24 January 2014


"Daddy, did you know that Anne Frank and Martin Luther King would be the same age if they were both alive today?"

Now I suppose you can say that is a considerable moral achievement for a 10 year old, laying in bed in the dark, contemplating life's more sublime thoughts moments before turning 11, and allowing her young, searching mind to focus on such monumental figures of twentieth century moral stature.

Athletic, moral and political heroes arise in conversation in our home all the time, as I'm certain they do in many homes.  But something about the proximity to a child's birthday; to the liminal time between awake and sleep, consciousness and the dream state; between childhood and adolescence--made this articulated insight particularly poignant.

Historical, almost.

What makes a kid think such things before drifting off to sleep?  Does a kind of narration of one's life play in one's mind at these transitional intersections?  Is there an existential truth clamoring to be heard amid the din of popular culture usually reserved for drifting off at night?  As the mind and soul settle in for a once a year journey between ages, do the bigger questions insist on being heard?

And what of the multiplicity of voices?  Here they represent not quite an alchemy or concoction but more like an improvised recipe where the chef generally knows who's in the kitchen but doesn't always see exactly what goes in while trusting it'll turn out okay.  In addition to our own guidance as parents, there is that of a broader family, teachers, camp counselors, grandparents, books, music, movies and television.  Whatever it takes.

This is all very folksy, isn't it?

Not quite the right tone for understanding the lives and deaths of a Dutch Jewish child murdered by Nazis and an assassinated African American reverend and crusader for freedom.   On the other hand, we're probing the mind of an eleven year old.  There is truth and beauty and even depth in such simplicity.

Did you know they would be the same age if they were alive today?

If today were 1940, they'd be eleven, too, and their moral compasses would be similarly set to a world in flames all around them, while, at the same time, they were keenly aware of their need to be children, to be innocent, to be protected from the seemingly unavoidable sin and evil crouching at the door.

My eleven year old wakes up to radio news and paper headlines as graphic and horrific as anything we've ever known.  It's no wonder one drifts off to sleep at night, dreaming of heroes.

I think of an eleven year old at Sinai, amidst the thunder and the smoke, the quaking earth, the mass of confusion, of the leaders Moses and Aaron approaching the Mount, of deafening noise, of hundreds of thousands of just freed slaves clamoring to be near.  Truth, in such instances, is often filtered to the young in ways that their parents can't always control which is why one trusts pedagogic platforms to a whole array of civic structures like schools, camps, synagogues, community centers, and the like--each a conveyance of life's fractured, filtered truth.

The whole, thunderous, uproarious revelation of truth, the Giving of the Ten Commandments, life-threatening in its enormity, gives way in this week's Torah portion to rules and regulations that in their specificity, give us truths to behold.

Like, how do you help one person in need?

"When you lend my people money, the poor man with you, don't behave toward him as a creditor; don't charge him interest."  The Sages contrast this verse in Exodus with a later verse in Deuteronomy, which says that "When one of your brothers in your gates and your country is in dire need, you may not harden your heart  nor be closed-fisted towards your needy brother."

A debate ensues across the generations about the nature of "when."  Is it conditional, tied to particular circumstances?  Or is it constant, always?  You'll be loaning to help the poor get back on their feet.  You'll be extending your heart and hand to those in need always because they will always be at the gates and in your country.

Whether 1940 or 1960 or 2014, moral choices are made in the smallest of ways each day, making heroes' lives lived through their voices heard by those impelled to listen.  And the words, like rich, alluvial soil, roll down the sides of mountains, in to the valleys and streams of young minds who keep words alive through deeds of kindness, compassion and love.

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