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Atonement

I was invited to do tashlich with grade 3 this week at Garry Point Park.  It was cold, it was windy, it was a perfectly sombre setting to symbolically “cast off” our sins of the previous year in the flowing waters of the South Arm of the Fraser River.  I tried to do tashlich for myself as well, but I couldn’t fit all of Garden City Bakery in my pockets.

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Before we read the tashlich prayer and threw our bread crumbs in the water, I shared a story with the class, hoping to help them understand what it means to really sacrifice, to do teshuvah and to give of yourself.  The story I shared was a retelling of Mary Antin’s powerful short story “Malinke’s Atonement”, published in September 1911, which I first read in a Jewish Studies course when I was a student at McGill in the mid-nineties.  It’s a story about an impoverished nine-year-old Jewish girl in Polotsk, Belarus, set in what could be the 18th or 19th century, who offers an incredible sacrifice to God.  It’s a remarkable short story that addresses issues of poverty, gender equality, Jewish education and the power of belief, and to this day is one of my favourite, most meaningful short stories.

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The kids loved the story, and as I watched them proceed to throw their little pieces of bread into the Fraser, I realized that, like Malinke, the little girl in the story, these kids had no sins to throw away.  None.

Adults?  We can be nasty, brutish, petty and cruel, and that’s even before the first coffee of the day.  We have so much to ask for forgiveness for.  But kids?  They’re built entirely differently.

I know sometimes as parents, our kids can drive us meshuge, or challenge us in our role as teachers and cause us to pull out our hair, but when they go sideways, and do something wrong, is it really what we call sin?  From where I sit, I don’t view it as sin at all.  Every so often, kids are sent to the principal’s office because they did something wrong.  Some kids are first-time offenders.  Some are repeat offenders.  Some have a dedicated chair in my office and a parking space with their name on it.  But I have yet to meet a student who really, truly transgresses from a bad place, from a place that is malicious with the intent to hurt – in other words, there is no bad kid.  Instead, I see students who are trying to figure out their place in the world, who are afraid of something, who are insecure, who are a little bit lost, or going through rough times at home or in class.  Their inappropriate actions are a reflection of this reality.  And when we as a school try and help these students, we try as hard as we can to operate from this perspective as well – each of these students has their God-given potential and abilities, and if we can help them understand how to act in ways that are more productive, if we can help them cast off the behaviours and actions that keep on getting them into trouble, then we can help them come closer to being the fullest expression of who they are meant to be in this world.

Have an easy and meaningful fast, a gmar chatimah tovah, and Shabbat Shalom u’mevorach.

Mar Abba

 

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