Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The gift that keeps on giving

The gift that keeps on giving. It is a cliché. However, to what does it refer? I have heard that the "gift that keeps on giving" is guilt. I would rather be more optimistic about it. I like to think that education can be the gift that keeps on giving. Especially when one is excited about learning.

How does this gift of learning apply to my Jewish identity? Well, it seems pretty simple to me. The Torah is the ultimate Gift that Keeps on Giving. The Torah is intimately tied with Jewish identity. It is the Law; the description of exactly HOW to be a Jew. The Torah is the epitome of education.

I am both a student and a teacher of the stories in the Torah. My big dilemma is how to get the students I teach as excited as I get about the knowledge one can gain from Torah study. I could sit and listen to the Rabbi talk about the Parsha for hours. Of course, my children would never allow that as they seem to think things like food and attention are important. So, I have to limit my classes to the same times as their classes and that is not enough for me.

As a child, I was introduced to the Torah. It was a mysterious and forbidding document. I was taught snippets of the secrets, but I was never granted ownership of the wisdom contained within. This is why I am struggling with my own children, and my students. Torah study is not only an important part of their Jewish identities, but it can also be fun. It can even be exhilarating if one takes an active role in that study. My youngest, from the time she began to talk, would point at the Torah during services and say (usually loudly), "My Torah!" Why it took a baby to point out this truth, I don't know. The Torah belongs to each of us individually and all of us collectively. As soon as one claims the Torah as their own, the study of it takes on a different, more personal meaning.

The stories and lessons presented in the Torah are as relevant today as they were when the Torah was first presented to the Jewish people. These stories come to life in the classroom when everyone participates and takes an active role in their own Jewish education. Not in the sense that they are acted out or put on as plays (although certain stories lend themselves to that method of explanation), but they come to life as they are filtered through each person's frame of reference. Even children as young as the students in my class can contribute interesting interpretations of the Torah stories. They may not have lived extensively, but they have lived enough to have experiences to reference when studying. For what second or third grader has not encountered extreme jealousy? What elementary student has not been faced with the temptation to take something that was forbidden to them? What middle school student has not encountered a clique where favoritism is rampant?

While these situations may not be exactly as those presented in the Torah stories, it opens the door for the younger students to ask those "what if" questions and become active learners of the Torah. It is my job, then, as their teacher, to help my students cast off the constraints of self-consciousness and allow the "what-ifs" to flow without fear of criticism. The insights that these young children can provide are amazing. And it is when they are allowed to make their own connections that the study becomes exciting for them, as well.

Torah study is an extremely important part of being Jewish, no matter what your age. This is the beauty of it. Because every day is a new experience with a new frame of reference from which to draw, every day provides the opportunity for every student, old and young, to accept the Ultimate Gift that keeps on giving

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