We sometimes talk to people. We sometimes talk to pets, and these days we often talk to “Siri” and “Alexa.” And in Judaism, we sometimes talk to books. Whether it be a tractate of Talmud or an order of the Mishnah, upon completion, we say the hadran. The hadran is a promise given. In a sense, we talk to the book and say, “We will return to you.”
It is in these weeks that we return to the story of Avraham and to one of the most profound statements of identity that he makes. And every year, the more I experience life in the halls of school and beyond, his statement rings more true. He identifies himself as a ger v’toshav, both a stranger and a dweller (Gen 32:4). Even after years of success in the region, he still feels like a stranger. And while he is saying this to Bnei Cheit, I think Avraham himself feels like both a ger and a toshav—as it is a deep-seated reality of the human condition.
Our children, our students and us—we are all strangers like Avraham. There are spaces and places where we have a feeling of being an alien—different and alone. Sometimes the stranger element plays out in obvious ways. When a child who just moved to a new school or community or country feels alone in a new school with new surroundings, new languages and new peer group with a new culture, s/he feels like a ger. And sometimes the feeling of being an alien plays out in less-obvious ways with children or adults who, on the outside, present as cool and comfortable but on the inside feel like they are the only ones struggling in the math class, in the gym or at home. Every one of us contains an element of feeling like a ger—feeling that those around are more able, fit and competent.
Elizabeth Lesser, in her book “Broken Open,” tells us that everyone, in a sense, is a “bozo,” only human, feeling like a clown. “We are all half-baked experiments—mistake-prone beings, born without an instruction booklet into a complex world.” She tells us that we all feel this way, as we all have a perception that everyone around us is OK. But we all have to remember that each of us feels “outcast” at times—bozos on a bus—like a foreigner in a land where everyone seems to be functioning fine and smoothly.
But on the flip side, in some ways, we are all veterans, dwellers like Avraham. We are all blessed with places and spaces that make us feel grounded. Whether it be emotionally, professionally, financially, socially, spiritually or intellectually, thankfully we all thrive and feel at home in some of the spaces we occupy. And every student, even the ones who appear to me the most lost, thrive somewhere—in the STEM classroom, the stage, the Hebrew conversation or the soccer field.
This grounded/ungrounded status is a deep human feeling, one that must be in the forefront of our awareness as parents and educators and as people. It must force us to be sensitive and watch those around us to try to sense both their comfort spaces and their environments of struggle.
It forces us to try to tap into the comfortable places of those around us and look to create spaces in which they can thrive and shine—where they can display and develop their talents. And it also forces us to find places where we and they can also give and help those who feel less comfortable.
And, maybe even more importantly, it forces us to help those in our workplaces and classrooms to realize that we all have our vulnerabilities—places where we all feel like strangers. The ger/toshav paradox forces us to teach and live compassion. Just as we want others to be sensitive to those times and spaces where we need forgiveness and support, we have to keenly dig deep and give that to others. We have to constantly remind ourselves and our students that we are often more forgiving of our feelings of alienation than those of others. We must reach into our souls and use our muscles of compassion.
Ross Greene, in his book “Lost in School,” mostly focuses on students who fall through the cracks due to behavior issues. But in the later chapters he broadens the population of focus. “What if [all students and teachers] “understood that social, emotional and behavioral challenges are no different than other challenges confronting kids in the classroom, such as reading, writing...catching a ball? What if challenging kids were not solely in the position of needing help, but were also in a position to provide it?”
We are all, in some ways, lost in school or lost somewhere where everyone around us seems fit. And as educators and as people, it is our sacred duty to meet those spaces of ger with sensitivity and understanding, but also must tap into the toshav and strive to find ways for us, and for others, to be strong dwellers who can grow, give and thrive.
In this way, yes, we will sometimes be lost, but even in those lost spaces, we will also be found.
By Rabbi Aaron Frank