Thursday, September 24, 2009

There is more than one way to be motivated to understand and experience teshuvah.

  1. At this time of year, why are we especially motivated in the direction of teshuvah?
  2. What prayers do you know of that help guide you on the path toward teshuvah?
  3. What are the triggers for your own teshuvah?
  4. How can you effectively focus on teshuvah?

Leonard Cohen is currently in Israel, and is expected to perform this week in Ramat Gan for a sellout crowd. This is not his first trip to Israel - he performed there during the 1973 Yom Kippur War in support of Israeli troops. You can read a first-person account of this here

Because it is so moving, and because we are in the period of Asseret Y'mei Teshuvah, the Ten days of Teshuvah, I hope Cohen will play this song: Who By Fire, which is based on the well-known prayer "U'Netane Tokef", a prominent part of the service on Yom Kippur.

Compare the lyrics in Cohen's song with those of the original.

Cohen's lyrics are at this link

Here are the words to U'Netane Tokef, according to a translation at
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed
and on Yom Kippur will be sealed
how many will pass from the earth
and how many will be created;
who will live and who will die;
who will die at his predestined time
and who before his time;
who by water and who by fire,
who by sword, who by beast,
who by famine, who by thirst,
who by storm, who by plague,
who by strangulation, and who by stoning.
Who will rest and who will wander,
who will live in harmony and who will be harried,
who will enjoy tranquillity and who will suffer,
who will be impoverished and who will be enriched,
who will be degraded and who will be exalted.

Another version of the same prayer can be found here, with English translations appearing on the screen
To hear yet another version of this same prayer by the Israeli group Gevatron, click here and listen from the beginning of the 4th minute.

Another modern take on a traditional idea:

  • Write your own version of Unetaneh Tokef
  • Compose your own melody for Unetaneh Tokef
  • Illustrate your understanding of Unetaneh Tokef
  • Write a short description of what Unetaneh tokef means to you.
I wish you all G'mar Hatimah Tovah, and may this Yom Kippur be meaningful for you and for all those around you.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

More on Haazinu

A suggestion if you are teaching this parasha: since the body of it is a poem, and since poetry is often better understood when recited rather than when read silently, I urge you to read sections of this poem aloud to your students - and dramatically!!

I never suggest having students read aloud in turn - in my opinion (and that of most educators) the only two people paying attention in that case are the reader herself and the person who is on deck to read next and wants to be sure to know the place.

The difference when you read aloud is that you will have
  • prepared the students to put themselves in the position of the people who are listening to Moshe
  • reminded them that they were born in the desert, don't have their own memories of Egyptian slavery or of the Exodus
  • pre-read the passage, thought about the meaning of the passages you have chosen, and
  • will read with expression and passion. You will be sure you
  • know how to pronounce all the words, you will possibly have
  • edited the language to be more understandable to your students without changing the meaning of the text, you will
  • direct your students to listen for the answers to some questions you have posed... How do you feel about listening to Moshe? What do you think about what he is saying? Have you ever heard any of this before? Why do you think he is talking about it now?
  • select the sections that clearly illustrate what you want your students to think about.

One of the interesting issues this parasha raises is the question of why one obeys laws. It appears that the reason for obeying the laws stated by Moshe is that the people will be punished - severely punished - if (or when, if you read the text carefully) they disobey.

There are many reasons people obey laws

Why do people obey rules?
Are there reasons for obeying some rules and not others?
Who has the authority to set the rules?
Who has the authority to punish rule-breakers?
If there were no punishment, would people obey rules?

Discuss some of the laws we live by in this country (traffic laws, taxes, etc. You might want to mention the red light cameras that are being installed in Nassau County as an example of a way of enforcing a law). Who creates the laws? Who enforces them? What happens to those who disobey the laws? Are laws and rules the same thing? Compare and contrast the rules God sets forth through Moshe and those of your community. Are they equally binding? Explain your answer.

The purpose of these activities is to help students better understand the important ideas they have been uncovering together. They are actually self-assessment rather than teacher-assessment, which is really more appropriate especially at this time of year.

  1. During this season of teshuvah, have students may come up with their own thoughts on doing better in following God's rules. This can be done privately, during quiet time in class. You may want students to write what they have decided, and to seal these papers to be opened at a future time you will determine with the students.
  2. Have students create a display that illustrates rules/laws that they expect will be followed in the synagogue/school because they are the right thing to do, rather than because of fear of punishment.
  3. Set aside reflection time at the end of each class session during the month of Tishrei for students to think about which of God's rules they have followed that day, which they might have done better in following, and which they plan to concentrate on the following session.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Parashat Haazinu

This is the last portion of the Torah that is read on an ordinary Shabbat. The final portion, V'Zot Habrachah, is read on the holiday of Simhat Torah.

So what is noteworthy about this parasha?

First, most of it is written in the form of a poem. This is the second poem that Moshe has recited to the Israelites. What was the first?

Read the first poem here - in chapter 15, verses 1 - 19 of Exodus.

Read this week's poem here - in chapter 32, verses 1 - 43 of Deuteronomy

I'd like to suggest comparing these two poems in the following ways:
  1. What is the context in which the poem is recited? What has just happened in each case? What is about to happen?
  2. To whom is Moshe speaking in each case? In what way might that make a difference in the tone of the poems?
  3. What do you think is the purpose of each of these poems? In what way does each seek to accomplish its purpose?
  4. In your opinion, does either of the poems do what you believe it is trying to do? Explain why you think it does or does not.
  5. There are some scholars who believe that these two poems are actually older than the rest of the Torah. What would it mean to how you understand Torah if this were true?
  6. What do you think is the Big Idea in this parasha? Be ready to explain why you think so.

Another thing to think about:

The following verse appears in the parasha
ח בְּהַנְחֵל עֶלְיוֹן גּוֹיִם, {ס} בְּהַפְרִידוֹ בְּנֵי אָדָם; {ר} יַצֵּב גְּבֻלֹת עַמִּים, {ס} לְמִסְפַּר בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. {ר}
8 When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when God separated the children of men, God set the borders of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel.
Some scholars believe that the original text read:
"When the Most High established nations and split up the sons of men
He fixed the boundaries of peoples according to the number of gods."

What is different about these two texts? Why do you think it might have been changed? Which text makes more sense to you?

See you tomorrow, when we will discuss these and other issues in greater depth.
Comments? Criticisms? Suggestions? All welcome, as usual!

Who's Telling the Story?

A new movie - Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs - opened Friday. Most of the reviews I read were written by adults.

What did the adults see? a "satiric picture of gluttony" a "cautionary tale about portion control", the message that "intelligence can be attractive". These quotations are from one review in Newsday, and may very well describe the intent of the authors of the book and the movie on which it is based.

What did the kids see? "It also has a message: Don't give up - always try your best and follow your heart". This by a 10-year-0ld reviewer, in Kidsday, written by and for kids, also in Newsday.

Did these reviewers see the same movie? They sure did. But they saw it with different eyes.

I read this review and realized once again that what we are 'teaching' is not necessarily the same as what they are 'learning'. If the essential question being answered was, "What did you learn from the movie? or 'What do you think the author wants you to know" then clearly the viewers, adults and children, had reached different enduring understandings.

What is the message for educators? Be sure your assessment (in this case the review can be considered a kind of assessment) is designed to illustrate the meaning our learners have uncovered from the learning activity.

As I've said before, the perspective of the reader/viewer/learner has a huge effect on the way in which anything is read/seen/learned.