As far as I can tell, there are no angels in religious school but there are many actual children. But that’s the thing that keeps me going. That and at any given moment one or more of these very real, very lively, very sneaker-shod little humans can spout something truly memorable out of the general chaos. Here is my view from the front of the room.
They begin by rolling in and trying to sit at the adult-sized desk/chairs that circle my classroom but we all know it won’t last. At least half of them will be on the floor shortly. And that’s okay with me. We’ve made a deal. Or if I’m extending the learning, a “Brit” or a covenant. Check my lesson plans. I’m a barely 5 foot tall adult. In the first class I purposely sat at one of the desks and showed them that my feet dangled awkwardly, just like theirs, not fully touching the floor. I could never sit comfortably at any of those desks. So my choice is to stand when I teach. Let’s play fair. They have the option of sitting on the floor. Best we can do.
The room, which stands alone down a narrow walkway is a strange, almost octagonal shape created not through any brilliant overarching design but as part of the reconfigured religious school banged out of the old sanctuary space. I tell the kids that fact makes this room extra holy but the truth is that they always give me a squinty look when I say that. I don’t blame them. I’m pushing it. The overhead lighting is harsh and garish. There is one tiny window. The decorations are heartfelt but homely, bravely crafted by a left-handed teacher who always smears marker when she writes and never really mastered how to handle scissors. It’s 4:45 in the afternoon. Everyone is hungry. Everyone is tired. It’s time to start class. But stay with me don’t leave yet. Like a meal that begins with a pickle but ends with a slice of strudel, this story begins a bit sour but the finish is sweet.
The lesson was about Naming. In the Jewish tradition, probably in others too, we teach that each of us has three names:
*The name you are born with or the name your parents gave you
*The name people call you, nicknames and such
*The name you make for yourself.
I love talking to them about their names. Their job is to go home and find out the often complicated story behind how and why they were named. Sometimes they’re named for a beloved relative who has passed away. Sometimes they’re given a name because it’s simply a beautiful word that means something special to their parents. I always go a little further and look up the meanings of their names, “Michael (from the Hebrew, meaning “Who is like God?) Or Zachary (again from Hebrew, “Remembered by God”). The meanings of their names are always interesting. I love seeing them see themselves through a different lens.
But really it’s the last part of naming that’s the kicker. The name you make for yourself. How can anyone make people think good things when they simply hear your name? How can anyone make his or her very name a blessing?
It’s a complicated idea. They talked about giving charity and about recycling. They talked about buying an extra bag of groceries for the food shelters when they went to the market. All good. They were on the right track.
The name you make for yourself is so difficult because there are no lists to check off. There is no applause or gold stars. There is no finish line. What there is perhaps, after a whole life, is a memory of the goodness you’ve left to the world that can be conjured with your very name.
Making your name a blessing is so very difficult because it actually isn’t about you alone. It’s about you and how you relate to everyone throughout your life. It’s about everyone, about making the whole world a better place.
Jewish tradition speaks of the Lamed Vavniks, the 36 hidden tzadiks or truly righteous souls, who are hidden in each generation. No one ever knows who they are. But according to legend, their goodness is such that they quietly combat all evils, keeping the world whole and moving forward. They are always there, even in the darkest times. The Lamed Vavniks are never identified, even to themselves. They don’t judge people; instead they always look to be kind.
So the kids wanted to know, where are the Lamed Vavniks? Everywhere and anywhere. A true Lamed Vavnik could be someone powerful and famous or someone you’d pass by on the street without a second look. Someone very old or someone very young. A Nobel Prize winner or a kid just struggling to read. Someone Jewish or perhaps not.
It’s possible, in fact, that one or more of the Lamed Vavniks were even sitting in my classroom that afternoon. I didn’t know. None of us will ever know. We’re not meant to know.
So I asked, how do you make people think good things when they simply hear your name, when all that’s left is memory? How do you make your name a blessing?
It was dark now and almost time to go home. They raised their hands. “Be kind. Try hard every day to live a good life.” Exactly.