BY RACHEL LAVICTOIRE / AJT //
One day at a small junior high school, a young boy – we’ll call him Benjamin – began to struggle with his identity.
Now, Benjamin arrived at school on Monday morning just in time for homeroom. He walked in, sat down at his desk and folded his arms into what he would use as a makeshift pillow for a quick morning nap.
But before he could get his head in just the right position, the school coaches entered the room and announced that they’d be posting sign-ups for basketball try outs. Most of the boys in the room smiled; they were ready for the season to start.
Benjamin, however, had just gotten a guitar for his birthday. Truth to tell, he enjoyed learning to play the guitar much more than he liked playing basketball.
So Benjamin ignored the coaches and his classmates, then turned back to his folded arms and tried once again to get comfortable. When the bell rang, he went to his first class, passing the sign-up sheet tacked to the wall in the hallway.
He passed the sheet again and again throughout the day, ignoring it as he made his way to class through the morning and afternoon. He walked passed it one last time after the final bell rang at 3 p.m.
Making a Decision
Outside in the carpool line, the other boys couldn’t stop talking about basketball: the special camps they’d attended; how their dads and older brothers had helped them practice shooting; their plans for the upcoming season.
Benjamin told the boys he wouldn’t be playing. He remained friendly, however, and joked around with his friends about who would make the team.
Benjamin’s mom rolled up to the front of the school, and he jumped into the car, happy to be done with yet another Monday. He tossed his backpack on the floor of the car and reached for the radio.
His mom, however, was eager to talk.
“I hear basketball try-outs are coming up,” she said. “Did you sign up?”
Benjamin shook his head, a back-and-forth motion that clearly signaled “no.”
“Well, why not?” she asked.
Benjamin explained he wanted to continue with guitar lessons and that he “just didn’t feel like it,” and then added the oh-so familiar phrase that youngsters have been offering up for generations: “Everyone is doing it. I just want to do something else.”
His mom didn’t understand and kept asking him why he couldn’t play basketball with his friends on school days and practice guitar on the weekends.
In Search of Ourselves
I’ve always been interested in this little dilemma. It’s what I consider to be the “paradox of individuality.”
We all have times when we just want to be our own person. Then again, no one wants to be alone all the time. It’s a conundrum, but I think this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, has something to say on the issue.
As Jacob is nearing his death, he calls together his sons to bless each of them individually:
“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the student of the law from between his feet…Zebulun, he will be at the harbor of the ships…Dan will avenge his people, like one…From Asher will come rich food, and he will yield regal delicacies…”
Jacob continued on and on, assigning each son a role (Genesis 49: 8-19).
Judah will produce leaders, he said; priests will come from Levi, scholars from Issachar, seafarers from Zebulun, teachers from Simeon, soldiers from Gad, judges from Dan, and olive growers from Asher.
Jacob went further, too, giving certain brothers gifts of fierceness and others gifts of speed. Indeed, on that day, he created the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
It’s from these tribes that regional groups emerge: the Sephardim, Ashkenazi and more. It’s also from these tribes that we learn about the “paradox of individuality” that I detail above.
When Jacob finishes his blessing, the parshah reads, “All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father spoke to them and blessed them; each man, according to his blessing, he blessed them” (Genesis 49:28).
Notice how it reads “each man, according to his blessing, he blessed them.” That implies that Jacob didn’t assign these roles to his sons, but rather that he recognized the originality within them and encouraged them that they raise a people with similar gifts and interests:
Leaders will live together with Judah, soldiers with Gad, and so on. Members of each tribe are unique individuals, all created differently; and each tribe is unique because of its distinction assigned by Jacob.
But regardless of all of the differences, all twelve tribes, and all their members are Jewish and, as such, are all connected in a great way.
The same goes for Benjamin, and for all of us still in the process of discovering who we are. It is in fact possible to be different and the same, to strive for individuality and community.
You can listen to different music than all of your peers, yet still go to sporting events with them. You can dress yourself head-to-toe in argyle and pastel colors, and still walk to class with your New York friends.
No matter how different you may feel at times, there will always be at least one thing in your life that creates community. If all else fails, you’re Jewish, and we all know what a strong community that can be.
Rachel LaVictoire (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.