And You Shall Tell Your Child . . .


April 20, 2016

Teaching Na-aseh V’Nishma

 Sarah Rosenfeld

The holiday of Passover has many names reflecting the different aspects of the holiday. One name is “zman cheiruteinu,” the time of our redemption and freedom from Egypt. Many are inspired by this holiday of freedom to champion the cause of all suffering people. Yet, this attitude ignores the fact that Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt that occurred to a specific people for a specific purpose: to enable the children of Jacob to stand at Sinai, to become a Jewish nation by receiving the Torah and dedicating themselves to live it, learn it, and pass it on for generations to come. 

So how do we pass this message on to our children and students? In many Jewish schools, Torah is treated as a textbook instead of as our G-d-given blueprint for living our lives in holiness, thereby becoming a light unto the nations. It is for this reason the Torah states (Devarim 4:6) “It is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations.” No doubt we see evidence of this throughout history, as elements of Judaism certainly have universal appeal and have thus become the foundation for other faiths as well as for the civil laws of Western society. 

But we must not forget that Torah means “instruction” (Zohar III 53b). Every part of the Torah is meant to teach us something. Maimonides says: “Verses such as . . . Timna was a concubine” (Bereishit 36:12) are no different from verses such as . . .  “Hear O Israel” (Devarim 6:4), since they are all from the Almighty’s mouth.”

The universal values that are recognized by the world at large are part of a greater system. As with any system, they are only as effective as their weakest links, and they depend on all elements of the system working together. Judaism, as instructed in the Torah, is a system of interrelated parts, and without the full system in play, we lose the integrity of those values embedded in it. These values then become victim to subjective, personal manipulations, and justifications. We need not look too far back in our history to see how universal values were applied by human beings to only certain segments of humanity but not to others. These warped views continue to drive our headlines today.

At Sinai we were given three types of laws: Eidut, Chukim, and Mishpatim. Laws about marking time, like Shabbat, which testifies to Creation, Passover, and Sukkot are called Eidut. Laws that seem logical and universal are called Mishpatim. These laws, such as honoring parents, not to kill, not to steal, and to be fair in judgement are easily understood; they make sense to us and are therefore easier to keep. But there is a third category called Chukim. These are laws that do not makes sense to the human being, laws for which no reason is given in the Torah. In this category we find the laws of (Kashrut), laws of purity and impurity, and the laws forbidding the mixing of wool and linen, to name just a few. 

As Jews we are commanded to keep all categories with equal fervour and enthusiasm. We are explicitly taught that we do not fulfil mitzvot because they make sense or make us feel good, but because G-d has commanded us to do so. This attitude protects us from allowing our subjective opinions to decide how to implement Torah values. It is not a case of pick and choose, but a system in its entirety.

Certainly, Judaism encourages self-expression and using our rational minds to understand what we do as best we can, but that only comes after we have accepted that there is much we don’t understand; yet we commit ourselves do that too. It is for this reason that at Sinai, we said “Na’aseh v’nishma” – “we will do and we will hear,” i.e. learn and understand in that order. Our commitment to Torah makes our value system worthy of universal inspiration and guidance.

Dr. Sara Rosenfeld, Chabad representative in Melbourne, Australia since 1989, is the Director of Curriculum for Foundation (Pre-1A) to Grade 12 at Yeshivah and Beth Rivkah Colleges. She has taught high school, teacher’s training, and adult education courses across a number of schools and training institutions, and has written numerous Jewish Studies curricula that are used worldwide. An author and trainer for the Zekelman Standards for Chumash, she works for the Menachem Education Foundation. 

Family History Curriculum

Jonathan Sarna

A new website named “familysearch.org” promotes the study of family history. “Involve children and youth in family history,” it proclaims. Knowledge of family history, it explains, “gives children of all ages a sense of their place in the world.” It also offers young people “something to live up to – a legacy to respect,” as well as an opportunity for them “to make a meaningful contribution to something bigger than themselves.” 

Familysearch.org offers a multitude of helpful ways through which parents, grandparents, and teachers can involve young people in family history activities, such as telling stories, sharing heirlooms, and celebrating with food. “Make family history a fun and positive activity for children,” it suggests. “Try different activities, according to a young person’s interests and personality.” “Involving children and youth in family history,” it concludes, “can change their lives.”

For Jews, all of this good advice sounds wonderfully familiar. Long before there was an Internet and long before the term “family history” even existed, we had Pesach. Much of what “familysearch.org” recommends is already found in the laws and customs connected to the Seder.

In teaching Jews to recall their shared family history –yetsiat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt – the Torah’s central commandment is “vehigdta levinkha,” you shall tell the story to your children.  But the Torah understands that a dry parental history talk concerning our shared past is unlikely, by itself, to have the desired impact. Precisely for this reason, surrounding commandments in the Torah mandate far more than just talk. They include celebration with food (“seven days you shall eat matzah”) as well as other engaging activities. V’higadta l’vinkha is necessary but in no way sufficient.  

The genius of Pesach, as it developed through the ages, is that the imperative implied in the words  “v’higadta l’vinkha” – to convey family history from one generation to the next -- is embedded in a whole series of “fun and positive activities” that muster parents and children alike. These activities begin long before the holiday with house cleaning, changing dishes, and food preparations, and then continue throughout the Seder all the way to the singing of Chad Gadya that marks its conclusion. Not just talk but also songs, riddles, games, drama, food, drink, even the ritual “stealing” of the afikoman form part of this “family history curriculum.” The more engaging and enjoyable a Seder, the more likely it is that the commandment of vehigdta l’vinkha will properly be fulfilled.

Those worried about how to convey the particulars of Judaism to their children can learn much from the “family history curriculum” that we call Pesach.  The fact that it involves multiple generations at once, that it entails doing and not just talking, and that it embeds historical memories concerning our shared past in “fun and positive activities,” rather than dry monologues, all help to explain why for so long Pesach has succeeded in conveying the essence of Jewish history from one generation to the next. 

What the Internet has recently discovered, we Jews have known for a long time:  “involving children and youth in family history can change lives.”   

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and Chief Historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History.

Balancing Act

Lawrence Schiffman

Teaching Jewish peoplehood was never as important as it is today in our democratic environment. Jews have never before and nowhere else except in the land of Israel lived in so hospitable a country. Nowhere have we ever been treated with the respect that we now enjoy. For this reason, we face the danger of giving up our particularity and seeing ourselves only as part of the wider society to which we belong. With the universalistic so dominant around us in the form of multiculturalism and similar ideas, we may encounter people--even our own children--who have difficulty with the notion that somehow the Jews were and are special. How do we tell our children and our wider community that G-d redeemed us--“Us He took out” (Devarim 6:23)--and that G-d punished Egypt, when it seems to be almost anti-democratic, even chauvinistic, to accord special status to our own people’s historical experience? 

How do we teach our particularistic values, like our opposition to intermarriage, in an intellectual and ethical framework of respect for our neighbors and identification with the wider community in which we live. How do we explain to people steeped in universalistic values why Jews should retain their distinctiveness? How do you teach about our unique mission?  Many years ago I heard the solution from the then New York University president, the late L. Jay Oliva. He was at a Jewish event, explaining why he thought that advancing the particularistic needs of the disparate parts of the NYU community was so important. He argued that our universal community--our humanity and responsibility to the world as a whole--can only be advanced when each of us, as individuals and as a group, brings our own heritage of particularity to the universal enterprise. The best whole is the sum of diverse and distinct parts, each making its unique contribution. This is the point that we have to get across. As Jews, our ability to participate in and to contribute to the wider society is dependent on our maintenance of our own individual and group identities as proud and loyal members of the Jewish people. When we strengthen these commitments within, we are ready to bring our beautiful heritage and tradition with us and to contribute to and participate in society as a whole. In turn, we must recognize that other groups within our society should and will bring their particular heritage  as well. Our ability to establish an ideal society in the American democratic context is dependent on harmonizing the particularity of each of us with the universal goals and aspirations to which we all agree.

At the Passover Seder, we must stress two universalistic points: First, that the particular experience of the Jewish people is a model for  G-d’s plan of redemption for all of us. Understood in this way, it is both a particularistic and a universalistic event that we are celebrating. Second, we need to make the point that we are only able to contribute to the wider society when we are strong in our own identity as Jews. After all, our Bible is the basis of many of the universalistic values that we all cherish. Passover and other celebrations of our particularity should be opportunities for proper emphasis on what makes us special, and on the joys and sufferings of being a Jew. But at the same time, we must explain that our Torah and tradition is replete with--in fact is the basis of--the universalistic teachings of the brotherhood of humanity and respect for all. Indeed, the story of our Exodus—the one we commemorate on Pesach--was formative in the anti-slavery movement in the U.S. 

Consider the Kiddush every Friday night, which reflects the Ten Commandments, reminding us that because we were slaves in Egypt, we are obligated to grant a day off on Shabbat to servants and even animals. Is the lesson not obvious? It is through the observance of Shabbat--a mitzvah particular to a particular people--that we are instructed in the most universalistic message: “Do not despise the Egyptian, as you were sojourners in his land?” (Devarim 23:7) We need to remember that we learned these values from our own national experience as Jews.  

By always balancing the teaching of the particularistic aspects of our tradition with those that teach our universalistic beliefs, we can raise future generations who will be able to live as proud and committed Jews in America's unique democratic society, embodying true Torah perspectives and seeing the goodness in all Humanity.

Lawrence H. Schiffman is Judge Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and Director of the Global Network for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies at New York University. 

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