21 May 2009

We're Always Not Yet There

Some kids bar mitzvah speeches write themselves. Others take weeks of craftsmanship. And still others require adaptive styles and teaching approaches. With some kids, for instance, the student enters my study, pulls their laptop out of their backpack, and I type while they think, "write out loud," and together we create what it is they want to say. I have to admit that this method has been fun. It's happened now three times in the last three years and in each situation, the work that the kid produces has been heartfelt and original. A truly genuine engagement with--wait for it--the "process" of Torah.

I think about this on two levels. One is the purely functional: some kids are just not necessarily wired to easily sit down in front of a keyboard or with paper and pen in hand and then start writing. In fact, most probably are not. The very idea of committing ideas to the permanence of written word can be quite terrifying. Mediating that experience by holding the laptop, doing the typing, as the student holds the books, the study sheets, and free associates, composing oral sentences that become the written word--well there is a vitality that is irreplaceable. But the other has to do with the tools of the day and the expectations that drive the pedagogic engagement. I remember, often in these editing sessions, my first English paper, freshman year in Madison, being ripped apart by the strong editorial hand of my TA and then retreating to my desk in the dorm, back at the typewriter, focused and eager to make the necessary corrections to earn the teacher's praise. Now the tools create instant mediation, in real time. It's a changed process. Neither better nor worse. Just different and therefore worthy of reflection.

With one particular kid, we're really locked into a conversation about the manna, about it's taste, it's appearance, and about the ancient Israelites relationship to it--as a food that could taste like anything, appear in abundance and be of unlimited supply, and yet, somehow, leave people lacking. The very puzzle of that and the outrageous quality of the Israelites' distinct lack of gratitude for God's beneficence is somehow not something from which one can easily avert one's glance. A moral car-crash, as it were. You have to look.

This particular study leads to a general conversation about what is "enough," an important focus for a developing young mind, especially one so keenly attuned to the sense of dislocation so many adults are feeling these days with regard to their own work and livelihood. What is the measure of "enough" in the context of an economy that may very well be redefining that term in real time.

The abundance of the past 40 or 50 years may be experiencing it's own cycle of diminishment and then regeneration, yielding not the same old amount but rather a new molecular configuration of differently organized matter.

Consider the American Auto Industry. In a heart-beat: the dislocation of a collapsing economy, a war for oil, and the alarm bells of our narrow, fossil-fueled myopia, and just like that, the car is redefined. Every aspect of the American city and highway design as we know it is arguably being called into question right now, in part because we have left the abundance out to rot--not unlike the Israelites, whose appetite for more turns out to have been a corrupting influence on their true sense of how much was enough and what was right.

These kids read the news, after all. They know what's going on. And as the Great Reckoning takes place, we who grow up this way must be clear that like Moses, we can only lead them so far and then it will be their world to take over from us. In my 46th year on the 43rd day of the Omer, I am so fully aware of how it's both my world and no longer my world (and there are still two generations above me!)

How quickly things move. How abundant we always are. And how we're always not yet there but forever moving forward.

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