself and helping my community. 

I think God is trying to tell us that rules, boundaries, punishments and rewards are what set us on this path of moral development. So what meaning can we take from this portion, with its promise that God blesses those who follow the mitzvot and curses those who turn away from Torah? Maybe it's as simple as this: The mitzvot teach us to recognize and appreciate life's blessings, helping us mature and develop an attitude of sensitivity and gratitude."

Conscious Conscience Connections

What Logan said in his talk helped me to think about the development of morality in a cyclical way.  Throughout the course of my recent graduate education courses and student teaching experience, I struggled with the challenge of developing intrinsic motivation in students.  I will continue to ask myself, "How can I motivate students to do the right thing... for the simple fact that it is just the 'right thing to do?'"  "How do I explain to students that the process of rule-following holds a deeper meaning than simply staying out of trouble?"   "How can I get these kids to realize that the development of moral character is enhanced by an understanding of why a specific choice is the right one?"  

Well, the answer (a common buzz word in education these days)  is modeling.  Leading by example.  Modeling, modeling, and more modeling.  In my opinion, modeling is the "first step"  -- it begins the cycle of morality off on the "right" foot (oh yes...pun intended!).  This first step, modeling, guides us and helps us to develop a conscience (the little voice inside our heads, as Logan puts it).  As an aspiring teacher, sometimes it is difficult for me to explain to students that just because they follow my lead and make good choices, it doesn't mean that their daily experiences will be rewarding and that things will always be "fair."  It wasn't until last year in my Teaching for Social Justice course that I truly understood the difference between equal and equitable.  I realized that equal is not always equitable.  How could I transform this concept into something an elementary student could not only understand, but apply to their own life?

Well, as Logan very eloquently remarks, "That doesn't mean we are guaranteed a life free of problems...just that we are on the path toward making good decisions."  I realize that I am a little biased when it comes to Logan because I know and love him, but to me, that statement is remarkably profound.  People, young and old, continue to grapple with the reality of bad things happening to good people.  It has torn people from their faith, and forced others to question their entire moral platform.  The fact that this thirteen-year-old boy, my friend Logan, gleaned this realization so early in his life makes me beam with pride and fill with hope for future generations.  

Ok, maybe that's a little extreme.  I do tend to go overboard at times, but the simple fact remains that life is not always fair.  Things will not always be equal.  The right thing to do will not always feel the best (which is exactly what Logan's mother, my dear friend Pamela, reminded Logan of during her speech on Logan's Bar Mitzvah day...MODELING at it's finest!!).  The path toward making good decisions might be riddled with unanswered questions, but the longer we continue down that path, the more opportunities we'll have to feel that unexplainable satisfaction that Logan refers to.  For lack of a better term, let's call it joy, shall we?
 The "new" Bar Mitzvah
Photo credit: Chrissy Richter
Logan, thank you for helping me to realize that figuring out all of the answers is not the point.  The joy of the journey is really what counts.

Well, there you have it.  Logan's D'var Torah, for ya.  An insightful speech to teach all within reach and beyond.  I hope it reached you in one form or another.

EnJOY your journey,

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