By Sue Gelsey
Every family has its own customs for holiday gatherings and family dinners. These conventions clarify who hosts, who is invited, where people sit, and the general flow of time together. These family practices also establish boundaries regarding acceptable conversation topics, as well as those off limits. Through the years, these parameters are shared, understood, and accepted. And, with them, sadly, generations of opportunity for dialogue and learning and growing together are lost in deference to history.
Or, are they lost for other reasons?
Consider how society has identified conversations and topics deemed unsuitable for children. Although such subjects are generally accepted beliefs, educators know that children not only are capable of hearing important and complicated conversations, they have much to teach adults. Matt Karlsen, director of professional development at Opal School, a pre-primary and elementary school in Portland, Oregon, explains, “Teachers hear children grappling with questions that adults grapple with too. Children have wisdoms that are vital for our democracy,” and the opportunity to learn from children is in how they wrestle and struggle together and in how they manage tension to reach the other side together. And he wonders, “What keeps us from wanting to hear others, from wanting others to hear us? Is it that we fear what will happen when difference emerges?”
So, although we fear the discomfort of difficult conversations might break our family community, children demonstrate that working through the tension is the important ingredient in building community. Allowing differences to emerge, opening pathways for sharing ideas, and working through challenges together, we learn and are stronger.
Parker J. Palmer, in his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of The Human Spirit, teaches:
“These five habits, taken together, are crucial to sustaining a democracy. We must understand that we are all in this together…. We must develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness.” ….We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways….We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency….We must strengthen our capacity to create community.”
Our tradition demonstrates these five elements throughout the Torah in many examples of people questioning and debating. And, we see the most critical instances when our ancestors engage in dialogue with God.
In Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24), Abraham, sitting outside his open tent, introduces us to the concept of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests). His openness to others enables him to engage with angels passing by from whom he learns of the foretelling of the destruction of Sodom. As storyteller Brian Andreas writes, “Most people don’t know that there are angels whose only job is to make sure that you don’t get too comfortable and fall asleep and miss your life.” Abraham, indeed, does not miss this opportunity. He pleads with God on behalf of a whole city (what Parker J. Palmer calls being in this together) and all the people of Sodom (appreciation of “otherness”). God was determined to destroy this city of wickedness and Abraham engages (willing to hold tension) in a conversation with kindness and compassion (in generating his own voice). He asks, “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” And continues, “Will the judge of all the earth not do justice?” He asks for consideration if there are 50 righteous people, will they be spared? What about 45? 40?… 30?… 20?… 10? Yet, in the end, Abraham was unable to find even 10 righteous people within the city.
Although Abraham was unsuccessful in his attempt to persuade God, we see in this story Abraham’s appreciation of others and how he holds tension in pursuit of justice and community building. And, although seeking justice is challenging and those who pursue it generally see only small successes along the way, Abraham does not sit back in his comfort zone; instead he seeks action through dialogue. He understands his privileged relationship with God and its potential to lift others. So, even though he does not succeed, the text tells us that “Abraham went right back to his ways,” continuing the effort of standing for and with others. Abraham teaches us to have hard conversations together…. to develop an appreciation for the value of “others” ….to cultivate the ability to hold tension ….to generate a personal voice ….and to strengthen our capacity to create community. Rabbi Angela Buchdahl teaches a similar lesson: “Judaism’s goal is to make whole what is broken, and to break what feels whole.” If Abraham can confront God, then surely we can find a path to engage in important conversations with our families and our children about justice and equality and equity and humanity. Let us learn from Abraham. Let us learn from children. Let us build community together.
Sue Gelsey is the chief program officer at JCC Association of North America.