Weekly D’var Torah – 9/8/17

On Wednesday, I traveled to and from New Jersey to be with my wife, Tamar, her extended family, and layers upon layers of friends, to mourn, celebrate the life of, and bury Tamar’s grandmother Sylvia Schlussel.  Tamar and her brothers, my sisters-in-law and I, and her seventeen great-grandchildren, knew her as Savty.  As one of Tamar’s brothers mentioned at the funeral, Savty, who defined herself both in terms of her professional career as an early childhood educator and in the role she played as the wife and partner of a Rabbi and educator, treated every person – and especially every child – she met with such love and caring that her real grandchildren needed to use the possessive form of the Hebrew word for grandmother:  סבתי / savti / my grandmother.

In her eulogy, as echoed in the other reflections by the Rabbi of my in-laws’ synagogue and other family members who spoke, Tamar reflected on Savty’s educational methodology.  Like so many other early childhood educators, she provided unconditional love and nurturing for decades of young children while working in less-than-ideal conditions for less-than-ideal pay.  Tamar and her brothers tell stories of encountering, all over New Jersey and New York, in classrooms and synagogues and elsewhere, former students of Savty who remembered her twenty, thirty, even forty years after she taught them, and the way their faces would light up when remembering what she had done for them so long ago.

Tamar reflected on her own experience studying education and embarking on a career as an educator in her own right.  As Tamar herself learned about the approach known as “progressive education,” she discovered that her grandmother’s techniques and approach were deeply rooted in an educational tradition.  Tracing its academic origins back to the work of John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky, this approach to child rearing, to passing along knowledge, dispositions, and responsibilities to the next generation, is truly an application of ancient approaches to parenting and how many indigenous communities, outside the framework of a western “formal” education, raise their children to this day.  As Jews we take credit for versions of this approach through the four sons section of the Passover haggadah and verses like Proverbs 22:6: “Guide/educate the child along their own path.”  And our methodology at Ramah Wisconsin draws deeply on this educational approach for everything we do.

At the funeral, two different Rabbis alluded to the powerful opening section of this week’s Torah reading, Ki Tavo, where the Torah instructs us on the details of the ritual to be performed by a farmer upon bringing the first products of the harvest to the Temple as a sacrifice.  The language of the ritual, which has the farmer recount in the first person the core narrative of Jewish history was borrowed by the haggadah as a central text for study and likely inspired the classic understanding, itself a profound statement of progressive education, that all of us should ourselves as if we had been slaves in Egypt.

For good reason, no one mentioned the main section of this week’s Torah reading, the short list of blessings and long, gruesomely detailed list of curses that will befell the Israelites if they observe or transgress God’s commandments, respectively.  The section is jarring for, among other reasons, its obvious part in a supercessionist understanding of the Hebrew, Biblical God as angry and vengeful. The list of curses is so caustic that the Masoretes (6th-10th centuries) who established our written and chanted versions of the Tanach, actually softened the language for the public chanting of the text on two occasions.  As with so much in life, context is everything, and reinterpreting this section for the 21st century can give it fresh life. The blessings and curses are the product of a period in Jewish history with little autonomy.  Birth order and the tribal affiliation of one’s father dictated much about life, including land ownership and access to religious office.  One’s ability to participate in religious practice at all (the categories of tahor and tamei) had nothing to do with things someone consciously did.  Conversion didn’t exist – you were an Israelite if you were born one.  The world was metaphorically set in stone, and the blessings and curses served as a reminder of the consequences of taking responsibility for the small freedom of choice one had.  Moreover, as Neil Gillman compellingly lays out in his great work on Jewish theology, Sacred Fragments, the different covenant narratives in the Torah are based on treaties from the ancient Middle East dictated by a conquering King to a new vassal state, and one of the characteristics of those treaties is to stipulate the consequences – positive and negative – of following through on one’s end of the “bargain.”

Today’s Judaism is about choice and about our autonomous ability to exercise free will.  I say this not as a description of the “Sovereign Self” or the conscious awareness of free will that is one of the defining characteristics of modernity.  Rather, Rabbinic Judaism is consciously constructed so that anyone can become a student of Torah, that those who wish to can become Jews, and that our actions matter in every way.  Through this lens, the blessings and curses of this week’s Torah reading are what we like to call at Ramah “taking the long view.”  They are an embrace of the ups and downs of life, both in terms of the opportunities and challenges we face and in terms of our own growth and development as human beings.  As we all know, that growth and development never happens linearly.  It is about stepping forward and then back, about great breakthroughs and slipping down slopes.

Savty’s work with her students shares much in common with our approach at camp and one that many schools have come to adopt in different ways as well.  It is an approach built on the premise that toddlers share much in common with adults and that adolescents share much in common with toddlers – that the best practices and techniques of discovery and community-building that are so obvious and ever-present in early childhood settings would be wisely used in high school and college settings.  And, of course, these are some of the foundational principles of our summer camp, whose goals go far beyond a summer of recreational fun.

Approximately three thousand years after the events of this week’s parashah, through moments of great adherence to God’s laws and others in which great swaths of Jews missed the mark, we are still here.  As the Jewish people has aged, we have developed and grown and reimagined ourselves and our relationships with God.  And we continue to struggle with the same challenges our ancestors did.  In the prime of a (God-willing) eternal middle age, we share so much in common with the equivalent of the Jewish infants in the wilderness.  We take the long view.

May Savty’s memory be for a blessing, and may her essence be bound up in the bonds of eternal life.  May the ever-present God comfort her children, sisters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

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