06 Feb 2019
The faces of children
Dear families, I wrote this following piece back in 2016 at my former school, and I wanted to share it with you as it relates to this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah.
One of the hardest parts of the job as principal is when you have to to deal with young students who have gotten into a fight. Not hard in a “what type of conflict resolution strategy do I use” or “what are the appropriate consequences” hard, but hard at the soul level, at the neshama level. You watch these kids, some so young that they have no real understanding of why they even got into a fight in the first place, as they sit crying, wiping tears, runny noses and dirt from their faces, eyes on fire in some cases, fear and bewilderment in others. They plead their case or try and recreate the crime scene, the loaded choreography of who hit who first. And you listen, and you nod and you use all the tools in your toolkit to try to make it better. Sometimes the arguments or fights are easy to resolve, and you help the students move on. And sometimes, the fights have deeper roots, the who started with who less clear, and the ability to help those students see each other for who they are and help them connect to the areas they share in common is often that much more difficult.
There is much we can understand about the impact of our children fighting in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah. The parsha is devoted to the details of how the People of Israel are instructed to build God a mishkan, a sanctuary or dwelling place, of which the Torah famously says: “They shall make for Me a Sanctuary, and I shall dwell amidst them.” The whole event is an interior decorators dream parsha, with an endless list of raw materials needed for the construction – gold, silver and copper; blue-, purple- and red-dyed wool; flax, goat hair, animal skins, wood, and so on. Aspiring architects get a big smile on their faces, as they follow the detailed instructions on how to build this dwelling for Hashem in such a way so that it could be easily dismantled, transported and reassembled as the Jews journeyed in the desert. And then, in the middle of all the building plans, the Torah describes the covering of the Ark and the Cherubim (Exodus/Shmot 25: 17-22), which according to Rashi, had the faces of children and were made out of a solid piece of gold:
“You shall make a cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. Make two cherubim of gold — make them of hammered work — at the two ends of the cover. Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end; of one piece with the cover shall you make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. Their faces shall look one to another, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the Ark, after depositing inside the Ark the Pact that I will give you. There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you — from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact — all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.”
The Talmud (Bava Batra 99a) shares the famous teaching about the cherubim:
“But in another verse (II Chronicles 3:13) it says, ‘they faced [the walls of] the room’? When the people of Israel fulfilled G-d’s will, the cherubim would face each other; and when the people of Israel did not fulfill G-d’s will, the cherubim would face the walls of the room“.
Nowadays, thousands of years after the actual construction of Hashem’s travelling mishkan, we are left just with the biblical blueprints, which can only be translated into modern spiritual terms, as we no longer have the right to rebuild these early physical constructions of connection to God. And the lesson of the “why” of the forward facing / away facing cherubim is fairly easy to grasp – Hashem cannot have a home here on earth if we, His children, are not able to get along with each other.
This is something we as parents grasp instinctively when our children fight, and we wind up questioning the whole notion of what a “home” really is when no one can seem to get along in said home. And while conflict and fighting have its important place, and helps all of us grow, it is really frustrating to watch as a parent – you feel like a failure in those moments.
I feel that lesson most acutely in a Jewish Day School. Parents give us the best of their raw materials, their gold – their children. We are supposed to be the incubator of bold Jewish ideas, a training ground for future Jewish leaders and visionaries and contributing members of society, and above all a builder of mentches – people of integrity and honour. You see, we can build the most beautiful schools, have the best facilities, market our educational product and programs as the be all and end all. And yet… and yet, when these moments occur, when kids don’t get along or even fight with each other, the whole enterprise feels pointless. The discussions about values, the lessons in Torah and mitzvot and derech eretz, even the striving for academic success, all of it feels rather empty, like Hashem has left the building, when children fight.
And much like the holy work that was done thousands of years ago to build the mishkan and fashion the cherubim out of pure gold on top of the Ark, in these moments we have to roll up our sleeves and do our holy work to help the faces of our children look at each other again with love and respect, and a deeper understanding of how connected they really are. And it is only when that happens does everything else that we try and do as educators begin to make sense again and have real purpose. The mission and vision of a school, and the values and education that are imparted and taught, all of it begins to align again when children learn to resolve conflict. And Hashem comes flowing back into everything we do.