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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Monotheism: Early Disruptive Innovation

Monotheism has become such a successful theological belief that it is hard for modern people to comprehend just how radical a departure this first statement ("you shall have no other gods") of the Ten Commandments would have been in the ancient world.  Today we call this kind of idea a disruptive innovation, and the rate at which technological advances propel change has actually created a world in which we have come to expect dynamic, radical new ideas all the time.  That’s not what the world used to be like.

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Taking The Leadership Plunge

Nachshon ben Aminadav, the famous leader of the tribe of Judah who steps first into the not-yet-parted waters of the Reed Sea, is one of Judaism’s famous leadership models. As a direct descendant of Judah, the brother-in-law of Aaron, and a direct ancestor of King David, his yiches (leadership lineage) couldn’t get much better. What was it about him that allowed him to step forward first out of all the People of Israel gathered at the edge of the sea?

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With a Heavy Heart

No one starts life with a heavy heart, and no one knows that fact better than the parents and teachers of young children.  In fact, it is one of the great challenges of these positions to know that it is in some way your role to help your child's heart grow (appropriately) heavier.  That is why, when I read the opening words of this week's Torah portion, Bo, the scene in which G-d hardens (or weighs down, more accurately) Pharoah's heart really stood out.

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When to let them fall

I posed a question to Gesher students after the Torah reading this past Thursday, and it was one of my favorite kinds of questions to pose to students: one to which I truly don't know the answer.  The question comes from Shemot (Exodus) 6:5 - the last three words are, "and I've remembered my covenant."  I'm perplexed and troubled by the notion of a deity that forgets things like covenants.  Luckily, some Gesher students helped me understand these words in new and different ways.

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Seeking a More Perfect Union

As we read the opening verses of the second book of the Torah, Shemot, the narrative provides an fascinating counterpoint to the peaceful transfer of power we witnessed today.  This central feature of our democracy sits at the core of our national identity, and has an enormous impact on our ability to rely on the freedoms guaranteed by the documents that established the United States.  When viewed through the lens of Torah, today’s events take on even more meaning.

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Joseph's REAL Big Moment

This week we conclude the book of Genesis, and a set of verses conclude the story of the patriarchs and matriarchs in a particularly meaningful fashion.  Though there are many ways to read the stories of our founding family, it is hard to argue that they models we should aspire to emulate all the time.  The themes of deception, conflict, strife, and favoritism (to name just a few) are all woven throughout the narrative.  The story concludes, however, with a powerful moment of Teshuvah (returning).

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Gaps, Redundancies, and Asking the Right Question

How many moments in your life would have been drastically altered if only you'd known what questions to ask before moving forward, making a decision, or taking an action?  Asking the right question is both a science and an art, and I'm grateful that it is one of the core tools with which we arm our children when we expose them to the deep study of Jewish texts.

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Face to Face

On Monday I chaperoned an 8th grade visit to the Holocaust Museum in DC. On Tuesday I learned of a bill that was introduced in the Israeli Parliament that, if made law, would make it illegal for women to wear a tallit at the Kotel, potentially alienating an enormous majority of Diaspora Jewry. On Wednesday I began re-reading VaYishlach in depth, and was struck by the Milah Manchah (leading word or key word repeated throughout the story) of the portion: Panim (Face).

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Ladder Symbolism

In this week’s Torah Portion, VaYetze, we read about Jacob’s famous dream in which he sees a ladder upon which angels are ascending and descending. The ladder is a particularly powerful symbol, and it can be understood in a variety of ways. From the perspective of educators and parents, there are three key insights I’d like to share about this symbol.

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Dynamic Families

The stories of our earliest ancestors that we read in Breisheet (Genesis) are filled with parental favoritism and sibling rivalry. This week, we read the stories of Jacob and Esau, whose troubling relationship and failure to understand one another echo that of the first siblings, Cain and Abel. One aspect of Jewish tradition that I deeply appreciate is a stark unwillingness to whitewash human nature. Our stories are filled with imperfect heroes, allowing us to hold the Torah up and see ourselves reflected in it.

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From Canaan with Love

This week we read the Torah portion called Hayei Sarah (Sarah's years), which is titled as if it chronicles Sarah's life, but is in fact the record of events that take place immediately after her death.  After she is buried, Abraham, also advanced in years, begins taking action to secure the future and legacy of his family.  As we approach Thanksgiving, there is a beautiful commentary on Breisheet (Genesis) 24:1 that serves as an important reminder about gratitude.

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A Powerful Three P's: Presence, Perseverance, and Perspective

This week I was honored to be part of a minyan at a funeral service at Arlington National Cemetery for an Air Force LT who served in WWII (with gratitude to S.J., who invited me). The last time I’d been to Arlington was on a school trip when I was 12 years old. Last week, on Veteran’s Day, I wrote that none of us would be here without the sacrifices of heroic men and women who fight on our behalf. This week, just as we read Abraham’s famous statement of presence before G-d ("Hineini" - "I am here"), I got a much clearer understanding of the powerful impact of being present.

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Journeys

In this week’s Torah Portion, Lech Lecha, Abraham receives the famous commandment to “Go.” He is told to leave home, and it is clear from the text that this departure will be a significant moment in the development of the relationship between G-d and humans. As today is Veteran’s Day, it is particularly poignant to read the story of a person who is willing to obey orders and serve something larger than himself with such devotion. If it were not for Abraham, the Jews wouldn’t be here. If it were not for our Veterans, neither would this country, in which Jews can practice our religion freely.

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Righteousness & STEAM

This week I walked a few guests around our school, and stumbled upon a wonderful project taking place in our new STEAMlab: a 7th grade Jewish Studies class was using the biblical texts that describe the dimensions of the tabernacle to create scaled models of the structure out of recycled materials.

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Connect!

Humans are fundamentally social beings - this is a point on which both social scientific research and Jewish religious thought agree completely. As we read the Jewish origin story of the world and its inhabitants in Breisheet (Genesis) this week, we are reminded in no uncertain terms that it “is not good for humans to be alone.” Loneliness and isolation are among the most challenging emotional states a human can experience, and when they are prolonged, they have significant impacts on health and mental well-being.

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The Rock: Framing the Torah

In this week’s Torah Portion, Haazinu, in which we are only a chapter away from the end of the entire Torah, we learn a new name for G-d: Tzur (Rock). In contrast to Shakespeare’s, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Jewish tradition makes a big deal out of names. Why do we get this new name for G-d in the final moments of the story? Why this particular name at this particular time?

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Hidden Faces: Presence and Absence in Relationships

One of the key points in a child’s development typically happens around ages 4-6 (not coincidentally, the age at which most start school) as they begin to develop what social scientists refer to as “Theory of Mind.” (ToM). ToM is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, so that you can make educated guesses about not only your own mental and emotional states, but also those of other people. It is the dawning of a child’s ability to truly engage in reciprocal relationships, and it is the opening door that enables them to move from parallel to interactive play and making friendships with peers.

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Shimon Peres and Choosing Life

This week we mourn the loss of one of the founding fathers of the modern state of Israel, Shimon Peres, as we also celebrate the birth of a new Jewish year. Notably, Peres’ life is being commemorated both here in the US and in Israel, and the messages most often associated with his leadership are those of visionary dedication to both security and peace. Peres is lauded for a lifetime of service to the Jewish nation and thereby the Jewish people, and though his leadership included literal life and death decisions, his admirers can be proud of his record of valuing human life above all else.

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Meaning through action

Jewish prayer practices are filled with the opportunity for meaning and understanding, but because accessing them is challenging, very few children or adults ever reach the point of finding that meaning. Instead, filled with the expectation of instant gratification so valued by our culture, we try it once or twice, are bored or unfulfilled, and leave this potential treasure behind us.

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