We were spectators, but now we need to get back on the field and play the game.
No, that is not a Ted Lasso reference; it is what I’ve observed as one of the unique and unforeseen challenges we face as we slowly reassert a more normal school life. Many of our kids, so used to sitting passively on Zoom watching a lesson, do not always know how and when to interact appropriately with teachers or with each other. This has been particularly noticeable at school and camp during tefila, where students of all ages either cannot remember (or never learned) the appropriate choreography and behavior for what to say and how and when to say it. This is not endemic to any one school or camp: I have friends and family in other communities and schools who see it in their own kids too. How do we return to hands-on, involved interactivity? How do we get back on the field?
Noach was a spectator to the greatest catastrophe in the young world’s history: all of human and animal life, save those people and animals on his ark, was destroyed while he watched helplessly from the waters. What did Noach then do? The Torah reports that his transition back to hands-on life was difficult. Vayachel, “he began,” the Torah tells us, by planting a vineyard. Rashi, citing the Midrash, explains that the word vayachel means not that Noach “began,” but that he “profaned.” He blew it: Noach, presented with the opportunity to reboot the world, should have planted something other than grapes first. Grapes, notes Rabbi Moshe Sofer in his Chatam Sofer, certainly could be planted for the glory of God to be offered as a sacrifice, but they can too easily corrupt those who drink too much of what they produce.
Psychologist Adam Grant in his viral Ted Talk on the feeling he calls “languishing,” one that so many of us have experienced during COVID (a feeling that can best be described as feeling “meh”), suggests that the way to snap out of this feeling, and the way perhaps for our kids to reconnect in school and in tefila, is to realize that “love is not the frequency of communication; it’s the depth of connection.” We need to remind ourselves, as Grant says, that “we make a difference to other people.” On Zoom, we can — indeed, we did — forget that. And what we need to remind ourselves now is that we matter to others. We are players, not just spectators. My teacher Rav Yehuda Amital, zt’’l often said that he made aliyah because he wanted to be a participant: “I feel bad for the people who are in the Diaspora,” he said, “who are relegated to the role of spectator in the unfolding of Jewish history here in Israel.” While we may not yet be ready to take the step of aliyah, there is plenty we can do that’s hands-on right here and now.
When a child realizes that her voice singing Shema matters to her classmates, because it will change the feeling of connection to God in the room, she will sing louder. Kids will relearn this truth if we, their parents and teachers, continually remind them of it. They can then escape the “meh,” come down from the bleachers and rejoin the game.
And maybe, just maybe, we can too.