Tikkun Middot: Wonder, a book for our young adult congregants

Tikkun Middot: Wonder, a book for our young adult congregants

Wonder is the story of ten year-old Auggie, who is born with a severe facial deformity. In Augie’s words, “whatever you imagine, it’s worst.”  He is homeschooled for many years because of his ongoing need for extensive surgery and his parents’ fear about how other kids might treat him. When his parents decide it is time for him to experience a traditional school, he enters fifth grade, “like a lamb to the slaughter.”

As I read Wonder, I was touched by how certain aspects parallel our tikkun middot practice. The middah of Chesed, lovingkindness, is a main trope throughout the book. On the first day of school, Mr. Browne introduces his fifth grade English class to a “precept” for September: “Given the choice between right and kind, choose kind.” What’s a precept? He explains that a precept is “a saying or ground rule that motivates you. Basically, a precept is anything that helps guide us when making decisions about really important things.”

Similarly to Mr. Brown’s monthly precepts, for each monthly middah of our tikkun middot practice, we choose a focus phrase from an array of options ranging from traditional and contemporary Judaic texts to other literature, quotes, or music—they can even be made up by oneself. We each pick a phrase that feels poignant, instructive or otherwise meaningful, and then we repeat it each day in an effort to keep it in our awareness.

Mr. Brown’s precept emphasizes choice, a foundation of tikkun middot practice. As we develop a quality of mindfulness, we become more aware of moments, behira points, in which we have a choiceabout how to act. It is in these moments when having that focus phrase embedded in our consciousness is most useful—it is a  north star guiding us to act in closer alignment with God, ourselves, and others.

The plotline of Wonder may seem predictable to many an adult, with the initial bullying and isolation Auggie experiences. What distinguishes this story is how it is told from the points of view of six young narrators, including Auggie, his bright, creative, and sensitive older sister, Via, and several classmates.  It is simultaneously funny and heartbreaking.

How Auggie’s fellow classmates come to rally around him and take pride in their connection to him is intertwined with the social dynamics so prevalent at their stage in life. The book has its flaws: some readers find it too “sunny”; I have a problem with the recently added chapter (in the newest edition) narrated by the main perpetrator Julian.

Nonetheless, reading this novel is a way for young adults to weave the middah of kindness into their awareness in a way that may feel relevant to their lives. Reading can put us in a reflective state of mind; we have enough distance to notice the turning points in each character’s connection to Auggie (and Auggie’s own connection to himself). Finally, we are left with the powerful phrase, in the concluding remarks of the school principal at fifth grade graduation: “If you act a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.”

Written by: Ellyn Bank