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Torah: Seven Faces—Seven Ways

Monday, January 11, 2021 7:29 PM

by   Dale Sides Cooperman, Early Childhood, ECC Classroom, ECE Classroom, Idie Benjamin, Simhat Torah, Teaching Tools

Idie Benjamin and Dale Sides Cooperman

Dale Sides Cooperman and Idie BenjaminThe fall is a time of endings and beginning. The cycle of the year begins anew. Summer ends, and school begins. We say goodbye to old friends and make new friends. New-ness permeates everything we do. We even begin anew, with another year of the Torah reading cycle.

In our early childhood classrooms, and in our synagogues, on Simhat Torah (literally “rejoicing with the Torah”), we parade, dance, and sing with the Torah scrolls. We celebrate the completion of the year just past, a year filled with reading and learning from the Torah, and now, celebrate the year ahead where we will continue once again the joyous task of reading and learning. The Sefer Torah—a Torah Scroll, contains the five books of Moses, the first five books of the Tanakhthe Jewish Bible. It is the holiest object for Jews.

There are seventy faces to the Torah: Turn it around and around, for everything is in it.” (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15)

In this midrash (Rabbinic story) the sages tell us that there are different ways to interpret the Torah, to access its message, and to gain understanding from a literal reading to deep insight. The Torah is the starting point of our understanding of Judaism and of creating a Jewish identity. All of us, including children, can find our unique face in the Torah. This discovery helps lead to a deeply personal Jewish identity.

The Torah has both an inside and outside. Children know the outside. We honor the Torah by the beautiful covers that cover the scrolls, the silver crowns, and other adornments. But it is the inside, the words that are written in the Torah scrolls, where we find the core of Judaism. How do we help children to understand their faces in the Torah, and help them to find meaning and relevance for themselves in these words, written thousands of years ago?

On Simhat Torah, seven times, we parade around the synagogue with our flags and dance and sing with the Torahs. A Torah parade is called a hakafah—a circling. Since seven is a more manageable number, let’s use the seven hakafot of Simhat Torah to find seven faces of the Torah, seven ways for young children to find meaning in the Torah. What can the Torah tell them?

Hakafah #1—Listen to the Torah – The first story in the Torah tells how God created the world. When God was finished making the world, it was time for Shabbat. This is the face of the Torah that shows we believe in a world of order and beauty where everything is good. This is the face of awe – where young senses experience the magnificence of the world in which they live.

Hakafah #2—Listen to the Torah – The Torah tells us the story of Abraham and Sarah and that they were the first Jewish people. This is the face of belonging to something larger than our families. What might that mean to children? It is the beginning of a belief in God and/or community.

Hakafah #3—Listen to the Torah—The Torah tells us about special Jewish days – Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot. This is the face of celebrating our shared story. It connects children to the Jewish community with memories and gives them rituals and traditions as varied as the children with whom we spend our days. In our schools and with our school community, we help them to create their own memories that attach them to Jews near and far.

Hakafah #4—Listen to the Torah—The Torah tells us that there are special mitzvot for Jewish people to do that make us Jewish. We celebrate Shabbat and holidays, wear a tallit, keep kosher, and say brakhot and prayers. We teach children to appreciate the joy in all the day-to-day experiences and help them to see the blessings in everything we do. This is the face of practice and tradition. It is in the doing that children become part of the Jewish community.

Hakafah #5 —Listen to the Torah—In the Torah, we read that God tells us there are special things that Jewish people do – to be kind to friends and neighbors, to give tzedakah, to keep our world clean, to help people who are hungry, to tell the truth, and to do tikun olam, making the world a better place. This is the face of tikkun olam, bringing wholeness to the world. Children learn that their actions can bring us to the better world envisioned in the Torah, that they are empowered to understand that they can make a difference in the world.

Hakafah #6 —Listen to the Torah—In the Torah, there are prayers to God. The Shema is in the Torah. The Shema teaches us to listen – to God and to each other. This is the face of there being something greater than us, of so many faces and so many people standing together and really listening to themselves, to others, and to God.

Hakafah #7—Listen to the Torah—In the Torah, God tells us that the land of Israel will always be a special place for Jewish people. This is the face of being part of a large community. It is the place of Torah stories and history—their history.

On Simhat Torah, as we finish reading the Torah and immediately start to read it from the beginning, we are reminded of the centrality of the Torah to Judaism. We need to find ways, faces, for young children to see this as well. Each of these hakafot is a face, a way for children to understand the Torah. Each of these faces is a way for children to discover a way to be Jewish. Each of these faces helps them to find meaning in being a part of the Jewish community. It is our responsibility to find ways for children and their families to see each of these faces and to find their Jewish path.

Vicky Kelman

Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis McNutt

“Hanokh l’na’ar al pi darko / gam ki yazkin lo yasur mimena” ( Proverbs 22:6)

This biblical teaching has been ringing in my brain since reading “Becoming Nicole.”

The most usual translation for that proverb is

“Train (educate) a lad (young person) in the way he/ she ought to/ should go; he/ she will not swerve from it even in old age.”

But a more accurate translation of the phrase “al pi darko” (in the first half of the verse) would actually be “according to his ( her) way.” The word darko definitely means “his way.” And there is more than a difference in nuance. The standard translation indicates that there is right way somewhere out there that determines the “should,” the prescribed path to be taken. (Of course, this being the Bible, darko = his way, could also be darko, His way, but I did not run across any commentaries pointing that out.)

The translation I suggest, emphasizes that the way to educate is to discern the child’s way and follow from there.

Nutt-Becoming-NicoleThe book, Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, by Amy Ellis Nutt, is a portrait of a family that was able to raise two children in accordance with this teaching, in very unusual and trying circumstances. Wayne and Kelly Maines, unable to conceive after five years of marriage, have the amazing luck to be able to adopt newborn identical twin boys (well, to be exact, they had thought they were adopting one baby—who turned out to be two—and they had another surprise waiting that didn’t begin to manifest itself immediately.) They named their new sons, Jonas and Wyatt.

The family settled in a conservative, family-oriented rural town in upstate New York. The boys’ adoptions became legal at seven months and life unfolded in a fairly predictable fashion, until….

Everyone began to notice that these identical twin boys were not so identical. As they grew into toddlers, differences began to develop in their styles of play. So far, not so different from patterns observed with most twins and siblings. But their styles begin to diverge further and further and with some clearly observable consistency. “Wyatt loved everything Barbie while Jonas loved everything Star Wars. The biggest difference between the boys could be seen in the characters they chose when they acted out stories. Jonas was always the “boy” character and Wyatt the “girl” character. He loved playing Cinderella, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, Wendy from Peter Pan and Ariel from The Little Mermaid.” Then, at age 3 in a moment of closeness with Wayne, Wyatt tearfully tells his father that he hates his penis. (chapter 3)

“How do we understand what al pi darko means here? Wayne and Kelly are baffled, especially Wayne who has been thinking along very traditional fatherhood role lines about things such as playing football and hunting with “my boys.”

As she struggles to understand Wyatt, Kelly is more open to finding out what darko/his way,” might mean. Wyatt was just “different” is how she explained his behavior to friends and family, initially. “She knew most others didn’t understand, especially Wayne. She’d seen her husband sitting reading the newspaper while Wyatt skipped around in his tutu, a hand-me-down from his friend Leah. Wayne pretended not to see him. He didn’t look up. He didn’t want to look up.” (chapter 3)

Wayne just wanted a normal family like the one he had grown up in. Kelly wasn’t sure there was such a thing as “a normal” family. The family she grew up in had not been like other families she knew. Unsure there even was a “normal” family, she wasn’t struggling against her expectations, as Wayne was.

Kelly struggles on with how to parent Wyatt and Jonas, how to discern who they each are as individuals—as well as with the “absence” of Wayne from shared parenting duties, especially those involving Wyatt..

Kelly faces the daily clash over clothing with Wyatt. She perceives it to be cruel to dress Wyatt in clothing he hates. At first, as a compromise position she searches for plain, as opposed to frilly, clothing in the bright colors he seems to crave. She makes that first purchases with hesitation, without consulting Wayne who doesn’t approve but doesn’t try to stop her.

“Why do you have to indulge him? Wayne would ask.

He’s trying to tell us something, “Kelly would say. “He’s showing us who he is, and we’ve got to help him figure it out.” (chapter 4)

All children need this kind of close loving attention from an adult who means something to them.

One night, Kelly sits down at her computer and inputs the phrase “boys who like girls’ toys” and what she discovers there kicks off her own educational journey to discover who Wyatt is.

The rest of this fascinating book tells the story of Wyatt’s emergence as Nicole and follows Nicole and Jonas as far as college, an eventful journey encompassing acceptance and joy, discovery, cruelty, prejudice, transformation and growth, and a history-making court case.

McNutt not only tells the family’s story but provides rich information. She devotes a lot of space to biology and definitions so that we come to understand the bigger human picture of which the Maines is an example. Genitals and gender identity develop differently in utero. Gender identity develops in the brain, and usually, but not always, correlates with the genitals. For those in the minority, the struggle to live in a body that feels like the wrong body is intense and painful (chapters 14, 15, 16) “Sexual orientation is who you go to bed with. Gender identity is who you go to bed as.” (chapter 16)l

Becoming Nicole, should be required reading for parents and teachers, not because so many of us will raise transgender children, although we will all encounter them one way or another, but because it models al pi darko, so clearly. Kelly and Wayne, though their pacing and timing are exceedingly different and their evolutions follow very different trajectories, are models of what it means to educate, guide, parent a child Al pi darko.. Kelly moves first, taking a stance of curiosity almost from the start. Wane is slower out of the starting gate and his path is rockier, but both can be role models for us.

Jonas is the family member who is least revealed. I came away from the book feeling I barely knew him. Jonas says that he knows no other reality than this sibling who was Wyatt and is now Nicole. He had no other expectations. Who Nicole is doesn’t seem to surprise him or challenge any assumptions. She is who she is. His sister. Given that being a twin of a more ordinary sort is complicated enough—I kept wanting to hear more from him.

In his famous Haggadah, the artist David Moss represents the four children (sons) like playing cards, commenting that parents are dealt their children almost by chance, as we would be dealt a hand of cards. We get the children we get. It’s always a surprise—and we a step up to the task of playing that hand. Kelly and Wayne model that for us.

We learn from the Maines’s story that a large part of the parenting job here is also advocacy for the child in the world “out there.” The interface with extended family, neighbors, church, and school system (and think: youth group, summer camp, sports team). Advocacy is a huge part of the Maines family journey (in ways that echo the experience of all parents of kids who have needs that the system is not ready to deal with) but because it deals with gender, it is more fraught and more fear-inducing. For the Maines family, the issue that eventually leads them to court is the use of the bathroom in school.

Our Jewish community institutions are just starting to confront the issue of the inclusion of transgender members. I did a “quick and dirty” little survey of some synagogues, day schools, and summer camps and was pleased to discover that although some are further along in the process than others, all are struggling to figure out how to be inclusive and welcoming of this newly identified ( for them) segment of our population. They are juggling many issues at the crossroads of facilities (physical space), legal questions, and Jewish tradition.

If you haven’t already, you will soon notice new labels for restrooms in public places*, new choices on questionnaires in addition to the standard “M” and “F,” and much discussion about preferred pronouns. The pink and blue “binary world” of boy/girl, into which this generation of parents and educators (not to mention grandparents) was born is gone forever and this new set of lenses through which to view gender is a huge jolt. McNutt provides an interesting and comprehensive guide to the unfolding of this new aspect of the miracle that is the human race.

For Jewish resources and support: check Keshet, a national organization working for the full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews in Jewish life.

Teaching as Interpretation

Monday, January 11, 2021 5:44 PM

Teaching as Interpretation

Joel Lurie Grishavby Joel Lurie Grishaver

One of my favorite texts of all time is Rashi’s comments on the first verse of the Torah.

Rashi’s first comment begins “Rabbi Yitzhak said…” If you know a little bit about Rashi, you will know that Rabbi Yitzhak was Rashi’s father. The idea our teaching begins out of our own family experience is a wonderful notion.

Rashi then begins his second comment by saying, “The Torah only says one thing, “explain me.” Or perhaps, “make a midrash out of me.” The idea that it takes our struggling and interpreting to have the Torah make sense. Just as Rashi begins his teaching with the invitation to join in a struggle to make meaning, our role as Jewish teachers is to do the same. The living Torah character that serves as the Torah Aura logo began his existence as an illustration of this Rashi. Likewise, both Torah-Toons and Being Torah, our definitional work, started out as our expression of Rashi’s interpretation.

We live in a world of too little time for Jewish life. We regularly have nowhere near enough hours to teach the things we want to teach. We spend our professional efforts in triage, deciding which things will fit into the slots we have. The next time you have to make such a choice, remember how Rashi did it, “Rabbi Yitzhak” and “explain me.”

Torah Takes Patience

Monday, January 11, 2021 5:43 PM

Joel Lurie Grishaverby Joel Lurie Grishaver

This text is found in the Shulhan Arukh. It is powerful because it talks about anger and frustration—realities for all of us who teach.

A teacher should not get angry at students who do not understand, rather, the teacher should repeat the matter over and over again until they grasp it. The student should not say “I understand” when the student does not understand, but should ask over and over again. And if the teacher is angry the student should say, ‘Teacher, it is the Torah and I want to know it.”‘ (Yoreh Deah 246:10).

The power of this text is three things. (1) The text does not say do not “show anger,” or do not “act in anger,” but rather, “do not get angry.” It affirms that students will have difficulties with learning—they are permitted to have problems. And, it demands that the teacher accept those difficulties—whatever they are, as part of the job of teaching. (2) I love the way the second half of this text turns it around. It challenges students to focus on the teacher. Having a problem—and being difficult are two different things. And if a teacher loses focus that the purpose of the relationship is Torah, it is the job of the student to re-center the teacher. Teachers help students learn. Learners help teachers teach. (3) It affirms that learning comes with challenges and difficulties—(and not just art projects). The enterprise of Torah learning will be a struggle—and there is a reward in that struggle.

On Teaching: Finding the Good in Students

Monday, January 11, 2021 5:41 PM

By Joel Lurie Grishaver

The Chofetz Chayim teaches:

If after giving a situation much thought, a teacher comes to the conclusion that a particular student has behavioral or learning problems and feels that it will not be possible to deal with the problem without the involvement of the principal, other teachers, or the student’s parents, then the teacher should speak to the necessary parties without delay.

But, the teacher must do so only out of concern for the teacher’s good and not out of anger or frustration. This could be extremely trying when the student in question is disruptive and frequently upsets the teacher.

Difficult as it is, teachers must not take student’s behavior personally. The disruptive student is, in most cases, not fighting the teacher; he is struggling with himself as he deals with the challenges of life. (Chofetz Chayim, A Lesson A Day—From the Concepts and Laws of Proper Speech—Day 60)

There are two great lessons in this little passage. Teachers love the locker room where we talk about our students and do a combination of play by play on last week’s game and anticipate this week’s competition (between teacher and student). We do a lot of harm to our students slowly and subtly as we prepare and debrief our lessons. If we have to worry about our students when they are not around, imagine how we have to treat them face to face. The second is his last insight about not taking “failure” personally. While it is a teacher’s obligation to self-evaluation every lesson from the standpoint of his/her presentation, one cannot and should not evaluate an individual student’s failure to respond. This is a very freeing truth.

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