Sitting around the dinner table with my kids last night I had an embarrassing rabbi moment, but kept it to myself (until now!). We are coming to the end of their second week of school. Every day I ask for details. What was something fun about your day? Something you learned? Something new? I try to find different ways to solicit a morsel of information to give me a window into their experience. I am hoping for something of content that we can discuss and geek out about.
Thus far, the main things I have heard about are their systems for behavior management. One kid is quite excited to be earning five points a day on ClassDojo. With the promise of a $30 shopping spree on Amazon. (Is that true?!) I have heard a lot about the Wiffle ball and bat she might pick out. The other kid is motivated by the prospect of earning a pom-pom everyday and filling up an entire jar. It's not entirely clear from his description if it's a personal win or for a small group.
Don't get me wrong, I have a deep respect and appreciation for the importance of establishing classroom norms and creating a positive learning environment. And I am very appreciative that both teachers seem to be drawn towards praise rather than punishment. But there is an extent to which my kids' desire to behave and be "good" becomes the focus of their learning, rather than critical thinking and creative problem solving. Which is where my embarrassing rabbi moment comes into play.
As my younger kid was going on at length about pom-poms, I was thinking about how to redirect him to share something else he might have learned that day. But then I realized that perhaps this was quite a fitting area of focus for a rabbi's kid in the month of Elul. What if ClassDojo and pom-poms were part of this season's Heshbon HaNefesh, the accounting of our soul? These are opportunities for my kids to increase awareness about of how their actions impact those around them - albeit their classmates and teachers.
I knew if I responded with this very Jewish idea, my kids would roll their eyes (they are so good at it!) and say, "Babbo!" So I kept it to myself.
Those of us who are grown don't have the benefit of external mentors setting up sticker charts and promising rewards. So we have to do it for ourselves. To hold ourselves accountable; to train ourselves to be the most generous, compassionate, forgiving people we can be. Perhaps we can all learn something from the dedicated teachers in our lives.
Jewish tradition offers us both the language and the structure to reward ourselves. And it goes big. Way bigger than a Wiffle ball bat, if you ask me. It promises the Book of Life!
In the words of Rabbi Suzanne Offit as she reflects on the ancient words of the Unetane Tokef,
"We are beckoned to become our own judge.
There is time.
And now is the time.
We are not here to try to accrue bonus points in some kind of cosmic ledger.
We are not here to try to escape death by gaining favor with an unforgiving God.
We are here to listen to the question that calls out softly,
From within and beyond us:
What do you want to do with the time you have left?"
As we journey into the second Shabbat of Elul, consider what tangible tools might support you in the work of Heshbon HaNefesh in your own life. Do you need a pom-pom jar (so satisfying to the senses!) or a sticker chart? Do you need to make a laminated checklist of all the people you want to call before Rosh Hashanah to say, "If there are any ways I have missed the mark, I ask your forgiveness?" And then check them off one at a time with a dry erase marker.
Don't worry about the cosmic ledger. Wonder about who you want to be with the time you have left. May we have the wisdom to approach our inner accounting with the gentle levity of pom-pom!
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.