This One Goes To Eleven
1. First Family
"Lemishpechotam lebeit avotam-according to their families, to their father's households."
This phrase is repeated many times in Parshat Nassa. The Mikdash Mordechai says that it is by design that this portion contains the laws of Sotah, a woman whose actions destroy the family. The message is that the Jewish People are no stronger than their families. A situation like that of the Sotah can even bring down the national family.
The Sifri presents an argument between Rabi Chanina Sgan HaKohanim and Rabi Nossan regarding which kind of peace is the objective of Birchat Kohanim. One opinion is that shalom bayit - peace in the home is what is referred to in the words of this blessing. The other opinion is that the peace spoken of is the political peace of malchut beit Dovid.
The Mikdash Mordechai reconciles these views, suggesting that national peace can be achieved and maintained only if there is familial peace. It is this dual bracha the kohanim bestow upon us, and it is for this reason that these two topics appear in the same parsha.
Psychotherapist Allen Wheelis writes: "There is no such thing as individuals, there are only fragments of families." On a related note, there is no such thing as nations, there are only extensions of families.
(Based On Rabbi Frand On Parshat Nassa, except for the last source)
2. The Same But Different
He had been somewhere (Buffalo rings a bell) where they were testing a new potato chip. The plan, my sixth grade teacher Mr. C. said, was that this new invention would make old potato chips obsolete. These newfangled chips were an amazing thing, he told us (but still hadn't showed them to us) because they were made in such a way that there were no broken pieces. And they were stored in a way that retained the perfect shape. He then produced a tube of neatly stacked identical chips. And then he walked around the room and gave us each each three of these special treats. He told us to notice how they were shaped like a saddle, and pointed out that the top was salted and the bottom unsalted (enabling you to choose your eating experience). Then we enjoyed some of the first Pringles ever made.
Mr. C. was not the only or even the first teacher that I had who gave food to class. What made this day memorable was the ordered manner of his presentation. Built in to the way he presented each of us with something that he showed us to be special was the message that we were special. Sometimes I tell kids that they're special and they get insulted. The word special is often accompanied today with imaginary hand quotes and condescending tones. But if you show that you think highly of someone, the gesture becomes indisputable and lives on as more than a moment but as part of a life.
Today, I got the last day of school right by reaching back to sixth grade, to the approach of Phil Chernofsky.
I entered the room with two types of pretzels. I gave the kids a brief talk about what I feel is most important in life. I spoke about the difficulty of balancing love and fear, closeness and distance. My strength as a teacher is in the closeness department. I am proud that kids leave my class with a good feeling. I am a teacher that they know they can call upon if they want to later in life. I am certainly not the teacher that they cross the hall, pretending not to see. I get enthusiastic hellos for years. On the other hand, I could afford to tighten up in the fear department. But, if I had to choose one side to tilt to (and we need to work on this balance for our whole lives) I'd choose to tilt towards closeness over distance. I told them this.
I told my class which is labeled as the lowest class how much I hate labels, when others apply them and when people apply them to themselves. I feel like crying, I told them, when I hear people calling others or themselves "stupid." I told them that I will always remember them as charming, good, capable, and bright. And that in 120 years their tombstone will not report if they were in 9X or 9R, but it will say if they were a loving friend, parent, neighbor, human being And they are all up for that task.
None of these words were taken from Phil Chernofsky. But the way that I capped them was inspired by Mr. C. After my words I walked up to each kid and presented them with a sticker with a word of praise on it, as well as two pretzels. And I addressed them by name (something that my father HSLABW taught me the importance of) and told them it was a pleasure, and as often as I could, I added a word specifically about them. Then there was more food and pictures and hanging out together. The presentation, I believe, of a little something to each kid will help the sweetness of the memory to live on for all of us.
Now, you might be wondering what this has to do with Parshat Nassa. First I have to tell you about Lawrence (not his real name). Lawrence is extremely bright and even more restless. He needs to be challenged. And when he criticizes what you've said, I've come to realize, it's a good sign. Lawrence processes new information by disagreeing with it, poking holes in it to see how it holds up.
Lawrence took it all in; the pretzels, the speech, the stickers. And then he asked, "did you do the same thing with every class?" I knew not to get (too) defensive, this was Lawrence at his best. Boom! He shot a hole in the theory that this was something kind and real that I was doing here.
I told Lawrence that when the Mishkan was set up the heads of each tribe brought gifts. And what they each brought was exactly the same. And the Torah describes them each with the same words, over and over again. The Midrash Rabba on this section is unusually long, because the midrash goes into the depths of the meanings and intentions of each tribes offeringsngs. Even though the offering of each tribe was comprised of the same things, the experience was unique for each one. Each brought their own essence and the interfacing with G-d was a totally different phenomenon each time.
I told Lawrence that the foods and the words were the same for each class (for technical reasons I only actually did this with two out of five classes) but the experience was meaningful in a different way with each group. Lawrence nodded in a contrite way, indicating that he clearky got it. Then Stu (not his real name) pointed out (something that eluded me while I was thinking of and supplying my reply to Lawrencence) that what I had described was form this week's parsha.
May we be blessed to increase our uniqueness, even while we conform to a mold. May we be blessed to cultivate connections and also boundaries. May I be continue to learn and grow as a human being, teacher, and writer.
I thank G-d for ten (often) wonderful years in The Frisch School.