Saturday, October 31, 2009

Jewish Thinking - Ahead of the Curve

Most of us are familiar with the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara in Jewish thought. Most simply, these are translated as the 'good inclination' and the 'evil inclination'. And yet they are considerably more complex than that. It is said that without the 'yetzer hara' - the 'evil inclination' - no one would have the ambition to do anything productive. You can read more about this idea at My Jewish Learning.

Recently, scientists have been studying dopamine, a molecule in the brain that brings pleasure. The New York Times Science Section wrote about it on October 27.

And as I read the article, all I could think about was how like the 'yetzer hara' this dopamine seems to be!

I don't know about you - but for me it's another example of the modern implications of Jewish wisdom.

Isn't it great when science gives us an opening to mention traditional Jewish thinking?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Lech Lecha

Reading B'reisheet, I always think, is like reading a fast-moving adventure novel. Things happen, one after another, so that you hardly have time to think about all the ramifications of one story line when another catches your attention. Within this week's single parasha there are:
  • God's command to Avram to leave and go somewhere - destination unknown (at least to Avram) at the time of the command
  • Famine in Canaan, and Avram and Saray's side trip to Egypt
  • Division of the land between Lot and Avram
  • War among kings in the area resulting in the kidnapping of Lot and his household, and Lot's redemption by Avram
  • Meeting of Avram with Melchitzedek, king of Shalem, generally understood to be the first mention of Jerusalem in the Torah
  • Foreshadowing of the Egyptian exile, and God's promise to ultimately redeem the people
  • Hagar's first separation from the camp of Avram and Saray, and her return
  • Birth of Ishmael to Hagar
  • Change of name of Avram and Saray to Avraham and Sarah
  • Command to circumcise every male in the group
  • Promise that Sarah will give birth
  • Mass circumcision in the camp of all males.
Surely there is enough here to plan lessons for a semester, if not a year, and we have one week if we are teaching parshat hashavua and need to keep up with the calendar. Lucky it's the month of Heshvan - no holidays coming up!!

Big Ideas: There are so many you'll have to choose. Here are a few suggestions. Fortunately, some are more appropriate for younger learners, some for older students. And, in most cases, we have more than one year to help our students learn Torah. Just be sure that you're not teaching the same thing last year's teacher taught.
  • God chose Avraham for reasons we can only imagine to be the inheritor of God's blessing
  • It may be necessary to stand apart in order to do what God wants of us
  • The path toward following God is not always straight or clear
  • People - even fundamentally good people - do not always behave admirably
  • Names are significant
  • Following God's commandments is not always easy or pain free
  • What are some stories you know about Avram's childhood? Why do we have midrashim about Avraham's childhood?
  • Why do you think Avram had to leave his country, his clan, his family in order to obey God? Which do you think was most difficult for him?
  • What do you think about the story of Avram and Saray in Egypt (Chapter 12)? In what way is your opinion of Avram affected by the story?
  • What can be the reason for the detailed description of the war among the kings in the area (Chapter 14)
  • What two covenants does God make with Avraham in this parasha (in chapter 15 and in chapter 17)? What do they have in common?
  • What do all the story segments in this parasha tell us about God? About Avraham? About Sarah? About the land of Israel?
Learning Activities:
  • The language in this parasha is not terribly difficult, although some of the stories certainly are challenging. There are a number of phrases that have become basic Hebrew idioms, and you may want to learn them: Debbie Friedman wrote a beautiful song around the words "Lech lecha" which is sung in many religious schools. You can hear it here. Kum v'Hitalech BaAretz, by Yoram Taharlev, is a beautiful song which builds on the words in chapter 13:17 - Kum hit'halech ba'aretz. You can get to Taharlev's website in Hebrew here and there is a an English translation. To hear the song, go here and click on the arrow pointing to the lyrics. For an English translation of the lyrics, look here. What do the words to this song tell you about the lyricist's feelings about Israel?
  • If you have the time, and if you have the patience and the interest, please read Noam Zion and Steve Israel's incredibly rich treatment of Avraham, The First Jew, a Journey Begun with a Fateful Choice, from the Shalom Hartman Institute. (This is the same source institution that has brought us A Different Night, an outstanding Haggadah for Pesach.) You will almost certainly not be able to use this in its entirety, but I promise that if you read it you will find pieces that will add to your understanding of Avraham, and will probably give you some ideas for activities in your classroom.

To Save One Life

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, has donated $1,000,000 to HIAS, the organization which helped him and his family leave the Soviet Union and settle in the United States. He has said that without their help he could never have achieved what he has.

Most of us owe our existence in one way or another to the help of others. Tennessee Williams, in A Streetcar Named Desire, had his character say, "I have always relied on the kindness of strangers." As Jews we have other foundations for our obligation to help others - whether they are strangers or friends.

Here are some suggestions for learning more about how and why Jewish organizations helped Sergey Brin and his family, along with countless others.

Big Ideas:
  • All Jews are responsible for one another - Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh
  • Help those who need help - Ozer dalim
  • Do not stand by when others are threatened - Al ta-amod al dam re'acha
  • You must redeem the hostage - Pidyon sh'vuyim
  • You must pursue justice - Tsedek, tsedek tirdof

Essential Questions:
  • What is HIAS?
  • How did your family come to live in the United States?
  • Why do so many hospitals have Jewish names?
  • What programs does your local Jewish Federation Agency support?
Learning Activities:
Use the following websites to find out more about HIAS, Jewish Federations, and other agencies supported or founded largely through Jewish donations:
  • Find out if anyone in your family has benefited from any of the above organizations. Create a presentation that explains how.
  • Choose one or more of the Big Ideas and explain how it influences or has influenced one or more of the agencies or organizations you learned about
  • Find out what agencies/groups/organizations there are in your community that help others. Choose one or more and explain which of the Big Ideas they illustrate.
  • Pick one of the Big Ideas and plan a way in which you can help support it in your own community