Monday, December 20, 2010

Jewish Educational Thoughts Again

12/19/10 NY Times Op-Ed by Ross Douthat, A Tough Season for Believers

While this article was written with Christians in mind, it seems to me just as appropriate for religious people of any faith group, since the tension it describes exists in every religious community.  It is, I believe, the tension between tradition and change, between communal responsibility and individual autonomy, between a religious outlook and a secular one.
One of the books Douthat mentions in his article is American Grace, by Robert Putnam and David Campbell.  Putnam is the author of Bowling Alone, one of my all-time favorites.  His focus in that book was on the disintegration of community and communal responsibility.  He noted then (in 2000) that religious communities were among the most successful communal organizations in the country.  I look forward to reading this new analysis of community, and am anxious to see how he and his co-author describe the state of religious institutional connection today.
The last two paragraphs of the article sum up the problem:
Putnam and Campbell are quantitative, liberal, and upbeat; Hunter is qualitative, conservative and conflicted. But both books come around to a similar argument: this month’s ubiquitous carols and crèches notwithstanding, believing Christians are no longer what they once were — an overwhelming majority in a self-consciously Christian nation. The question is whether they can become a creative and attractive minority in a different sort of culture, where they’re competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities, and where the idea of a single religious truth seems increasingly passé.
Or to put it another way, Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning, 2,000 years ago this week.
If you substitute the word "Jews" for the word "Christians" I believe you are describing the challenge facing the Jewish institutional community as well.  While we may never have been "an overwhelming majority" in the United States, we certainly need to 'become a creative and attractive minority'.  As Jewish educators, we are right in the middle as the situation unfolds, and must think seriously about possible outcomes.


Last year's post on this parasha is really filled with ideas and suggestions for analyzing this week's reading. Since the calendar is different this year, most of us are reading Shemot before the December vacation (if we have one) so the narrative that ended the book of Breisheet should be fresh in the minds of our students.  With that noted, please re-read that post and pick out some of the issues you didn't have time for last year.

When I re-read the parasha just now a couple of questions jumped out at me.  Interestingly, some were the same ones that troubled me last year, and some were a little different.

  1. In chapter 1 verses 15 - 21 the text tells the story of the midwives, Shifra and Puah.  Here's what popped out for me in this reading - Why didn't Par'o punish them for disobeying his orders?  Also, when so many women who played roles in the story of the Jewish people remain nameless in the text, why are these two named?
  2. Why did Par'o allow his daughter to keep the baby, who was obviously one of the Hebrews?
  3. Chapter 2:25 - why do the Israelites cry out to God only after the Par'o who had enslaved them died?
  4. Chapter 6:1 - isn't it strange that Par'o is described as having a "yad hazakah", a "strong hand", a term that I've always associated with God!?

Regarding the story of the midwives, and what they did to save a people in danger, an additional resource I would like to suggest is Facing History and Ourselves, which is a wonderful site about making moral choices in life.  It has excellent teaching ideas that help sensitize students to the importance of being "upstanders" in the face of evil.

Monday, December 13, 2010


This parasha brings us to the end of the first book of the Torah, and also to the end of the story of the family line that would eventually become the people of Israel.  Please look at the other posts on this parasha for some questions you may want to ask yourselves and your students.
Looking at the book of Breisheet as a whole, think for a moment about some of the themes that were explored:

  • God's role in the world
  • Individual responsibility
  • Sibling relationships
  • Good and evil
  • Reward and punishment
What others can you think of?

Jewish Educational Thoughts

Two articles on the same page of the NY Times Saturday caught my eye, and are worth reading for what they suggest about Judaism and about education - my two favorite topics, as you know.

What Works in the Classroom?  Ask the Students.
There has been a great deal of attention paid recently to the issue of teacher evaluation.  Most honest people would agree that some teachers are better than others - the disagreement seems to be around what the criteria should be for making that distinction.  Race to the Top, the national program for improving education, includes as one of its four areas of concentration
Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; 
Good idea, but doesn't define "effective teachers" and in practice relies on standardized test scores for its judgments about whether or not a teacher is effective.

Sam Dillon's article identifies a different way of evaluating teachers that asks students directly what they think. According to Ronald Ferguson, the developer of the questionnaires,
"Kids know effective teaching when they experience it."
If this is true in the public school sector, it is even more true in the Jewish sector.  We are not simply in the business of learning and education, we are also very much in the business of attitude development.  It's been said before - the way in which your students relate to you as their teacher becomes in many cases the way in which they relate to the Jewish world in general, and to their Jewish identity in particular.  So it's not just a matter of being "nice".  It's also of modeling the kinds of behaviors and values we want our students to internalize as fundamental to Jewishness - love of learning, compassion, intellectual curiosity, kindness, you fill in the rest.  Teaching in a Jewish school is one of the most challenging and weighty responsibilities one can have.

Which brings me to the next article:  On the same page as the article about asking students is a fascinating story in the Beliefs column, by Mark Oppenheimer - "Agency's Shtick is Jewish Humor For a Good Cause"
I have a few questions I'd like to raise about this article, which troubled me on many levels.

  1. Why is repeating negative stereotypes about Jews and Jewish behavior humorous?
  2. Is it OK to say derogatory things about Jews if you yourself are Jewish?
  3. Is it OK to say these things if the agency sponsoring them thinks it will raise money?
  4. What is the "Jewish" that the celebrities in these spots feel?
  5. Is the "Jewish" these personalities present the "Jewish" we hope our young people grow up to be?
Judd Apatow, who ran the project and is quoted in the article as saying,
“I am the kind of Jewish person who feels very Jewish but does not practice at all. I did not take part in this project because Jewish people run this charity. I got involved because they do very important work that is changing many people’s lives in a positive way.”
The final question:  Am I being overly sensitive?  Is it generational?  Should I just 'get over it?'
I'd like to know what your reaction is.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Click on VaYigash in the column on the right for more thoughts and ideas

Try as I may, I can't get away from my 21st century perspective when I think about Joseph.  No matter that the traditional commentaries understand him as a tzaddik, a righteous person, my perspective is less sure of his status.
We all know the history - how he was apparently singled out by his father for special consideration, his brothers' jealousy, his time in jail in Egypt, his rise to power, his eventual reconciliation with his family.

and yet...
  • Did he really need to gain ownership of the entire gross national product of Egypt in the process?
  • What kind of favor did he do his family by setting them up with special privileges in Goshen?
  • Why is it so important to Joseph that his father know what a big shot he has become - and why is he comfortable ignoring the unpleasant fact that he has not made any attempt that we know of to contact this same grieving father for all the years of his absence from Canaan?
  • Is it possible to read the Biblical account without addressing these questions?
  • Does being a believing Jew require us to accept that in this case the end justifies the means?
  • or does being a believing Jew require us to ask just this sort of question and come to answers that satisfy us in the context of our culture and society?
  • How is Joseph an example of the kind of person we hope our Jewish children will grow up to be?
  • How is he not?
  • How might the narrative here have laid the groundwork for later events in Egypt?
It might be easier to read these final parashot of the book of B'reisheet without these questions.  It's just that I can't do it.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Joseph is obviously talented in many ways.  He is good-looking, as we saw last week here in chapter 39:
ו וַיְהִי יוֹסֵף, יְפֵה-תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶה.6  And Joseph was of beautiful form, and fair to look upon.
He was able to interpret dreams, as we saw last week and also this week in chapter 41:
יב  וְשָׁם אִתָּנוּ נַעַר עִבְרִי, עֶבֶד לְשַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים, וַנְּסַפֶּר-לוֹ, וַיִּפְתָּר-לָנוּ אֶת-חֲלֹמֹתֵינוּ:  אִישׁ כַּחֲלֹמוֹ, פָּתָר.12 And there was with us there a young man, a Hebrew, servant to the captain of the guard; and we told him, and he interpreted our dreams for us; to each man according to his dream he did interpret.
He realized that his power was a gift of God, not of his own making, as we read, also in chapter 41:
טז  וַיַּעַן יוֹסֵף אֶת-פַּרְעֹה לֵאמֹר, בִּלְעָדָי:  אֱלֹהִים, יַעֲנֶה אֶת-שְׁלוֹם פַּרְעֹה.16 And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying: 'It is not up to me; God will give Pharaoh a complete and satisfying answer'.
 He is trustworthy, as we read:
לט  וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל-יוֹסֵף, אַחֲרֵי הוֹדִיעַ אֱלֹהִים אוֹתְךָ אֶת-כָּל-זֹאת, אֵין-נָבוֹן וְחָכָם, כָּמוֹךָ.39 And Pharaoh said to Joseph: 'Since God has shown you all this, there is no one as discreet and wise as you.
He is also manipulative, as you can see if you read what happened when his brothers appeared before him to beg for food the first time (chapter 42) and the second time (chapters 43 and 44).
Finally, in chapter 45 Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, who return to their father with what must have seemed unbelievable news.

  • What do you think caused Joseph to behave the way he did?
  • What bothers you about Joseph's behavior?
  • What about Joseph's behavior seems fair to you?  What seems unfair?
  • Who changes the most in the story - Joseph?  his brothers?  his father?  someone else?  Explain your answer
An important aspect of the story of Joseph is related to the theme of Hanukkah.  There are two interesting stories in today's NY Times that relate to the theme of identity, a theme that is central to Hanukkah.
The first is about Poland, and the tension in that country between the forces of religion, specifically the Catholic Church, and the influence of secularism, of life independent of the rule of religion.  You may want to read the article here

The second article is about yoga and its relationship to the Hindu religion.
  • What is the relationship between these two stories and the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah?

Be sure to look at last year's post on Miketz here for more ideas

Monday, November 22, 2010


I can remember as a young teacher that the story of Joseph was the most fun to teach - there were so many projects one could choose, there was so much detail in the text that kids could enjoy reading, and the issue of sibling rivalry was always a topic students were able to speak about with authority.
Assuming younger students have spent their time learning the narrative - who said what to whom and where, who dreamt what and what it meant, who sold Joseph to whom and why, and on and on and on, perhaps it is time to think about Big Ideas instead of storytelling.


  • Living as a minority within a majority culture is a challenge - especially when the values of the majority are different than those of the minority
  • How was living in Egypt different from living with his family in Canaan?
  • What were some challenges Joseph faced in this story so far?
  • This article by Rabbi Harold Berman suggests a connection between the story of Joseph while he was in the household of Potiphar the Egyptian and the story of Hanukkah.  How does he believe they are similar?
  • Amy Virshup in the NY Times writes about online preparation for Bar Mitzvah.  What does it say about the tension between traditional Jewish practice and the modern culture in which we live?
  • Bruce Feiler, the author of Walking the Bible and a number of other books based on examining Jewish history and theology, wrote an article entitled Time-Shifting Holidays that examines his efforts to meld tradition with the constraints of the modern world.  What is your reaction to his solution?  To the words of the Rabbi he quotes?
  • Students should be able to express their ideas about what it is like to live as a Jew in a world which often creates conflicts with what they ought to be doing as members of the Jewish people.
  • Students should understand that being Jewish involves being part of a community, and is not simply an individual identity.
  • Students should be able to articulate ways in which they can choose to be part of the Jewish community in their own lives.
As always, be sure to read the other posts which examine this parasha by clicking on the list to the right or by clicking here

Monday, November 15, 2010


Be sure to read last year's post for more ideas on how to understand and teach this parasha.

This year the issue of the conflict between Jacob and Esau feels very current.  Both in Israel and in communities around the world there is a tension between the descendants of Jacob and the descendants of Esau that seems to be getting worse, not better.
In Israel the relationship between the Jewish and Arab populations is complex.  There is an excellent article at My Jewish Learning entitled Arabs in Israel which explains some of the historical and contemporary issues involved.

A great deal of attention is being focused on peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.  This week's parasha raised some questions that may impact the thinking around resolving the conflict.

  • When Jacob and Esau lived together, how did they get along?
  • What happened when they separated?
  • When they met each other after years of living apart, what happened?
  • After this (apparently) friendly reconciliation, then what?  When did they next meet each other?
Michael Oren,  currently the Israeli ambassador to the United States, said in an interview in 2007 that one of the problems Americans have is that we look at the Middle East and think we are looking in a mirror.  This interview can be viewed here.

Most Americans have been raised with the idea that everyone can get along.  No differences are seen as too great to prevent cooperation and collaboration.  But maybe this is not always the case.  Maybe sometimes people with completely different values, aspirations, and cultures get along better if there is some distance between them.

On the other hand, there are certainly those who believe that the differences can be overcome without separation.  Some websites that support this idea are here:

Finally, if you are interested in hearing the voice of an Arab Muslim who is an example of thoughtful and moderate views, please read any of the articles here.

You may not agree with all the views presented here, but they are certainly material for discussion.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

History - How the Story is Told

Recalling History on a Day of Light and Darkness - An article appeared in today's NY Times that explores the tension inherent in deciding what to commemorate, and who does the remembering.  It refers specifically to the fact that Kristallnacht occurred on the same date as the fall of the Berlin Wall many years later.  Both happened in Germany, both are commemorated by the people of Germany, both are significant events for Germany and her people.
When preparing to celebrate my own mother's 100th birthday several years ago, I came upon a number of sites on the internet that enumerate the events that happened on every day of the calendar year.  It was amazing how many things had happened over the years on her exact birthday - how few of them I knew about - and how even fewer did I realize shared the date of her birth.  What does that mean for how we learn, teach and understand history?

Ideas to think about:

  • We are more likely to remember that which has personal meaning for us
  • Time often diminishes memory
  • Some things seem to be remembered no matter how long ago they occurred
  • Every individual and every group chooses its memories according to their own criteria
  • Events that are publicly commemorated tend to be remembered longer than those which are not
Questions to think about:
  • Which events in Jewish history do we as a Jewish community commemorate publicly?
  • Which events in Jewish history do non-Jews know about?  Why? 
  • How do we choose which events to remember publicly?  Why?
  • In your opinion, what events in Jewish history should be commemorated forever?  Why?
  • In your opinion, which events in Jewish history will be commemorated forever?  Why?
  • Which historical big ideas do you want your students to remember?  Why?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Jewish Wisdom for Today's Reality

I really like this first issue of Shabbat Table Discussions from Yeshiva University's Center for the Jewish Future.  I came upon it at  Tzvee's Talmudic Blog which I follow and enjoy.  I recommend you read it and hope you enjoy it as well.


Last year I asked some questions in the blogpost - didn't get any answers!!!  I still have the same questions, and I'm hoping some readers might suggest some responses!
I thank you in advance for your thoughts.
I checked the links and they're still valid.

In case you are interested in more resources, here are a few new links:
G-dcast is a wonderful site to find short cartoons illustrating each parasha.  This one focuses primarily on the relationship between Rachel and Leah, and the importance of children in Biblical times.

  • A question - why do you suppose there is a daughter mentioned at all?  Until now only sons have been mentioned, although the law of averages would certainly suggest that our ancestors had female children as well as male, and I just wonder what the significance of the daughter is that causes her to be named here.
If you are interested in what the community of Beit El is like today, click on this link to the site of the winery there.
  • What do you think it feels like to read this week's parasha in Beit El?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Engaging Teenage Boys in Jewish Life

I just read about a program for post-Bar Mitzvah boys that sounds very interesting.  The organization that has created it is the same one that sponsors "Rosh Hodesh, It's a Girl Thing!"  I hope people will think about bringing it to the New York area.  There is certainly a very large potential pool of participants.

Moving Traditions

Monday, November 1, 2010


Last year's post for Toldot suggested several alternative ways to read and understand the parasha.  This year I would like to concentrate on an idea that connects the story of Jacob and Esau with current thinking about education.
James Kugel, in his book How to Read the Bible says the following:
Interpreters ... assumed that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day'
Traditional commentaries tell us clearly that Esau is 'bad', Jacob is 'good'.  And yet today we might look at both of these personalities less as "black and white" and more as "shades of grey".

Big Idea:  People - even 'identical' twins - are not exactly the same.  Identical educational practices are therefore inherently not fair to students.

Important questions you may want to think about.
  • How can we support learning in our diverse classes (and all classes are diverse - some more so than others, but in the end all)?
  • What are the factors that help us decide how to teach a particular concept?
  • What does it mean to focus on learning rather than on teaching?
  • What lesson is the Bible trying to teach us as readers today?
Sources you may find helpful
  • Please explain how the story of Jacob and Esau might affect the way your classroom functions.
  • Try to be an objective observer in your classroom.  How are you showing respect for different learners?  How do your lessons support alternative strengths your students have?
Be sure to check out Parsha 4 Kids for more ideas on connecting your students to Torah thinking

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hayei Sarah

As I was rereading this parasha I was thinking how strange it must sound to today's young (and even not-so-young) people.

  • Avraham calls his servant and instructs him to find a wife for Yitzhak, his son with his wife Sarah, who has recently died.  
  • We have no evidence he discussed this plan with Yitzhak - in fact, we have no evidence that Avraham and Yitzhak ever spoke to each other after the incident we call the Akeidah, when Avraham appears to have been ready to sacrifice his son.
  • We read that the servant takes many gifts with him as proof that his master is wealthy.
  • The servant describes some sort of magical test by which he will know how to choose the bride-to-be that has to do with her hospitality to strangers and kindness to animals.
  • He repeats (with a few minor alterations) his master's instructions to the father and brother of this young woman he wants to bring back home to his master for Yitzhak.
  • The father and brother of the bride-to-be accept the offer with no information other than about the wealth of the family.
  • The brother and mother of Rivka (the bride-to-be) ask for a few days to prepare her for the journey
  • Rivka say's she'll go, and she does - accompanied by her nanny.
  • Her family receives many gifts in return.
  • She still doesn't know anything at all about the groom to whom she will be married - not even his name!
Well, that certainly doesn't sound much like today's world - except in some cultures we and our students would consider backward and anti-feminist.  So what questions might we raise to make this episode meaningful to today's audience?
Questions to consider:
  1. In a time and place when families might live in little contact with other families, how would a young person be able to meet a mate?
  2. What appears to be important to Avraham in choosing the mate for his son? 
  3. What at first appears to be important to Lavan in deciding whether his sister should go with the servant?
  4. What do Lavan and Betuel say is the deciding factor?
  5. Does Rivka have a choice?
  6. What do you think we are supposed to learn from this story?
Sources:  If you want to read the entire chapter that tells this story, go to Chapter 24 in the Bible. Here are some excerpts:
24:[3]  Swear by Adonai, the God of heaven and of earth, that you won't take a wife for my son from the Canaanite people among whom I live.  [4]  But go to my country, to my relatives, and take a wife for my son Yitzhak
[6] And Avraham said to him,  "Be sure you don't take my son back there."
[29] And Rivka had a brother named Lavan.  He ran to the man outside, to the fountain.  [30]  And when he saw the ring and bracelets on his sister's hands, and when he heard his sister Rivka's words, 'this is what the man said to me'

...(the servant repeats essentially what Avraham has told him)...

[50]  Then Lavan and Betuel answered and said,  'The thing comes from Adonai.  We can't say whether it is a good or bad thing.  [51]  Here's Rivka in front of you - take her and go,and let her be your master's son's wife, as Adonai has spoken.
[55]  And her brother and her mother said, 'Let the young woman stay with us a few more days - after that she'll go.
[58] And they called to Rivka and said to her,  "Will you go with this man?"  And she said, "I will go". [59] and they sent Rivka their sister, and her nanny, and Avraham's servant and his men.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


We usually introduce the subject of teshuvah as saying 'I'm sorry', but an article in today's Wall Street Journal highlighted the difference between the two.  In particular, please read the inset here that appears in the article

Saying 'I'm Sorry'

A 'comprehensive' apology is more likely to win forgiveness, researchers say. There are eight elements:
  • Remorse
  • Acceptance of responsibility
  • Admission of wrongdoing
  • Acknowledgment of harm
  • Promise to behave better
  • Request for forgiveness
  • Offer of repair
  • Explanation
Source: University of Waterloo
Maimonides states the steps of teshuvah as follows:

  1. Realizing what you did was wrong
  2. Confessing to the wrongdoing
  3. Correcting the wrong you caused
  4. Acting properly when confronted with the same situation that led to the original wrongdoing

Here are some questions to help you think about the difference between "I'm sorry" and "teshuvah"

  • What is the purpose of "I'm sorry"?
  • What is the purpose of teshuvah?
  • What step that leads to teshuvah is missing from the "I'm sorry" list above?
  • How does this help you understand teshuvah?


In an article in the NY Times today entitled Lessons in a Life Well Lived, and Values Upheld there is a charming quotation from the wife of the subject, Alice Hartman Henkin, who writes
A guarantee you that if Abraham had been ordered to sacrifice his grandson, he would have said, "Buzz off"

Monday, October 18, 2010


The story about Abraham welcoming his visitors is well-entrenched as part of Jewish wisdom.  We should be hospitable, yada, yada.  There are probably still cultures in which this sort of absolute and unquestioning hospitality is still the norm - but they're not the culture we live in.  If a stranger comes to your door you are more likely to call 911 than to break out the food and drinks, and with good reason.
We understand that reaction, but it's still sad that we have such fears, justified though they may be.  Fortunately there are settings in which we can be more open to new relationships, as expressed in this commentary at Ten Minutes of Torah:  VaYeira, 5771

Please be sure to click on Vayera in the labels column for more suggestion for thinking about this week's parasha.   Also, remember to check Parsha 4 Kids for a ready-to-go trigger you can use with middle school or high school students.  And feel free to comment on the idea at either site, yourself or with your students.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Not Israel's Fault

Today's NY Times, front page article entitled "Parched Earth Where Syrian Farms Thrived"

A problem in the Middle East, and IT'S NOT ISRAEL'S FAULT!!!!!  WHAT A SHOCK!!

News Flash: No Silver Bullets in Education!!!

Everyone's talking about "Waiting for Superman", and with good reason.  I hope they will also talk about this article in the NY Times Lauded Harlem Schools Have Their Own Problems.  Here's what I think is important about both, in no particular order:

Big Ideas in Teaching and Learning

  1. Good education costs a lot of money
  2. Money alone isn't an answer
  3. Complex issues require complex approaches
  4. There is no single answer to any complicated problem
  5. There are many partial answers, and it isn't always possible to isolate the most important
  6. People who want to help have many different skill sets - all of which can and should be utilized to make things better.
These Big Ideas are crucial in general education, and no less so in the Jewish educational world.  Too often we jump on a single bandwagon expecting that what works in one context will work in all.  This simply isn't true.  We should never discourage people with a passion for good outcomes, because we can never be sure what will trigger improvement in any single situation.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Lech Lecha

A month's, no a year's, no again - a lifetime curriculum could certainly be built around this week's parasha, and if you are studying Torah according to the weekly schedule you surely have to pick and choose - especially since you probably have only a short time with the text.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Please click on Noach in the labels column on the right to view last year's post about the portion.
And please use this parasha to connect yourself and your students to a current issue.
You and your students have heard about the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi, a college freshman whose private behavior in his dorm room was broadcast on the internet by his roommate.  What connection could this possible have to the Torah portion?  The story of Noach after the flood seems to have something to say about this.  If you teach middle school or high school kids, this is a real opportunity to share Jewish wisdom about privacy and create a connection between what they are learning in the Jewish educational setting with the dilemmas they face in their lives.

Monday, September 27, 2010

I believe the teaching of Torah must reach for Big Ideas and Important Issues.  The posts already on this blog are an attempt to help teachers in Jewish educational settings identify and share these ideas and issues with students.
This year I will be posting weekly to my other blog - - which is specifically designed for use with middle school or high school students.  I invite you to look at that blog and, if you find it appropriate, to use it with your students.
If you would like suggestions for using this blog effectively, please send me a note and I will be happy to share ideas with you and with other teachers.
The posts from last year will continue to be accessible on this blog -

Please read the new post on Parsha 4 Kids.  If you use it with your students, I urge you to have them post directly to the blog so other young people can share their thoughts in a collaborative effort to understand Jewish thinking in today's world.

Monday, September 20, 2010

V'zot Habrachah

We rarely look carefully at this parasha, as it comes in the midst of the Fall holidays - and there is so much else to think about and study.  But let's consider the last Torah reading of the entire year.

Big Idea #1:
The conclusion of a book/story/narrative/movie often attempts to wrap up loose ends so the reader/viewer/listener has a sense of what the whole thing is about.

Some Questions to consider:
  • What is there in this parasha that helps you understand the whole of the Torah?
  • If you were writing a concluding chapter for the Torah, would it look like this?  Explain your answer.
  • In what way are you satisfied or not with this ending?
Big Idea #2:
If you know your life is coming to an end, there are things you might want to do or say that you had not done or said before.

Some Questions to consider:
  • What do you think was going through Moshe's mind in this parasha?
  • Most people don't know exactly when they are going to die.  What difference does that make?
  • Why do you think Moshe said what he did on this occasion?
Big Idea #3:
The Torah as a whole is the foundation of Judaism
  • Why is the Torah so important to the Jewish people?
  • What does our tradition mean when it says that "the study of Torah is equal to everything else?"
  • Professor James Kugel says the following in his book, How To Read The Bible, on page 362:
The Pentateuch was now viewed, as Ben Sira and other sages attest, as nothing less than divine wisdom in written form, one great book of legal and ethical instruction.  As a result, the Pentateuch as a whole came to be radically transformed:  its etiological narratives now became moral exempla, and its ancient laws became an up-to-date guide for daily life today.  Rather than a record of the past, the Pentateuch became, like all wisdom writings, a set of instructions for the present.  
Agree or Disagree:  No matter how you understand the origin of the Torah, whether you believe it was dictated by God to Moshe or written over time by wise people, as Jews its significance is as Kugel states, "a set of instructions for the present."  Whether you agree or disagree, be prepared to support your opinion in a discussion.

Be sure to look at my other post on this parasha to see some more detailed ideas for studying it with your students or study partners.
Hazak, Hazak, V'Nitchazek!!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Yom Kippur 5771

There are so many facets to Yom Kippur

  • laws
  • customs
  • rituals
  • prayer
  • text readings
  • ideas
  • challenges
Where to begin?  Here are some articles to start you thinking:
  1. URJ has some wonderful suggestions for study before and during Yom Kippur.  You can see some of them here.  I particularly enjoyed the guide to Avinu Malkenu, which traces the changes in the prayer as written in the Reform Mahzor through time, the study guide for Mishnah Yoma, chapter 8, and the story of Pelimo and the Devil.  You may prefer other sections of the resource guide
  2. Rabbi Ami Berlin talks about how Sometimes We are Jonah, examining the Haftorah traditionally read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur
  3. A universal suggestion that is related to Rabbi Berlin's description of Jonah as isolated from the world for 3 days, and that may be a wonderful idea for our super-connected times is in this article from the Jerusalem Post
  4. Why is reaching the goals of Yom Kippur so difficult?  Donniel Hartman, from the Shalom Hartman Institute, asks: Yom Kippur: Why Doesn’t It Work Outside of the Synagogue?
  5. Marc Oppenheimer. writing in Slate magazine, compares the ritual of atonement in Judaism with that in Christianity in his article Sin Offerings
  6. On a lighter note, but one that may appeal to some of your students, here is an article by the granddaughter of the famous baseball player Hank Greenberg about how his Judaism influenced him on the High Holidays - Why My Grandpa Was No Hitter on Yom Kippur
I wish you a meaningful Yom Kippur in whatever way you are marking the day.  

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Things I Know About Teaching and Learning...

but turn out not to be true.  As is so often the case, 'conventional wisdom' comes up short.  According to this article, Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits, some of what you may have believed about teaching and learning seems to be less-than-written-in-stone, so to speak.

What's the Big Idea?  How can it be that what I knew was true isn't???

I think you do what good teachers everywhere always did -

  • you try lots of different things.  
  • you have a 'toolkit' of varied and tested ideas
  • you stay alert to what is working and what is not
  • you are always revising, tweaking, improving based on evaluation of desired outcomes
  • you remember that you won't always be successful, but you never stop trying to be better
  • you study new ideas but don't necessarily throw out the old ones
  • you hesitate to blindly follow every new theory
  • you plan, 
  • you evaluate,
  • you build on success
  • you remember that you became a teacher because you love learning
  • you do everything in your power to encourage the love of learning in your students.
Remember the wisdom of the statement:
Lo alecha ha-m'lacha ligmor
v'lo ata ben chorin l'hivatel mimena
You don't have to finish the work - but you are obligated to begin it

Monday, August 30, 2010


It can't be a coincidence that this parasha is read on the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah every year.  It could not be more closely tied to the concepts that underlie Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  Let's look at some of the Big Ideas:

Big Idea #1
     Change is challenging

Questions you might want to think about

  • What are the changes that are about to occur in the parasha?
  • What are the changes that occur in your life at this time of the year?
  • What are the changes in the lives of your students?
  • How will the Israelites react to their changes?
  • How will you react to your changes?
  • What do you expect from your students as a reaction to the changes in their lives?
Big Idea #2
     We are responsible for our actions

Questions you might want to think about
  • If Moshe has given the people God's instructions for how they are to behave, how do you explain the fact that they disobey those instructions on a regular basis?
  • If God knows the people are going to disobey, why doesn't God stop them?
  • What does God expect the people to do when they make mistakes?
  • Everyone makes mistakes.  Do we always know they are mistakes when we are making them?  What do you do when you realize you have made a mistake?  What does God have to do with this?
Big Idea #3
     We can be responsible for agreements made by others

Questions you might want to think about
  • What does it mean when the Torah says,
ט  אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:  רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם, זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם, כֹּל, אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל.9 All of you are standing today before Adonai your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel,
י  טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶם--וְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶיךָ:  מֵחֹטֵב עֵצֶיךָ, עַד שֹׁאֵב מֵימֶיךָ.10 your little ones, your wives, and the stranger who lives in your camp, from the woodcarver to the water-drawer;
יא  לְעָבְרְךָ, בִּבְרִית יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ--וּבְאָלָתוֹ:  אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כֹּרֵת עִמְּךָ הַיּוֹם.11 in order to enter into the brit, the covenant, of Adonai your God--and into God's oath--which Adonai your God makes with you today;
יב  לְמַעַן הָקִים-אֹתְךָ הַיּוֹם לוֹ לְעָם, וְהוּא יִהְיֶה-לְּךָ לֵאלֹהִים--כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְכַאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ, לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב.12 that God may establish you today as a people, in order to be your God, as God spoke to you, and as God swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
יג  וְלֹא אִתְּכֶם, לְבַדְּכֶם--אָנֹכִי, כֹּרֵת אֶת-הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת, וְאֶת-הָאָלָה, הַזֹּאת.13 Not only with you do I make this brit and this oath;
יד  כִּי אֶת-אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה, עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם, לִפְנֵי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ; וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה, עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם.14 but with the person who stands here with us today before Adonai our God, and also with the person who is not here with us today--

  • How can God make a covenant, a brit, with people who are not there?
  • What are some other agreements that you have to follow even though you were not part of the group that created them?
  • What would it mean if you were only responsible for things that you personally agreed to?  How would the world be different?
Big Idea #4
     It's not over until it's over

Questions you might want to think about:  What (root) word do the following phrases from Chapter 30 have in common?  How is this related to this season of the year?
  • וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ
  • וְשָׁב יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-שְׁבוּתְךָ
  • וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים
  • וְאַתָּה תָשׁוּב וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקוֹל יְהוָה
  • כִּי תָשׁוּב אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ

And finally, here are two interesting commentaries on these parashot that you may enjoy reading:
  1. You may remember Dr. Aaron Demsky who many of us were privileged to study with throughout the years.  His commentary explains how it came to be that the Torah was read aloud to the people on a regular basis.  The Command of Assembly
  2. I'm not sure how to categorize this next link, but I think you may find it unusual and thought-provoking.  Please read it to the very end (and feel free to share your thoughts).  Urban Parsha Nitzavim/Vayelech

Monday, August 23, 2010

Ki Tavo

BIG IDEA:  The future depends on understanding and acknowledging the past.  We understand who we are as Jews today by understanding what our history was.


  • What is our history as Jews?
  • How do we know that history?
  • How does that history impact the way we understand our community today?
  • How does our history affect the way in which we understand the broader community in which we live?

Near the beginning of this week's parasha there is a passage that probably sounds familiar:
ה  וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב.5 And you shall speak and say before the LORD your God: 'A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.
ו  וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים, וַיְעַנּוּנוּ; וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ, עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה.6 And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage.
ז  וַנִּצְעַק, אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ; וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָה אֶת-קֹלֵנוּ, וַיַּרְא אֶת-עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת-עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת-לַחֲצֵנוּ.7 And we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression.
ח  וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ יְהוָה, מִמִּצְרַיִם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל--וּבְאֹתוֹת, וּבְמֹפְתִים.8 And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders.
Where have you seen this passage?  (If you are not sure, go to this link at JewishFreeware and read beginning on page 30)

Why do you think reciting this passage is part of this particular event?  (I'm not saying what event - you should have found the answer from the link above)

There is a new children's book, Ruth and The Green Book and a new play, by the same author, entitled The Green Book.

  • What is The Green Book?
  • What is the connection between the book and the play?
  • What is the Jewish connection?
  • What do you think a young African-American in America might learn from reading this story?
  • What do you think a young person who is not African-American might learn?
  • What connection can you make between The Green Book and the Haggadah?

BIG IDEA:  It is often a bigger challenge to behave correctly in secret than in public.

  • What are some reasons to behave correctly in public, when there are other people watching and listening?
  • Are the reasons the same when you are in private?  Explain your answer.
  • Which is more of a challenge - public behavior or private?  Why?
Read the following passage:
טו  אָרוּר הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה פֶסֶל וּמַסֵּכָה תּוֹעֲבַת יְהוָה, מַעֲשֵׂה יְדֵי חָרָשׁ--וְשָׂם בַּסָּתֶר; וְעָנוּ כָל-הָעָם וְאָמְרוּ, אָמֵן.  {ס}15 Cursed is the man who makes a graven or molten image, an abomination before ADONAI, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and sets it up in secret. And all the people shall answer and say: Amen. {S}
טז  אָרוּר, מַקְלֶה אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ; וְאָמַר כָּל-הָעָם, אָמֵן.  {ס}16 Cursed is the person who dishonours his father or his mother. And all the people shall say: Amen. {S}
יז  אָרוּר, מַסִּיג גְּבוּל רֵעֵהוּ; וְאָמַר כָּל-הָעָם, אָמֵן.  {ס}17 Cursed is the person who moves his neighbor's landmark. And all the people shall say: Amen. {S}
יח  אָרוּר, מַשְׁגֶּה עִוֵּר בַּדָּרֶךְ; וְאָמַר כָּל-הָעָם, אָמֵן.  {ס}18 Cursed is the person who misleads the blind. And all the people shall say: Amen. {S}
יט  אָרוּר, מַטֶּה מִשְׁפַּט גֵּר-יָתוֹם--וְאַלְמָנָה; וְאָמַר כָּל-הָעָם, אָמֵן.19 Cursed is the person who perverts the justice due to the stranger, orphan, and widow. And all the people shall say: Amen.
כ  אָרוּר, שֹׁכֵב עִם-אֵשֶׁת אָבִיו--כִּי גִלָּה, כְּנַף אָבִיו; וְאָמַר כָּל-הָעָם, אָמֵן.  {ס}20 Cursed is the person who lies with his father's wife; because he has uncovered his father's skirt. And all the people shall say: Amen. {S}
כא  אָרוּר, שֹׁכֵב עִם-כָּל-בְּהֵמָה; וְאָמַר כָּל-הָעָם, אָמֵן.  {ס}21 Cursed is the person who lies with any animal. And all the people shall say: Amen. {S}
כב  אָרוּר, שֹׁכֵב עִם-אֲחֹתוֹ--בַּת-אָבִיו, אוֹ בַת-אִמּוֹ; וְאָמַר כָּל-הָעָם, אָמֵן.  {ס}22 Cursed is the person who lies with his sister, either the daughter of his father, or the daughter of his mother. And all the people shall say: Amen. {S}
כג  אָרוּר, שֹׁכֵב עִם-חֹתַנְתּוֹ; וְאָמַר כָּל-הָעָם, אָמֵן.  {ס}23 Cursed is the person who lies with his mother-in-law. And all the people shall say: Amen. {S}
כד  אָרוּר, מַכֵּה רֵעֵהוּ בַּסָּתֶר; וְאָמַר כָּל-הָעָם, אָמֵן.  {ס}24 Cursed is the person who hits his neighbor in secret. And all the people shall say: Amen. {S}
כה  אָרוּר לֹקֵחַ שֹׁחַד, לְהַכּוֹת נֶפֶשׁ דָּם נָקִי; וְאָמַר כָּל-הָעָם, אָמֵן.  {ס}25 Cursed is the person who takes a bribe to slay an innocent person. And all the people shall say: Amen. {S}
כו  אָרוּר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָקִים אֶת-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה-הַזֹּאת--לַעֲשׂוֹת אוֹתָם; וְאָמַר כָּל-הָעָם, אָמֵן.  {פ}26 Cursed is the person who doesn't accept the words of this law to obey them. And all the people shall say: Amen.' {P}
According to the commentaries, all these things are things done in private.  Therefore, there are no witnesses to report the behavior.

  • Why do you think the text specifically mentions these things?
  • Are you more likely to behave publicly or privately?  Explain why.
  • You might say that what you do in private is nobody else's business.  Besides being done in private, with no witnesses, they have something else in common.  Can you figure out what it is?  If you can, you may want to leave a comment on the blog.
Samson Raphael Hirsch, an important Jewish thinker, believed that this particular passage had another, perhaps deeper meaning:
"All blessing is denied to him who outwardly plays the pious man devoted to God but in secret denies the exclusive existence of One God and His rule; who outwardly is respectful to his parents but inwardly considers himself vastly superior to them; who in the eyes of men preserves the reputation of an honest man but, where it is unobserved, does not hesitate to injure the rights of his neighbor to his own advantage; who is full of enthusiasm for the welfare of his neighbors, in the presence of clever and intelligent people, but pushes short-sighted and blind people into misfortune; who grovels before the powerful but denies the weak and helpless their rights; pretends to be a highly respectable member of society, to wallow in sexual licentiousness in intimate privacy (verses 20-23); who does not dig a dagger into his neighbor but, under the cloak of conversation, murders his happiness, his peace, and his honor; who enjoys the highest confidence in his community but misuses it in secret corruption; finally, also one who, even if he lives correctly and dutifully for himself, still looks with indifference on the abandonment of the duties of the Torah in his immediate and wider circles."  (p 1519, The Torah, A Modern Commentary, W. Gunther Plaut)

  • What is Hirsch talking about?
  • How is this important? 

Monday, August 16, 2010

Ki Taytzey

The Wall Street Journal had an article in this past weekend's edition entitled The Power Trip, written by Jonah Lehrer, about power and how it affects the ways in which people behave.
Please re-read last year's post about Ki Taytzay and think about what it says concerning power, lack of power, and the restrictions that can and should be placed on power.

Some things to think about:

  • Last week we read that a king of Israel, if there is to be one, should have a copy of the Torah in his possession at all times during his reign.  How is this related to this week's parasha?
  • Many of the most disturbing passages in this parasha prescribe punishment for certain acts that seem to us to be out of proportion to the acts themselves (like stoning a 'stubborn and rebellious child').  The rabbis of the Talmud and since have explained that such punishments never were used and never will be. (If you want to read a translation of the original text in the tractate Sanhedrin, go to this site and read folios 68 - 71) If this is the case, why was the Torah written as it was?  How do we answer those who say that the God of the Tanach, the God of the Jews, is a vengeful God?
  • Some of the mitzvot in this week's parasha are easy to understand - they make sense to us as moral.  Others appear arbitrary and without justification.  Pick one mitzvah which makes sense to you and explain 
    • How do you understand this mitzvah?   
    • How do you explain it to people who wonder about it?
    • What do you think about it in today's world?
  • Pick another mitzvah which seems arbitrary - that doesn't seem to have any moral basis.  Try to answer the same three questions as above.  Can you do it?  If you can, fine.  If you can't, what does that mean for how you understand Torah?

Monday, August 9, 2010


Big Idea:  Impartial justice is an important value in the Torah

The first two verses of this parasha explain how judges are to be selected and how they are to judge - they are not to show favoritism, they are to be righteous themselves so they judge justly, they are not to take bribes.  And then, in verse 20, one of the most quoted phrases in the Torah:
Tzedek tzedek tirdof
Justice, justice shall you pursue
According to Rashi, this is a commandment to 'seek out a good court', and, if we read the rest of the verse, this is so "that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you."

Impartial justice is clearly important in the Torah.  We already read in Leviticus 19:15:
'Do not pervert justice; 
do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, 
but judge your neighbor fairly

Elena Kagan was just confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States.  During the hearings which preceded her confirmation she was asked many questions.  A number of articles suggested questions she might have been asked.
  • The Heritage Foundation suggested these
  • The Christian Science Monitor proposed these
  • Ralph Nader had these
  • The American Humanist Association asked these questions
At the Learning Blog of the NYTimes there is a list of the questions about her confirmation hearings.  They are based on the related article here which describes some of the things she actually said.
An interesting article in Tablet Magazine by David Sarna examines Kagan's answers from the perspective of Jewish attitudes toward justice, particularly the use of precedent.  

If you were on the committee considering Elena Kagan for Justice of the Supreme Court, what questions would you have asked her based on what you learned in this week's Torah portion?

Big Idea:  We all have an obligation to preserve the natural world.  This concept is known in Hebrew as "Bal Tashchit"
Verse 19 in chapter 20 reads as follows:
When you besiege a city a long time in order to conquer it, don't destroy the trees by cutting them down, You can eat the fruit from them, but don't cut them down, 'ki ha-adam etz hasadeh, lavo mipanecha bamatzor'.
The phrase ki ha-adam etz hasadeh... is usually translated as a question:  Is the tree of the field 'man' who should be beseiged by you?  But some prefer to look at it differently, as you can read here in a lesson from Nechama Leibowitz.
You might also be interested in reading an article about weddings that discusses this issue (well, it doesn't exactly say Bal Tashchit, but you'll see the connection when you read it 

Monday, August 2, 2010


It seems that this week's parasha is focused on making sure that the Israelites behave differently once they enter the land that has been promised to them, giving up some of the autonomy they have had in the desert. One of the most important issues, judging from the emphasis it is given, is the centralization of worship.  In the context of the times, this means sacrifices will have to be limited to the central location yet-to-be-named, under the supervision of the priests in that place, and according to the exact specifications set out in the text.
If this is a correct interpretation, there are some questions I would like to ask:

  • Is this centralization of practice only mandatory within the limits of the land of Israel?  Are those living outside still entitled according to this text to have differences of practice among, within and between groups of Jews?
  • Does this text support the control of Jewish practice within Israel by a single rabbinic authority?  If the answer is yes, then whose responsibility is it to determine which authority shall be in charge?
  • Is there consideration to those who may at one time in their lives be within the land and at other times outside?
  • Did the destruction of the two Temples erase this requirement of centralization?
  • In the world in which we live today is it possible or desirable to have only one way to be Jewish?
  • And the age-old question, which can be asked about anything:  Is it good for the Jews?  Or is it bad for the Jews?
Here are a couple of articles which discuss this issue.  

Monday, July 26, 2010


As is so often the case, there are phrases and passages in this week's parasha that make me smile, and some that make me cringe.  And as always there is the problem of being satisfied with those sentiments that reflect my own attitudes while wanting to 'wish away' the ones that particularly violate my 21st century sensibilities!

This week, it being after Tisha b'Av, leading up to Shabbat Nachamu, I think I'll take the easy way out and focus on what is easy for me to agree with.  So here we go:

The parasha begins with chapter 7, verse 12 in the book of Devarim, and is pretty upbeat.  If you (plural) do what God wants you (singular) to do, all will be good  for you (singular, so I guess it means each and every one of you).  But wait - does that mean that everyone must do the right thing for the individuals in the group to be OK?
And another thing - if God is the only God of the entire world, then I would expect a little compassion for those who do not acknowledge God.  Instead, I read there will be complete destruction of those other people.

Let's continue with chapter 8.  In verse 3 we are reminded that God provided manna, and while we are not positive what that was, there are some chefs these days who believe they know, and who are serving it in their restaurants!  There are also those who believe it was bird poop, but the chefs' opinions are way more appetizing.

Verse 10 makes me smile - because it reminds me of a group of people sitting at the table after a meal and singing together as they thank God for their food.  This time of year I particularly imagine the dining hall at a Jewish camp where this singing is loud and enthusiastic.  Hooray for Jewish camping!  I also like this commentary by Rabbi Ranon Teller which splits the three verbs (eat, be satisfied, and bless God) into three separate mitzvot - I like to think that God is actually commanding me to eat until I am full.

Moshe certainly takes the time to remind the people of everything he has done for them - particularly when God was angry with them.  

And in chapter 11, verses 13 - 21, we have the text that has become the second paragraph of the Shma prayer as it has always appeared in traditional siddurim and which has been added in the newest Reform prayerbook.  I have heard some people say this is their favorite prayer, because it makes it clear what they must do in order to be rewarded by God.  Others are troubled by what they consider the simplistic lesson of the section, since it is obvious that not everyone who does what God wants has good outcomes.  This is the fundamental challenge known as theodicy - the existence of evil in a world ruled by a God who is all-powerful and good.  Rachel Barenblat, known as the Velveteen Rabbi, has a good treatment of this problem here at her blog.

The text mentions listening and hearing a number of times.  I'm reading a book now, The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, in which the narrator is a dog - and the dog makes the comment that he is good at listening - in contrast to humans who hear every story as an opportunity to tell their own tales rather than really listening to what is being said.  Perhaps there is some relationship to the passage "va-y'he im shamoa tish-m-u".  Here is a commentary about listening from Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner.

Finally, (and even though I'm trying hard to make a connection it seems totally unrelated to anything in this parasha,) I would like to share an article by Rabbi Levi Cooper about cucumbers.  It's that time of year, and cucumbers are very much on my mind (as they ripen incessantly in my garden).