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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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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