Gratitude - Hakarat HaTov

One of the amazing gifts of spending each and every day in a Jewish educational environment for both students and educators is that we start every day with moments of mindfulness.  Sometimes when we say the word “prayer" that can feel intimidating for those who are less fluent in Hebrew or less comfortable with the technical aspects of Judaism.  Reframing this practice as sacred time set aside for introspection, gratitude, and praise makes it accessible for anyone, no matter their age or background, and each of us can find a way to connect to these emotions.

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Know where you are going

A quote from Pirkei Avot opens a conversation about the dual physical/spiritual nature of humanity, as well as questions about mortality and when we should talk about it with children.

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Links in the chain

I often find myself in the position of bringing a big-picture perspective to decisions, conflicts, and a variety of problem-solving processes and scenarios.  That is part of leadership, and I tend to enjoy taking a wide view more than getting lost in the details.  The details matter, though, and if they are not taken into account, then big-picture perspective can end up in the clouds, floating far from practical reality.  In this, as in many things, striking a healthy balance is crucial, and that balance shifts with each issue and conversation.  People are endlessly fascinating.

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Sage Advice

Growing in my capacity to seek and hear counsel from multiple sources has been transformative in both my life and my career.  The idea that each of us can learn from just about anyone is one of my most deeply held core beliefs.  I learn every day from our children at school, and from my outstanding colleagues on the faculty and staff, and from my own family members.  I learn weekly from conversations with our Gesher lay leaders and Gesher parents, and from communal professionals with whom I am privileged to collaborate regularly.

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Teach your children well

The Rabbinic tradition makes a point of thinking carefully about education and pedagogy.  These thinkers knew that while Judaism had its roots in experiential practices including sacrifices, ritual purification, and the sanctification of time, the rabbinic age (after the destruction of the temple) would necessarily rely increasingly on the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation with words.  One of the most wonderful things about being a Jewish educator in the modern world is that research in the field of education regularly provides evidence that supports insights these early rabbinic educators had thousands of years ago.


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What's Torah without Derech Eretz?

I believe that living meaningfully means, among other things, engaging in relationships.  This is something that every human has the capacity for, though each of us engages differently and we all derive meaning in unique ways.  Every human society has norms for right behavior in relationships, and has mechanisms for enforcing those norms and consequences for infractions.

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Habits of the heart

Ask any Gesher educator about the role of routines in their classroom, and you will undoubtedly hear how powerfully important it is for children to know what to expect, particularly as they transition into or out of different spaces or times during the day.  Setting up rituals, routines, habits, and clear expectations is one of the core building blocks of outstanding education--it allows children to feel comfortable enough to truly explore and learn, knowing that they safely bounded at the edges of their daily experiences.  It communicates respect and trust, helps to create cohorts and communities, and offers a reliable anchor for learning and growth. 

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Word Obsessed

Jewish tradition is clinically obsessed with words.  I’m no expert in the DSM-V diagnosis of obsessive behavior, but I’m pretty confident that our 24 books of TaNaKH, our 63 tractates of Mishnah, and our 2,711 pages of Talmud meet the requirements.  If those are not enough, we also have a couple of thousand years worth of commentary layered on top of those foundational texts, not to mention translations into multiple languages.

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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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