Friday, May 25, 2018

Shabbat Around the Table -- Naso, Blessings, and Star Trek

Image result for priestly blessing

In this week's parsha, Naso, Aaron and his sons learn how to bless the children of Israel:

May the LORD bless you and protect you.
May the LORD deal kindly and graciously with you.
May the LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace.

This blessing has been incorporated into the blessings given to children by their parents on Shabbat. I think it's a beautiful and hopeful prayer, especially when directed at children. 

In traditional communities, the kohanim (the descendants of Aaron and the priestly class) still recite the priestly blessing during certain parts of Shabbat and holiday services. When doing so, they use a hand gesture that may seem familiar to you. And yes, Leonard Nimoy knew exactly where the gesture originated when he first suggested it on the set of Star Trek! Click here for a lovely description of the synagogue ritual from Spock himself.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Shabbat Around the Table -- Shavuot

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We've quite literally been counting down the days until our next holiday, Shavuot, which begins this weekend. Starting on the second night of Passover, we count every day until we reach 50. Since we celebrate receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot, it makes sense that the holiday is linked to Passover. After leaving Egypt, the Israelites spent seven weeks in the desert before entering into the covenant with God.

Most people know The Ten Commandments, and some assume that they are the foundation of the Jewish moral code. But the Torah actually contains 613 commandments if you count every time God says "Do this" and "Don't do that" to the Jewish people. Some of those 613 are now impossible for us to observe (bringing sacrifices to the Temple) and some probably seem downright ridiculous to many of us now (not wearing clothing made with both linen and wool). But there are many others in those 613 that are, in my opinion, just as important as The Top Ten:

  • We are commanded to pay workers the day they complete their work so as not to take advantage of them: "On his day you should give his wages, the sun should not set on it, because he is a poor man and his life depends on it…"
  • "Do not put a stumbling block before the blind," which can be interpreted to mean that we shouldn't put any kind of barrier in front of anyone on their way to success or happiness
  • "Love your neighbor as yourself."
Children can most definitely relate to Shavuot and its celebration of the Torah, which in so many ways is a how-to book of rights and wrongs. Children thrive when they know what the rules are, when clear boundaries and expectations have been outlined and are enforced. Children feel more secure knowing that there are limits to their behavior, as well as the behavior of others. They feel safer and become more confident as a result. 

A great story to share with your children is No Rules for Michael by Sylvia A. Rouss. Michael thinks school would be more fun without rules, so his teacher (wisely) suggests a day without rules. Quickly Michael becomes frustrated and sad. At the end of the book he says, "No one will listen to me. No one will give me a turn. No one will share. I guess rules are important. Rules show people how to care about each other."

Friday, May 11, 2018

Shabbat Around the Table -- B'char-Bechukotai

This week's double parsha, B'char-Bechukotai, outlines the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years: every seven years, the land is not worked in order to give it time to rest, and every 49 years (seven sevens), the land is given time to rest and slaves are set free and lands are returned to their original owners. These agrarian laws remind me of my favorite agrarian law, found in an earlier section of Torah, often referred to as the "corners of our fields."

When harvesting grains or gathering fruits, the ancient Israelites were instructed to leave the corners of their fields untouched and to leave fallen fruit on the ground. In this way, the poor could come and glean for themselves without shame, knowing that the food was intended for them.

This always seemed to me to be another one of those beautiful thousand year old traditions that was impossible to replicate in the modern world. But then I started thinking about my almost daily trips to the grocery store. How easy to simply pick up an extra box of pasta or some canned veggies and drop them in a food collection bin. It's also the perfect job for a young child. Give them the responsibility of selecting a few items of food for someone who is hungry, and teach them that giving to others in need is simply what we do, just like buying food for ourselves. When thinking of ourselves, we're obligated to think of others as well.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Storybook Day and the Importance of Literacy

The importance of exposing young children to good stories is well established. Reading aloud brings parents and children closer together; high quality literature makes readers (and listeners) more empathetic; being read to helps make children good listeners and better thinkers; and reading aloud increases children’s vocabulary and improves their comprehension.*

A study from 2015 shows that reading aloud to young children is an even better way to build their vocabulary than talking with them. The language found in books is more formal than that used in speech, which means that children are exposed to less common words when read to. The author of the study, Dominic Massaro from the University of California, says, “Reading takes you beyond the easy way to communicate. It takes you to another world and challenges you.”

Last month, we celebrated our second annual Storybook Day, which is really a week-long celebration of literacy. On Monday, teachers shared their favorite stories and their love of reading with their classes. Every day we enjoyed snacks inspired by great stories, such as Blueberries for Sal and Bread and Jam for Frances. On Thursday, we encouraged all the children to bring their favorite storybook to class to share with their friends, and to dress up as their favorite storybook character or bring a prop from their favorite storybook. Children came to school dressed as the green crayon from The Day the Crayons Came Home, a sparkly fish from The Rainbow Fish, and Frida Kahlo from Fridah Kahlo and Her Animalitos. We ended the day with a puppet show. Finally, on Friday, we made the connection between bible stories found in picture books and the Torah, and the fours classes went into the chapel to see a Torah up close.

I would like to thank all the parents and grandparents who, in honor of Storybook Day, donated books to our library or donated money so that we could purchase books from our wish list. Keeping our library shelved with high-quality literature – both the classics and new releases – and high-quality nonfiction is essential to our program. By sharing these storybooks with our children, we are teaching them new words, building connections with them, and introducing them to the world.

*Shortly after writing this piece for the bulletin, I came across this article which also connects reading aloud with improving children's attention and behavior.

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