The seventh graders walk into the room, rambunctious and funny. Like labrador puppies with big feet, their clumsy move into adulthood is charming and inspiring.
A tzedakah box sits on the table and I ask them to make an offering, watching as their hands stretch forward, making a game out of putting the money into the slot. “It’s not a gumball machine,” I think, but they approach the act with a level of playfulness and excited anticipation as if a prize is going to emerge from some secret passage on the other side. Some students even reach for more coins in their pocket. I could see that it felt exciting, like a magic trick, to transform the money from currency to good deed.
“You see what the body can do?” I asked. And imitated the choreographed moves: stepping toward the table where the box rested; reaching dramatically into the pocket; purveying the coin from body to box; and, stepping back, satisfied.
But then we stayed put, examining what our bodies needed to do next: count the money; distribute the money; buy things with the money that can be used to help people in need. Always pointing out that while they were responding to a concept–it is a mitzvah to give–that commandment could only be realized through action.
“Judaism is a system of action,” I said.
Then we took more steps into the forest. Prayers shawls were spread on the table alongside four sets of tefilin and one by one the kids learned how to put them on. There was a newish set and several old sets, including one that I received as a student in Madison from a Holocaust survivor who had kept his set throughout the war, in the Camps. It’s a remarkable living artifact from the Destruction. Some students waited to put those ones on; others didn’t want to go near them.
There was no pattern: some boys liked it, others didn’t. Some girls liked it, others didn’t. But all of them put their bodies into the commandment. They stood, wrapped, balanced boxes, laughed at one another, dutifully and with deep intention pronounced the required blessings, written to accompany the act.
As we stood around wrapping and unwrapping and looking at one another, I passed around a mezuzah scroll, upon which was written the Shma and V’Ahavtah, inviting the students to sing along the words in Hebrew–which they’ve sung forever–”and they shall be a sign upon your hand and a symbol between your eyes”–and they got it.
They had embodied a song they’d be singing for years, never fully knowing the words until then.
A moment of mindful awakening for these nascent adults.
Their hearts and minds in sync–ever so briefly.
When it came time to leave for their next class, they up and left, vanished in a second.
The tallises and tefillin boxes were in a tangled heap on the table beside a Tzedakah Box made heavier by their contributions.
Another Eternal Truth learned: the Teenager will always leave a mess. But what a blessing that mess is.