02/23/2018 08:39 AM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
T'tzaveh - [You] Shall Further Instruct
Exodus 27:20−30:10
You shall further instruct the Israelites …

The Mishkan - or the holy sanctuary – is once again at the center of our Parasha this week.  We continue to read of the details the Israelites are to follow to make this very important home for our laws - so that God "may dwell amongst them.”  
We continue this week with more stipulations about this sanctuary but are further instructed on the sons of Aaron, the priests who will attend to this sanctuary and its workings.  We are also instructed as to the eternal lamp that we see in almost every synagogue we may visit.

When speaking to our students last week, we spoke first about the way the Torah – or God’s words – can be a part of them and be spoken by them as a way to "house” the spirit of God.  This week we returned to a more literal Mishkan to ask a question about focus and respect.  I asked why they thought there was a need for so many specific rules and methods in their lives – whether it be at school or at home.  The answers were about how these things help us focus on the task at hand, take things seriously, and how they also keep us safe.  And so when entering a sanctuary – like when entering a school – having such guidance can really help us focus on our tasks and lends it a little respect.
Then we discussed what that really looks like in a synagogue or sanctuary.  What are the tasks at hand.  We focused on this one moment in the Parasha when God expands on his desire to "dwell among” the Israelites.  God tells Moses – in the midst of all of these details about the Mishkan – "For there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you.  And there I will meet with the Israelites.”

We rarely think about prayer or our visits to a synagogue as a time to meet with and speak with God.  I asked them to think for a moment about what they would say in such a personal meeting.  What would they ask?  What would they want to say?  Some of the responses were profound.  Some were of praise for a job well done.  Some were about needing some help.  And some were about the need to stop bad things in the world – like what had just happened in Florida.  I asked them to hold on to that idea and those questions and think of their time in a sanctuary – the modern Mishkan – as a time they can always have that meeting with God and ask those very important questions. 

Additional Torah Study Resources: Torah Study /
T’tzaveh for Tots / T’tzaveh for Tweens / Leading a Family Torah Discussion

Categorized under:  Torah

02/16/2018 11:08 AM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
T'rumah [Gifts]
Exodus 25:1−27:19
"The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: "Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts”

As we read the narratives of Genesis and early Exodus, one can easily see all of the compelling stories being told.  The drama of creation and the wonders of the Israelites escape from Egypt are great tools for our work with young children.  Once we get to these latter sections of Exodus, however, we begin to see a larger focus on the laws and guidelines that shape the future rituals and beliefs of the Jewish people.  In T’rumah, we are talking less about behaviors and more about the literal dimensions of the Mishkan the Israelites are told to build.  This Parashah has proven to be a challenge for teachers and Bar Mitzvah tutors alike as they struggle to find relevance and meaning for our younger students.

So let me propose three components of the story that have had success in letting students find relevance and feel connected to the story.  In many ways this Parasha, more than others that come before it, is actually more vital for our students to see their role in the story that is unfolding.  We read amidst all the details that describe the Mishkan or "sanctuary” this sentence.     "And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”  

We can ask three revealing questions about this sentence that can unearth incredibly meaningful ideas.
1)  What is a Mishkan or Sanctuary?
2)  Why is it important that the Laws of Moses be housed there?
3)  What are the different meanings of "so that I may dwell among them?”

The concept of a Mishkan – a sanctuary or place of safety for the Laws of Moses – is one that can be either literal or figurative.  And what is amazing in this case is that both meanings are incredibly impactful for children.   If it is a literal home – a home is a place where they feel safe.  It is a place where they are protected not only from the elements, but by their parents who bathe them, feed them and love them.

So home is as much a physical structure as it is a place where you find all the things and people you love.  If that is how we talk about the Mishkan – as a place built with care and love for one of the most important things in our lives – like our children are for their parents – we can begin to attach amazing feelings of love and compassion for Torah and God. And of course, by saying that God is not just dwelling on earth but "among” the people, we have an excellent way to talk about God wanting to be among the people and not wanting be a distant God.  

On an entirely different level, we can speak about using the learning we get from Torah – and the literal reading of Torah – to talk about God and God’s laws living in us and being realized in the world through our actions.  How awesome is to be able talk both about a physical Sanctuary for those who prefer a concrete lesson – and then to be able to talk about PEOPLE as a kind of Mishkan that also keeps the laws alive and safe by learning them and living them?

This week in Torah service with our 4th and 5th grades, this was a large focus of our conversations and worship.  Rabbi Foster introduced the song V’asu Li Mikdash which presents these English lyrics:  "Oh Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary - pure and holy - tried and true and with thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.”

The concept of BEING a living sanctuary can be a powerful message for a child and a teen.  To not only be the one who is meant to keep these special words safe, but also to be the one who is living out these values – for God – can be an "ah, ha” moment for many who hear this idea for the first time. 

Additional Torah Study Resources: Torah Study /

T’rumah for Tots / T’rumah for Tweens / Leading a Family Torah Discussion
Categorized under:  Torah

02/09/2018 12:25 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Mishpatim - [These Are the] Rules
Exodus 21:1−24:18
"These are the rules that you shall set before them.”

Compassion and Covenant.  These are two words that come to mind when considering this week’s Parasha.  Mishpatim – or rules – is at the core of what we read this week.  In the narrative, we have been exposed to the 10 commandments and we read about our gathering at Mount Sinai.  Moses and the Israelite leadership get additional "rules” from God, and we then have the compelling moment where the Jewish people are said to have accepted God’s law.
In reading the various laws, some seem rather mundane.  Lists are not often fun to read.  But upon closer look we see the root of some of our modern conceptions of community and governance.  When talking to students about this week’s Parasha, it is clear that they understand rules and what they are meant to do.  Whether they can follow them all the time is another story entirely.  But even our younger students seem to understand that rules keep them safe and ask them to be kind to others.  They understand that they shouldn’t steal someone else’s toy because they would not want someone to steal their toy.  And sharing is not only something they like to do, but it is clearly something that makes them feel good about themselves.

So when we read in this week’s narrative about the Sabbatical year – when we let the land rest and give what grows there to the poor, we see the roots of environmentalism and our impulse to care for the poor.  In so many other passages we read of fairness and restitution.  There is much to wrestle with that we may not agree with, but that overarching attempt to list rules that create a more just and fair society is admirable.

A very important part of this story is how those gathered at Sinai accepted these rules. It’s what makes this story about a covenant.  In some interpretations that means a code that must be followed – because it must be followed.  In the progressive tradition, the term "obligation” is used.  I have always agreed with that approach because obligation connotes a responsibility for a larger purpose.  Is a law to be followed just because – or because it signifies our role in bringing justice, compassion, and fairness into the world?

Children sometimes need "just because.”  But what they will need in order to make these laws a part of their being is the understanding that they have a role to play in a divine plan.  Having an obligation also implies choice.  If you accept this obligation – you have accepted your role as a partner in creating a just society.  If you choose not to – you are responsible for breaking it down.  Just like a classroom.  If you choose to follow rules, you have made a good choice that benefits all.  If you choose not to follow rules – even though you agreed with them – you are responsible for breaking apart its communal fabric.  It is amazing how at such a young age, we really do get that.


Additional Torah Study Resources: Torah Study /

Mishpatim for Tots / Mishpatim for Tweens / Leading a Family Torah Discussion

Categorized under:  Torah

02/02/2018 11:28 AM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Yitro (Jethro)
Jethro, priest of Midian, Moses' father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, God's people, how the Eternal had brought Israel out from Egypt.
Exodus 18:1-20:23

The weeks Parasha is named for the patriarch we encounter at the beginning of our post Egypt experience.  Yet, at the core of the Parasha sits the 10 Commandments and the story of Moses ascending Mount Sinai.  One can imagine how the story of Jethro (Yitro) might get overshadowed.

This week I asked our students to consider the importance or relevance of Jethro, Moses’ father in law, and consider his relationship to the 10 commandments.  Students were asked about a recent time when they needed advice or help, asked for it and got it.  Many were very forthcoming about struggles at home or at school.  One student even acknowledged having asked his mom how to be a better person.  

Students were curious to hear about a time when Moses also needed help. Moses, after leading the Israelites out of Egypt, was essentially a King without a crown.  He was our leader and our teacher – and he alone had communed with God.  I asked our students to remember how just a week before we had talked about our transformation in Egypt from a family to a Nation.  From a tribe to a people.  From hundreds to hundreds of thousands.  This mass of people with new-found freedom looked to only one place for guidance in their new reality.  And that was Moses.

Our texts reveal that Moses was not faring well under the strain of being the lone leader and from future texts, we know that discontent and rebellion was already brewing among the Israelites.  Jethro, a Midianite who did not know the God of the Israelites, saw Moses struggling and told him he could not continue this way.  This is an amazing interaction that details both the respect Jethro had for Moses and the humility Moses showed to a more experienced elder.  Jethro, a non-Jew if you will, becomes a true leader in our history who helps right this ship.  Essentially, Jethro proposes a governing structure to Moses – who had become Judge, Jury and Legislature for the people all in one.  Moses acknowledged how challenging it had become to serve the people and their needs and followed Jethro’s advice to appoint respected members of the community to positions of responsibility and to appoint many others to serve under them.

In the world of Jewish studies, this Parasha is often used to examine the very nature of leadership – even the sometimes thankless nature of service and leadership in a congregation.  It is also used as a template for the mentor/mentee relationship Moses and Jethro seemed to have formed – one based on mutual respect, honesty, and collaborative brainstorming.

For our students, they saw how challenging it might have been to manage that growing nation without a larger group of leaders and without any laws.  Hence the connection to the 10 Commandments.  This Parasha is about the very practical evolution of the disparate individuals who left Egypt and were becoming a very distinct Jewish nation.
Our students were even able to wrestle with some of the central commandments and consider how important each one was – and what our first commandment – that Adonai is our God and there is no other - may really mean.  It was a remarkable moment when they could see that what seems like a simple phrase or command – may have deeper and more complex meanings then they may first have thought.


Additional Torah Study Resources: Torah Study /
Yitro for Tots / Yitro for Tweens / Leading a Family Torah Discussion


Categorized under:  Torah

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