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By now, you’ve probably seen the campaign Keshet and NCJW launched last week to #ReclaimReligiousFreedom. You’ve likely also seen news coverage of the Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado case before the Supreme Court right now, and heard about the disastrous Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed under Indiana’s then-Governor Mike Pence in 2015. These attacks on our rights can be insidious, dressed up in language like “tolerance” and so-called “religious freedom.”
Here’s a breakdown of what is happening:
In recent years, the religious right has glommed on to the reality that Americans are increasingly uncomfortable with bald-faced discrimination in our laws. As they lost ground and support for their anti-LGBTQ bigotry, they needed a new strategy: Christians as the newest oppressed class.
To be clear, this is absurd. The United States is an overwhelmingly majority-Christian country (70.6%, according to a 2014 Pew study), and religious minorities in the United States have faced increasing oppression and obstacles in the last two decades. Examples of this are abundant: rampant Islamophobia, particularly since September 11th; deadly violence targeting Sikhs under the mistaken impression they are Muslim; the spike we have seen in the last eighteen months of blatant anti-Semitism, including chants of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville last August.
Nonetheless, this strategy of portraying Christians as under threat has gained traction. The primary evidence offered? Christian individuals engaged in public-serving roles. The focus is on business owners, like in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, and on public employees, as in the case of Kim Davis. Under the auspices of national marriage equality recognition or state-wide LGBTQ non-discrimination laws, these individuals are required by law to provide equal treatment to LGBTQ people. This so-called “Christian discrimination” is the public argument behind “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”–type legislation, but their real purpose is to provide legal coverage for bigotry against LGBTQ people, women, religious minorities, and people of color.
It is hypocrisy, pure and simple, but if we don’t fight back, their strategy could also work.
What can you do now?
What comes next?
True, things could have been worse — but not much worse. First, growing up an orphan – his mother had died when he had been an infant. Yes, Joseph had a father. His Dad Jacob was alive alright, but he was most probably preoccupied with the tensions and jealousies of an extended family composed of his three remaining wives and over 10 other children. There was rivalry, resentment and then hate among the brothers, culminating in their ganging up on Joseph and leaving him for dead, having thrown him into an empty well in the middle of nowhere. Fished out of there and sold into Egyptian slavery, he was framed by a sexually starved Egyptian princess, wrongly accused of attempted rape, and condemned to the dungeon. And that same Joseph — at the age of 30 — rises to become the viceroy of Egypt and the savior of the Children of Israel. Is there any connection between the two parts of Joseph’s life?
It really hurts when a 7-year-old falls off his bicycle and skins his knee. He wails in anguish. As parents it hurts us too, and we wish that it wouldn’t have happened. But we also know that no one ever learned to ride a bike without taking a nasty fall at least once or twice.
There is no way in the world to grow, to learn, to advance and progress, without taking risks or being thrust into challenging situations, and stumbling once in awhile. No pain, no gain as we say. That is the way that God created the universe, that’s human nature. It is only the possibility of failure, the experience of adversity, which steels us and refines us and pushes us forward. Only when we go way beyond our comfort zones, do we discover unexplored regions without ourselves. Real growth requires pain.
The Hasidic master Rav Mordechai Joseph Leiner of Izbitch, tells us that the deepest source of meaning in life is to be found in the fact that God does not shield us from tribulations and suffering. He watches over us, as it were, by allowing life to take its natural course. Because of His concern for our ultimate growth and success, He refrains from preventing us from falling. We have been placed in a reality that allows us to err, to know grief and heartache, to endure pain, for only under such circumstances do we have an opportunity to grow. It is only through the struggle, the turmoil, that we become fully alive to the significance of life. It may be that only he who has suffered may fully live.
Not that suffering guarantees meaning. It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition.
We may not always take advantage of the opportunity. We may wallow in grief, we may feel sorry for ourselves, we may not find the inner resources to overcome our adversity. Tragedy may break us. But if we do surmount the obstacles, we are far better off than we were to begin with.
When all is good, life is emptied of its transformational power. When you have it all, that is when all may be lost. Only through the lack, only when we are far from having consummated our desires and dreams, only when all is not revealed and clouds still cover the heavens, only them is the deepest meaning available and only then can we access the wealth of potential greatness hidden within our souls.
The very nature of creation is that God cannot simply vouchsafe to us meaning and greatness. It can only be attained through struggle and travail. May we all harness our pain as Joseph did to reach the heights of personal accomplishment and spiritual grandeur.
Just before Shabbat dinner at The Weber School Shabbaton, Rabbi Ed Harwitz begins his d’var Torah by tossing out a question: “Who cares about Esau?” Most of the students wait quietly for him to continue, thinking it is a rhetorical question. But one 10th grader calls out, “I do! I was Esau!” She is sitting not far from me, and as I look in her direction I see her looking towards me for reassurance.
It was in my class, nearly a year ago, that she spent half of the second semester studying Genesis 25-33 and writing personal narratives in the voice of Esau. At the beginning of the unit, each student is asked to read the text from the point of view of one of the biblical figures, to explain the narrative from their perspective, and to create a playlist of modern music that fits their character’s experiences and attitudes. The student who responded to Rabbi Harwitz was particularly sensitive to Esau’s plight: favored by one parent and betrayed by the other, demonized for centuries by the early rabbis and medieval biblical commentators as the progenitor of the Edomites and later the Romans, enemies of the People of Israel, the descendants of his brother Jacob, the favorite son. She remembered so much of what we’d learned–had acquired a deeper understanding of this material–because she’d brought the Torah to life with her words of personal narrative, along with carefully chosen song lyrics.
As we walk to dinner, I check in with her and thank her for making my night. It’s a teacher’s dream to have a student recall a lesson a few weeks later, let alone nearly a year later.
The following Friday afternoon, I learn from a friend that our beloved teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, has died. In the hour before candle lighting, Facebook is flooded with posts from classmates and colleagues about how he influenced generations of students over the course of more than five decades. I recall the only course I took with Rabbi Gillman, in my final year of rabbinical school, in which he encouraged us to write our own Midrashim, short stories, and poems from the perspective of a misunderstood or voiceless biblical figure.
As we reminisce about a course we took 25 years ago, I realize Rabbi Gillman was the first teacher who taught me Torah the way I now teach it to my 9th-grade students. As I’ve been designing journal prompts to encourage my students to embrace Torah, I’ve been emulating my earliest mentor in this approach.
Unable to attend the funeral in New York, I spend Sunday connecting with friends all over the country who loved Rabbi Gillman and recalling the rich Torah he bequeathed to us. I return to school Monday morning and share a few stories about my teacher to my students. Throughout the week as his family sits shiva and until the end of the semester, which roughly coincides with the shloshim observance, I will continue to study Torah with them in the ways he taught me. At the end of each lesson, when we recite Kaddish d’Rabbanan together, I keep in mind the teacher who breathed life not only into every text I learned from him but also into every text my students learn from me.
There is no way to know whether they will remember anything I taught them or whether they will still care about Esau in 25 years. I can only hope they will retain the feeling with which each lesson was offered to them, by a teacher who had the privilege and joy to find her way into Torah from a great rabbi whose memory remains a blessing.
The history of the Jewish people is riddled with arguments and division. To some extent, we wouldn’t have it any other way! Two Jews, three opinions… But sometimes, our disagreements go too far.
In Parashat Vayeshev, Joseph’s brothers become jealous of him since he is the favorite son of his father, Jacob, born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. At the beginning of that portion, Joseph gets his famous “coat of many colors” which makes his brothers even angrier at him. Unable to stand him anymore, they follow the suggestion of Judah and sell him into slavery.
This week’s portion, Vayigash (Hebrew for “and he approaches”), is an attempt to right this wrong: to bring the brothers back together. Judah, the one responsible for selling Joseph into slavery, approaches Joseph in Egypt and tries to reason with him to enable his brothers to all remain together. While Joseph knows who Judah is, Judah thinks he is speaking to the prime minister of Egypt, the man more powerful than Pharaoh, a man who has the power of life and death over Judah and all his brothers.
He approaches Joseph and pleads with him not to make Benjamin a slave for life. Joseph had created trumped-up charges against Benjamin, and Judah is willing to put his own life on the line to allow Benjamin to go free. But the power of this portion, and its title, is not merely about Judah trying to save Benjamin; it is about one brother, Judah, approaching another, the unrecognizable Joseph, in order to keep the Children of Israel, the future Jewish people, as one. Even if that means Judah will be left in Egypt, he needs to connect with Joseph, to draw near to him, to demonstrate for all eternity the value of Israelite — Jewish — unity.
While Judah — spoiler alert — is effective in our portion this week in reuniting the Children of Israel, later in Jewish history the legacy of this division between the brothers becomes so severe that the kingdom that King David united splits between the Jewish tribes loyal to the tribe of Joseph (the northern Kingdom of Israel) , and those loyal to the tribe of Judah (Kingdom of Judah). (Each of Jacob’s 12 sons started its own tribe, known as the 12 Tribes of Israel).
Our tradition begs for Jewish unity, and reflects this in the Haftarah, a weekly reading from the Prophets meant to reflect on the themes of the Torah portion. In the Haftarah, Ezekiel the prophet offers us hope that the divided kingdoms of our people will eventually come back together. The prophet Ezekiel is told (Ezekiel 37:16): “You, Son of Man, take one stick and write the name of Judah on it… and take another stick and write Joseph on it… and bring those sticks together, united…”
From the time of our Torah portion, through the days of the Prophets and continuing to this day, the Jewish people have always suffered from division but have always dreamed of repairing this division, finding the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel and bringing them back into the Jewish fold — of having Judah and Joseph come back together with their other brothers.
As eager we are to return to a united people, and a united Jewish kingdom, archaeologists, sadly, only have been able to find evidence of the divided Hebrew kingdoms in the Holy Land, almost 3,000 years ago. Archaeologists have had a hard time finding clear evidence of the earlier, united kingdom under the glorious rule of David and Solomon that is described in the first and second books of Kings in the Prophets. So all the archaeological evidence so far points to a Jewish people divided, unable to live together even in ancient times.
Absent any archaeological evidence, we must look into ourselves and into this Torah portion, and know that we have it within us to reunite our people and keep us together in all our diversity. Just as Judah approached Joseph in this week’s portion, bravely crossing the boundary of fear, frustration and anger, we can, too.
Our own actions need to be the proof that Jews can live together. When Jews criticize Jews of other denominations, or Jews debate politics, attitudes toward Israel, or theological or even ethical issues, we need to do it in a way that reflects respect and love for each other; we need to let everyone see that love and respect. We have to find ways of eating in each other’s homes, of praying in each other’s synagogues and attending each other’s diverse joyous moments — or sad moments. We must maintain our own integrity as Judahs or Josephs, but we must also “approach” “Vayigash” seek unity and partnership in each other’s lives.
I challenge us to provide evidence in our own behavior that can reflect Judah reaching out to Joseph, and that resonates a united kingdom under David and Solomon. Do we deep down think Ezekiel’s vision of the two sticks coming together is accurate or just a myth? I say: Let’s not wait for the Messianic era to show how Jews can come together. Let’s demonstrate today, in our own attitudes and our own lives, that we can unite! Let’s be the sticks of Ezekiel and the Judahs approaching Joseph that show the world — and ourselves — that the Jewish people is one.
We all dream. And sometimes our dreams come true. A dream come true is a wonderful thing, almost too good to be true. But there are times when the fulfillment of a dream is so different than what we thought it would be. When it finally comes to pass, times have changed, we have changed, and so have circumstances. Or it may just be that we never really understood what we were dreaming about, we never fathomed the full implications of our dreams. Reality, it turns out, is so much more complicated than the stuff that dreams are made of.
Sarah our beloved matriarch had hoped to become a mother just like any other newlywed. When it took a bit longer she prayed and she cried and she dreamt. The years passed and the dream remained with her. When God brought her dream to fruition after so many years and Isaac was born, she was a different woman than the one she had been so many years earlier. She had never dreamed of being the mother of a newborn at the age of 90. The very fulfillment of her dream turned out to be more of a challenge that a honeymoon. Isn’t it so often like that? Not that she — or we — wouldn’t want to be blessed by the fulfillment of the dream at such a late stage, it’s just that that which could have been so sweet … is more like bittersweet.
Dreams fulfilled often place our lives in a wholly new and unexpected context. When his brothers are prostrate before him like so many sheaves of wheat, Joseph’s youthful dream is now reality. But it is not like he had thought it would be. What had seemed to so many years ago to be a sure promise of power and prestige is completely reframed. His is the one sheaf of wheat still standing, and upon him is thrust the burden of seeing to the sustenance of the entire extended family. The surrounding sheaves are not so much subservient to him as they are dependent upon him for their very survival.
Joseph rises to the challenge. His abandons the childish interpretation of his childhood dreams and instead applies himself to feeding the hungry sheaves that have now appeared before him.
Grappling with unimagined responsibility suddenly placed upon us is not the only challenge that fulfilled dreams sometimes ask us to confront.
The consummation of our dreams paradoxically takes them away from us. When dreams become reality, they are no longer dreams. When our own good fortune forces us to move from the realm of lofty aspirations to the nitty-gritty of reality, we are liable to neglect to replace our old dreams with new ones. Too often, we forget how to dream.
But we must forever keep dreaming. It behooves us always to live a life with vision, no matter how many dreams have been fulfilled. We must always treasure yet-to-be fulfilled dreams.
Joseph kept dreaming. Little did he know as a youth that his dreams foretold the immigration of the whole covenanted clan to the Land of Egypt. But when that came to pass, he embraced it and its challenges while cherishing a new dream. As his end draws near, he reveals the innermost vision that had been pulsating through his heart.
“God will certainly redeem you” says he to his brethren on his deathbed, “and He will bring you up from this land to the Land that he swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. And then he adds, “Make sure to take my bones from here” when you leave. The man who left the Land of Israel at the age of 17, and then brought his whole family into exile with him, always nurtured the hope of return.
For Joseph, reality had quickly caught up with his dreams, but that had only set the stage for further dreams. There is no other way.
Are you interested in joining the world’s largest book club?
Daf yomi (pronounced dahf YOH-mee) is an international program to read the entire Babylonian Talmud — the main text of rabbinic Judaism — in seven and a half years at the rate of one page a day. Tens of thousands of Jews study daf yomi worldwide, and they are all quite literally on the same page — following a schedule fixed in 1923 in Poland by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the founder of daf yomi, who envisioned the whole world as a vast Talmudic classroom connected by a global network of conversational threads.
A page a day doesn’t sound too daunting, until you consider that each Talmudic page is actually a double-sided folio comprised of multigenerational conversations among the rabbis of the first few centuries of the Common Era, dealing with everything from what to do if your camel knocks over a candle and sets a store on fire to the consequences of embarrassing another person while he is naked.
The Talmud is divided into 37 volumes, known as tractates, each of which deals with different aspects of Jewish law, from vows to marriage to the logistics of offering sacrifices in the ancient Temple. But the subjects of the tractates are in part only nominal, because the Talmud is a highly discursive text, proceeding by association rather than by any rational scheme. Every page presupposes knowledge of other pages, which is why it is difficult to start learning without prior background. But every page connects to conversations on other pages, and so once you have started learning, it’s almost impossible to stop.
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions by those who are thinking about embarking on this wild seven-and-a-half year journey through one of the most quirky, irreverent, surprising and intriguing works in the Jewish literary canon:
Do I need to be religious — or Jewish — to study Talmud?
Can I study Talmud even if I have little or no Hebrew background?
What version of the Talmud do you recommend I use, and where can I find it?
What resources and study aides are most helpful?
Does it make sense to start in the middle of a daf yomi cycle, or should I wait for the next cycle to begin?
One page a day, seven days a week, is quite a relentless pace. Do you have any tips for staying on schedule? What if I fall behind?
What keeps you going on days when you have no motivation to learn or begin to lose interest?
How do you keep track of everything you learn?
What might I get out of studying daf yomi?
Absolutely not! The Talmud deals with all aspects of Jewish life, but you don’t need to be a practicing observant Jew to appreciate the subjects under discussion, many of which have broader and more universal resonance, such as what our obligations are when we chance upon an object that someone else has lost. Although the Talmudic rabbis followed the Torah’s commandments, their theological orientation was often so bold and heretical that some of their statements may be best appreciated by those who are not themselves devout. And unlike later works that followed from it, the Talmud is not a law code intended to tell Jews how to behave but a record of rabbinic legal conversations in which many of the questions are left open and unresolved. It is a text for those who are living the questions rather than those who have found the answers. And so if you are a thinking, questioning person who does not take anything at face value, then Talmud study may be for you.
Yes. The Talmud is actually written in a combination of Hebrew and Aramaic, which was the lingua franca of Jews living in Babylon (now Iraq) during the first few centuries CE. But it is available in multiple English translations, both in print and online. Many passages in the Talmud involve Midrash (rabbinic interpretations of biblical passages) and a close reading of biblical sources; certainly knowledge of Hebrew is helpful in appreciating the linguistic connections the Talmud frequently draws. But Talmud can be studied on many levels – it is often compared to a sea because of its vastness and depth, and as with a sea, you can skim the surface, swim underwater, or become a deep-sea diver and learn about all the flora and fauna on the ocean floor. You can learn superficially or deeply, and yes, some of that depends on your level of Hebrew.
The version of the Talmud that has become most standard and most widely studied in traditional settings is the Vilna Shas, first printed in 1835. This is what people commonly imagine when they picture a page of Talmud — a block of Hebrew text in the center of the page surrounded by marginal commentaries. But there are also more accessible versions of the text, such as the modern Hebrew edition published with the very helpful commentary of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, which is currently being translated into English as the Koren Talmud Bavli and available for free online at Sefaria.org. (Sefaria also offers a direct link to the current day’s page of Talmud from its homepage.) Artscroll publishes a translation that will be best suited to traditional Jews, and the Soncino commentary—available for free online at www.halakhah.com — is readable if somewhat archaic.
There is a vast array of English-language daf yomi podcasts consisting of recordings of daf yomi classes taught by rabbis and other scholars ranging in length from the five-minute daf yomi shiur (lesson) to lessons that are well over an hour long. The standard daf yomi podcast is probably about 45-50 minutes. One very accessible, clear explication of the daily page, is Michelle Farber’s dafyomi4women, which, though taught by a woman to a group of women in Raanana, Israel, is as valuable for men as for women. A number of websites, such as the Orthodox Union’s Daf Yomi Resources Page, offer various supplemental materials, such as summaries and commentaries, for the daf yomi.
And finally, if you are interested in reading secondary sources that will introduce you to the world of the rabbis and the nature of Talmud as a literary genre, you might consider such books as Ruth Calderon’s A Bride for One Night, a collection of fictional tales based on Talmudic narratives; Binyamin Lau’s The Sages, a collection and interpretation of stories about various Talmudic figures, organized chronologically; and my own book, If All the Seas Were Ink, a memoir of seven and a half years of daf yomi study that is at once a guided tour of the Talmud and a deeply personal tale of love and loss.
A new daf yomi cycle begins only once every seven and a half years — the next cycle begins on January 5, 2020. But we begin a new tractate covering a new topic every few months, and so you can start at the beginning of a tractate without feeling lost. Numerous daf yomi calendars, such as this one, are available online, and you can also download daf yomi calendars to your phone.
The key to sticking with daf yomi is to find a way to incorporate a bit of learning into your schedule every day, but this learning can take many forms. The rabbis in Tractate Taanit teach that “a person should always be pliable like a reed, and not rigid like a cedar” (Taanit 20a). It helps to be flexible about what it means to learn the page. Some days you may be able to sit down and read the page itself, along with related commentaries and study aides; other days you may have time to listen to a podcast while driving to work or folding the laundry. The point is learning every day, not how you do it. If you fall behind, it helps to have a specific day of the week designated for catching up. It also helps to learn with a study partner or as part of a class, because then you are accountable to someone else. Of course, you are always accountable to the schedule of daf yomi, which is sort of like a treadmill — it just keeps moving forwards, and you need to keep running. It is exhausting at times, but it also keeps you on your toes.
A commitment to learning daf yomi is sort of like a marriage — you’re in the relationship for the long haul, even if most days there are no passionate sparks. Sometimes it’s hard to find anything meaningful or relevant on the page, but perhaps it helps to imagine those pages as the context for the more exciting material that will follow a few days later. Without the context, you cannot fully appreciate that fabulous story about the man who mistakes his wife for a prostitute, or the unicorns that could not fit into Noah’s ark. On pages where the topics seems less interesting, it sometimes it helps to pay attention not just to what the rabbis are saying, but to how they transition from one subject to the next, such that a discussion of sex with a virgin suddenly morphs into a discussion of how to avoid hearing something untoward by sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears—as if to suggest that all acts of penetration are one and the same. To learn daf yomi, you have to allow yourself to be carried along for the ride — and while it’s almost never smooth sailing, some days are certainly bumpier than others.
Learning daf yomi is a bit like zooming through a safari on a motorcycle – there is so much to take in, and yet you are moving ahead at a rapid clip. There are many ways to take stock without slowing down. You might write about something you’ve learned (see, for instance, my own daf yomi limericks), or draw a picture summarizing something on the daf (see these incredible sketches). You may simply write notes in the margins, summarizing what you have learned. In my case, many years of marginal notes scribbled in my volumes of Talmud became the basis of a memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink.
When I first started learning, I didn’t think the Talmud could possibly have anything to say to me personally. But I discovered that when you learn deeply and allow yourself to listen carefully to what the text has to say, you find yourself living against the backdrop of the Talmud — such that the text is a commentary on life, and life is a commentary on the text. The rabbis teach in Tractate Eruvin (54a) that “one who is walking alone his way and has no companion should occupy himself with the study of Torah.” At first the Talmud was my companion during a rather lonely stretch of life. But through my study of Talmud, I overcame a difficult period in my life and found a way forward. And so I followed the Talmud, but the Talmud has also followed me through the various twists and turns my life has taken — through divorce, dating, aliyah (immigration to Israel) marriage, pregnancy and motherhood. I invite you to join me in this journey.
The post 9 Things to Know About the Daf Yomi (Daily Page of Talmud) appeared first on My Jewish Learning.
Looking to serve something delicious and fried other than latkes for Hanukkah? Maybe you want to make your own Chinese food on Christmas this year? Or maybe you’re just looking for an amazing (and easy) appetizer for an upcoming shindig?
You won’t believe how fun and easy these THREE INGREDIENT pastrami egg rolls are to make. Watch below — you can thank me later.
Note: you can find store-bought egg roll wrappers in the produce section of most major supermarket chains (yes, the produce section, I swear). You can also try Asian specialty markets.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, Francesca Aoki Biller, found the combination of her Russian-Jewish and Japanese-Buddhist heritage challenging and inspiring. Both her grandmothers and her struggles with identity and faith fueled her creativity. After years working as a journalist, she has recently turned to poetry which she has found to be a space for exploring the big questions about identity and the simple joys of daily life. This week, she gifts us two winter-themed poems as a way to enrich our Hanukkah celebration. Her first collection of poetry will be published in the Spring of 2018 with Zorba Press.
Bright wintry sun,
May you shine for us now!
Looking for all that
Your heaven allows,
We have waited so long
For your brisk biting sheen-
How “sweet” are your beams,
We know just what they mean–
As we wander too long
On the warmth we partake,
Dear sweet December
We ‘now’ lay awake . . .
On the hopes of a time
When slumber can be
With lovers nearby,
Not more wishing for ‘we’
And the children sit warm
For a few years here,
Oh Bright wintry sun
How we feel you, so near.
Falling slow from a perch, a bit gentle by three
A winter bird sings only songs he knows true,
And fluttering close, near a sun we can’t see
Beams a warming of wind, perhaps only for you,
No matter the crackles of beats heard nearby
All matter of blossoms are budded ‘kind’ here,
While the dark of a past fades over a sky
A rustling of hope settles for a New Year,
For this is the season of light and of glee
As a year fades to dust with a shattering cry,
No more will the storms of banishment be
Only hope is our hymn, as fear wearies by,
I see the glow of our grace that stands strong
Just watch the young children run wild and free,
We too can muster new hymns written long
If we close our sore eyes, we may finally see,
That a new day is minted, for even the meek
Who thought all was lost, as loneliness stirred,
Rejoice in this season, and may we all seek
A passage of home, rich with welcoming words
Farewell to the critics who once questioned why
Our very existence, on shores we chose free,
No more will we hide from a darkness of lies
As our very own hearth may ‘just let us be’
Basking in warmth, in our faith we know light
A journey hard fought, a soul’s final space,
Dear gracious Winter, your gleam is so bright
As we rest now ‘as found’, no matter our race!
May we “only” know doors that open too wide
As too many friends say ‘Hello’ to our hearts,
May we give only gifts that can warm us inside
As we embrace every being, no love left to part
I recently saw a Facebook question asking people to name topics they could teach about for one hour, with no prior preparation. It’s a fascinating question. I thought about it, and was proud about the variety of topics I could list. My pride was quickly tempered as I realized how much longer the list of “subjects I couldn’t tackle” would be.
As teachers, we tend to gravitate towards teaching the topics that we know best. Sometimes, though, we get asked to teach something new. This can leave a teacher feeling completely out of their comfort zone and vulnerable.
Many religious school teachers take this risk each week, as they take on topics that they may be learning just a week or two ahead of their students. With kids, staying a step or two ahead of them can still position you as the expert, and it’s also powerful for the teacher to learn alongside the students. But what about when you’re teaching adult learners?
I have been teaching a monthly adult education class at Temple Beth El in San Antonio, Texas, for three years now. Each year the adult education committee chooses a theme, and all of the sessions offered fall under the assigned theme. My first year the theme was Jewish Ethics. Easy-breezy! A broad topic that I could unpack in a variety of ways. The second year the theme was God. A little tougher; while I had studied a lot about God, I hadn’t spent much recent time informing my own thoughts about God (let alone guiding others through that maze). I was ready to tackle the topic, though, and ended up feeling spiritually enriched at the end of the year.
This year, the topic is Israel.
Uh-oh. “The I Word.”
It’s not that I’m not interested in Israel. I also have a decent knowledge of Israel and its history; I lived there for a year, after all. But the topic of Israel is a pretty heated one within the Jewish community (not to mention the rest of the world). There are so many components that I just don’t know enough about. It’s intimidating. The more I didn’t know, the more I let the gap grow and the more I felt uncomfortable– like maybe I was simply unqualified to teach the class this year.
But then I met with the rabbi. We brainstormed how I could break up the monthly sessions. I felt slightly less terrified, because at least some of the subjects were within my comfort zone.
Then the brochure with all of the adult ed offerings went out to the congregation, including my sessions. One of my closest friends read the list and said “YOU are teaching the Israel stuff?!”
So before the sessions began, I reached out to friends and colleagues who DID know about Israel. (Many thanks to Rabbi Ellen Nemhauser and Rich Walter of the Center for Israel Education for all the hand-holding and amazing resources!) Each month, my prep begins all over. There is no phoning it in; even as a seasoned educator, with each of these lessons I am literally am starting from scratch. I read and read and read and then brainstorm ways that I can pass the information along to others in an engaging and informed way. I myself feel engaged and also mentally exhausted after each monthly session. My adult students are learning right alongside me, and it’s inspiring.
I have not had to do this level of preparation for a class in a very long time, and yet I am learning so much about myself as a teacher and as a Jew. I am making sure to share my experience with my work team so that they know that as a veteran educator, I still have much to learn, and I am still open to taking risks.
At the end of this year, I will have learned so much… while simultaneously teaching others.
Maybe I am the right teacher for the class after all.
He lied to me. Yep, that’s right. A person I looked up to and admired lied straight to my face. At first, I was pretty ticked off. Then, I felt disappointed. Later, I was just plain sad. I’m not really sure how to process this. I want to resolve my feelings, but am finding it difficult to get past this moment.
People are fallible. They make mistakes. None of us is perfect. I know all these things to be true and, eventually, I will let this go. But, while I struggle to do this, I am desperate for some guidance. Enter our sages!
“For there is not one righteous person on earth who does only good and does not err,” Ecclesiastes reminds us (Ecclesiastes 7:20). This is a fact of our humanity. The question is not if, but when we stumble will we right our steps? Will we acknowledge our wrongs and straighten our path? Of course, this is what Yom Kippur is all about. The beauty of this quote from Ecclesiastes is that it reminds us that this is an everyday obligation. Most of us don’t transgress only once in a year (would if that were true!). We need this reminder. It gives us hope that though we may falter, we are always capable of being better- and so is everyone else. I need to remember this even while I am stunned by the reality of my role model’s failings. If I cut every person out of my life who I felt failed me in some way, I would live a very lonely existence. I shouldn’t let a person’s mistakes blind me to their strengths.
I find further guidance in Pirke Avot, “Do not disparage anyone, and do not shun anything. For there is no person who does not have his hour and no thing that does not have its place.”
Our sages understood that every person has the ability to do harm or good with their words and actions. This ability instructs us to actively strive, every day, to choose to do good, making a positive impact on others and our world.
Each of us has beauty in our souls. And, each of us needs to be open to seeing that beauty in others. Jacob Spike Kraus, in his song What Makes You Glow, puts this sentiment beautifully to music, quoting Pirke Avot 4:3. The song is inspiring and emboldens us to live the values our ancestors profess. What better time than on Hanukkah, the festival of lights, for us to discover that glow in ourselves and others, filling the world with warmth, kindness, and hope.