Trust, Learning, and Friendship

Mishnah 1:6 of Pirkei Avot contains another of the most familiar quotes used in Jewish education:
 
.יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת
 
Yehoshua ben Perachia says, "Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person as meritorious."
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 1:6
A close reading of this text raises many interesting questions, and one of my favorite is to think about the relationship between the three phrases - how exactly are finding a teacher, acquiring (buying) yourself a friend, and giving others the benefit of the doubt connected?


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Lists of Three

There are many oft-quoted texts from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), but Mishnah 1:2 one stands out.  This is the first of many lists of three found in Pirkei Avot, and it offers an intriguing opportunity for close reading and analysis.  In keeping with the Rabbinic approach to understanding text, we should pay close attention not only to the words themselves, but also to the order in which they appear.  What can we learn from the fact that the world stands first on Torah, next on service, and finally on acts of chesed (loving-kindness)?

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Fantastic Launch!

This year my weekly Dvar Torah will follow a slightly different cycle.  I've decided to enter into a non-traditional Chevrutah (a term denoting the traditional form for Jewish text study in pairs) with anyone who reads these messages, and I propose we study Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) together.  While we may not be able to dialogue as we would in the traditional format, I'll offer some text, some questions, and some ideas, and I would LOVE to hear back from whomever would like to engage.

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What are we fighting for?

What does it mean to be a Rodef Shalom (a pursuer of peace)?  In our tradition this seems to be an important attribute that we are directed to hold as a core value.  Does it mean peace at any cost?  Aren’t there some things we have to fight for, or fight about?

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The spies and conforming to social pressure

In the 1950’s, Social Psychologist Dr. Solomon Asch ran a classic experiment on social pressure and conformity.  He brought subjects into a room full of confederates (actors who are working for the experiment) for a “visual perception” task.  He then showed subjects a drawing of a line, and asked them to select another line from a group of three different lines that matched the original in length.

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Grow Together

In this week’s Torah portion we read that the Children of Israel were guided in their wandering through the Desert by a cloud, which appeared like a fire at night.  When the cloud settled to the ground they camped, and when it lifted they struck camp and traveled, following the earthly manifestation of divinity through time and space for forty years.

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Magical Presence

During my childhood, the most magical Jewish moment I ever experienced came annually during the High Holy Days when the Cohanim went up to the Bima and blessed the congregation using the same words my parents used to bless me and my sister each Friday night.  My grandfather was a Cohen, so when we were with them for the holidays he left his seat next to me to wash his hands and go up to the front.  Then the entire congregation turned away (I went under my father’s tallit) during the priestly benediction, presumably because the divine presence would be overwhelming if we looked.  Because my eyes were closed and/or the tallit was covering them, I never knew until later that their hands were performing the Vulcan greeting “Live long and prosper,” appropriated by Leonard Nimoy for Star Trek from that exact ritual.

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Life in the wilderness

Liminality is the state of being on the edge — one foot in, one foot out.  In social science, it used to describe one phase of several in which individuals shift roles, as in the shift from childhood to adulthood.  For example, there may be a period of seclusion during the transition from single life to married life (we call it a honeymoon).  The bride and groom, having just been ritually bound together at the beginning of their marriage, spend a period of time outside the community and return from their liminal time as a husband and wife.

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Yovel: a radical social-religious experiment

In a phenomenal attempt to engineer an artificially egalitarian economic system, the Torah describes in this week’s Parsha (Behar-Behukotai) the culmination of the seven-year Shemitah cycle known as Yovel (Jubilee).  In this fiftieth year of the cycle (as in the seventh), fields lie fallow, debts are forgiven, slaves and indentured servants are released, and all land returns to its originally designated familial ownership.  It's like clicking the ultimate reset button.

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That's not fair!

Anyone who works with children is familiar with the phrase, “that’s not fair.” As adults, we respond in many different ways, most of them offering only limited satisfaction to young minds.  Sometimes we say that life isn’t fair (which is pretty dismissive, when you think about it), or that what is fair for one person isn’t fair for another (which is probably too sophisticated an idea for many children).  At the heart of the concern is a need for clarity of expectations and consequences, as well as the need to be able to either control or predict at least some aspects of their environment.

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After Death, Holy

We have the combination of two Torah portions this week, and when you put their names together, you get something kind of haunting. The first is Acharei Mot (after death), and the second is Kedoshim (holy).  After death, holy.
 
Because Gesher is in the process of several significant transitions, I think about these words through that lens. It strikes me that there is always a potential for spiritual growth if you approach a transition in that mindset. Transitions are not generally smooth - far more often they are not pretty things, but growth requires change. Though it may seem trite to say, it is worth remembering that death is part of what gives meaning to life, and that there is indeed an aspect of holiness inherent in life because death exists.


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Religious evolution

When you have a tradition spanning thousands of years, one aspect of learning it includes thinking about how concepts, laws, values, and practices evolve throughout time.  The great anthropologist of religion, Roy Rappaport, noted that one of the fundamental features of pre-literate societies was the idea that rituals seemed unchanged since the earliest days of creation - if the elders said this is how it has always been done, who could argue?  However, because the rituals were not being written down, they were certainly changing slowly over the course of time, remaining meaningful and functional because they could adapt.  The current Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, offers a fascinating example of the evolution of core ideas in Judaism over time.

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Distinguishing

The portion begins with a horrifying narrative in which Aaron’s son, Nadav and Avihu, are consumed by fire for having brought “incorrect” or “strange” fire to G-d’s altar in the Mishkan.  While traditional commentaries suggest that perhaps they were invoking rituals associated with idols, or perhaps drunk during the episode, it sets the stage for a conversation about the importance of the concepts of purity vs. impurity, kosher vs. non-kosher, and holy vs. mundane.  All of these are addressed in the rest of the portion. 


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Four Children

As an educator and someone fascinated by human nature, one of my favorite symbols in Judaism is the four children we discuss during the Passover Seder.  The original language and conceptions are dated by the focus on sons and not daughters, and by the over-generalization that we could ever categorize all the varieties of children into four boxes.  The big picture idea, however, is that children are different, and that an attentive parent or educator adjusts their expectations and their language to meet the needs of the child.

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I didn't mean to...

This week's Torah portion, VaYikrah, introduces an aspect of human nature that is critically important for parents and educators both to think about and to understand - it discusses what happens when a person breaks a rule unintentionally.  The Hebrew word, BiShGaga, is translated as “unwittingly," “unintentionally," or most accurately, "by mistake.”  Rules and intentional or unintentional transgressions are core elements of child-rearing and education, so it is important for us to take a look at the ways in which Jewish tradition approaches these issues.

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Experiential Deep Clean

Spring has sprung! We are coming up on Pesach (Passover) in just a few weeks, and there is an interesting parallel between the idea of spring cleaning and the removal of Chametz (any food product made from wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt, or their derivatives, which has risen), which is traditionally not eaten during the 8 days of the holiday. For those who observe this Halacha (Jewish Law), it is forbidden to own, eat, or benefit from Chametz during Pesach, and that means engaging in a pretty deep clean.

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Time for some R and R

One of my favorite quotes about Shabbat is Ahad Ha’am’s: “More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”  I love the idea that not only is keeping Shabbat an important feature of Jewish observance, but that there is a practical positive impact of this observance on maintaining Jewish culture and identity. This week in Ki Tisa, we read a few verses about observing Shabbat that codify its central importance for the Children of Israel, and we get a few hints about why the sanctification of time is at least as important as the sanctification of space.

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Don't Forget to Play!

In 1999 Dr. Sugata Mitra, a professor at the University of Newcastle in the UK, began a series of experiments.  He put hidden cameras in remotes villages and slums in India, and focused on them on a computer terminal that he had installed in a wall at the height of a young child.  Within 3-6 months playing with these computers, children had taught themselves and each other how to use Microsoft Windows, how to access the internet, and how to read enough English to find and use websites that interested them.  How?

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A Week of Gifts

This week Gesher became part of the ongoing wave of anti-semitism in our country that has surged through JCC’s, cemeteries, and now Jewish Day Schools when we received a bomb threat on Monday morning.  Our moments of fear and anxiety were brief, however, and the ensuing hours and days have been filled with love and support from both within and outside of the Jewish community.

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Do Then Listen

This Shabbat we will read about 53 rules and regulations delivered from G-d to the People of Israel at Mount Sinai.  Mishpatim (the name of the Parsha) means laws or rules (or judgements/sentences, in a darker connotation), and there is a great deal written about the unusual response the newly birthed nation gives after listening to all their new guidelines:  “Na’aseh V’Nishmah”.  Often translated as “we will do and we will understand/listen,” the natural question we ask is about the order - don’t you have to listen first, and then do?

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