Monday, December 16, 2013

A Final Thought About Bereshit – Intentional Blessings

We have just completed the book of Bereshit. As we come to the end of the narrative of our Patriarchs and Matriarch and are ready for the transition into the narrative of the nation of Israel that will come to be the context of our continued development, we have an important opportunity to consider the nature of individual intentional blessings, namely those the Patriarchs bestow on their own, and by association on us.

We begin the Parsha with the blessing of Manashe/מנשה and Ephraim/אפרים . Once again we see a repeated pattern of the “switching” of the intended blessings, at least according to the perspective of Yaakov, repeating the pattern of the blessings bestowed upon him and and his brother Esau by his father, Yitzchak. In Chapter 48 we read as follows:

17 And when Joseph saw that his father was laying his right hand upon the head of Ephraim, it displeased him, and he held up his father's hand, to remove it from Ephraim's head unto Manasseh's head. 18 And Joseph said unto his father: 'Not so, my father, for this is the first-born; put thy right hand upon his head.' 19 And his father refused, and said: 'I know it, my son, I know it; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; howbeit his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.' 20 And he blessed them that day, saying: 'By thee shall Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh.' And he set Ephraim before Manasseh.

As we know, on Erev Shabbat when we bless our children, it is exactly in the name of these ancestors that we bless our boys. What is the precise nature of this blessing we are intentionally bestowing on our children when we bless them so that they should be as Manashe and Ephraim; and our girls when we express our hopes that they should emulate Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah? Is the hope we express generic and prescribed or is it individuated and intentional?

Think about that for a moment in terms of your own family and I will move ahead in the Parsha to the other blessings, one that is given for each of Yaakov’s sons. The first two of Yaakov’s sons to be blessed will be Reuven and Shimon, interestingly enough, the very sons indicated in 48.5 when Yaakov declares that he will bless Manasshe and Ephraim as his own even though in fact they are his grandsons, the sons of Yoseph, not amongst his own twelve sons.

Reuven is Yaakov’s first born, yet what does he tell him? That though he should have the preferred position and double portion of inheritance designated for the first born, he will not receive this, due to his unseemly behavior. He crosses boundaries regarding his father’s wives and concubines and does not fulfill the initial hopes placed in him.

We read in Bereshit Rabbah 82.11 that The monetary rights of the firstborn [to receive a double inheritance in the Holy Land] were taken away from Reuven, and given to Joseph, but not the genealogical birthright, as it is written, The sons of Reuven, the firstborn of Israel (Numbers 1:20)

While this is difficult, it is important to note that clearly not all is lost. In fact according to the Gemara in Berachot 7b we see that Reuven’s very name expresses the hopes that he would in fact see practices that were not accepting and appropriate and understand the differences between them and his own path that he was destined to take.

Reuven, according to Rabbi Eliezer, was the name chosen by Leah who said, "See the difference between my son and my father-in-law's sons, Esav. Although Esav sold his birthright willingly, Esav harbored hatred toward Yaakov (Genesis 27:41), whereas my son surrendered his birthright to Joseph against his will, yet he was not jealous of him. On the contrary, Reuven heard about the trouble to befall Yoseph, and he rescued him from their hand" (ibid. 37:21) (Berachot 7b).

Now, Reuven is truly a complicated individual, and this we should understand for we are all such a mixture of so many elements, as are our children as well. On the one hand, some suggest that he sleeps with one of his father’s concubines, a definite no-no. However, others would have us understand that he merely went into his father’s and Bilhah’s private areas, crossing a line of privacy. This is the position proposed in Shabbat 55a consistent with Chazal who are often reluctant to sanction those that are deemed to be our most treasured ancestors. At any rate, he knew that he did something untoward and accordingly, we are taught that he already knew that he would lose his privileged position as the first-born son due to this serious infraction. Perhaps, this makes his saving of his brother Yoseph, when his other siblings were so ready to have him out of their lives for good, all the more noble and righteous.

We learn as follows in Bereshit Rabbah 84:19

Reuben returned to the pit (Genesis 37:29). He had been busy with his sackcloth and fasting repenting for his sin with Bilhah. The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to him, "Never has a person sinned before Me and repented unless faced with punishment. You were the first to repent, your descendant shall be the first to speak of the greatness of repentance." This refers to his descendant Hoshea, who said, "Return, O Israel, unto HaShem your God" (Hoshea 14:2) [i.e., repentance reaches unto the very Throne of Glory] (Bereishis Rabbah 84:19).

Yaakov goes on to continue to bless his sons. The next two, Simeon and Levi also are given a rebuke within the context of their blessings for their part in the debacle involving Yoseph, having instigated the sale as well as later devising the problematic scheme against the sons of Shechem. Therefore, the words “their weaponry is a stolen craft” is indicating the Yaakov knew about their actions and is acknowledging this awareness.

Yehuda is the next son to be acknowledged. He considers his own misdeed regarding Tamar and we are told that he draws back from fear of what his supposed blessing will be. Yet he indeed is told he will be a leader and it is his name that we care today as Yehudim. Perhaps, it has been suggested that when he offered himself as a replacement for Binyamin earlier when Joseph asked for him to be brought to Egypt, he showed aspects of the man he could truly be.

So where is the blessing in so many of these final words of father to his sons? Many commentators, including Ibn Ezra, question the use of blessing at all here.

One explanation is offered by Tractate Berachot, Chapter 6:

Rebbi Meir2 says, “From where [do we know] that just like you have to bless [God] for good [things that happen to you], so too you have to bless [God] for bad [things that happen to you]? The Torah teaches us, ‘… that which Hashem, your God, has given you …’ (Devarim 26:11).3 Your God [meaning] your judge. For every judgment that He judges you, whether positively or negatively.”4

Further, the Rabbis and scholars at the Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center have considered this and suggest that we look to the following supportive ideas to further our thinking and understanding regarding the nature of these blessings:

Or Ha-Hayyim comments: "Even though we see that he did not [seem to be blessing] Reuben, Simeon, or Levi, [one could] say that his harsh words to them was their blessing." This idea can be developed to say that even if a father's reproach contains harsh words and indications of punishment, nevertheless it is said out of the "hidden love" that a father feels for his wayward son, and its intention is actually for the son's good. Therefore, it is also considered a blessing.

A[nother thought is that by stating] "'Cursed be their anger,' (49:7) Jacob cursed only their anger [not them]."[5] Yet the approach which says this unit of text deserves to be called "Jacob's blessing to his sons" meets with another problem: Jacob begins his address with the words: "Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come." In other words, what he intended to say are words about what the future holds. But after Jacob's words, Scripture says: "and this is what their father said to them, and he blessed them..." That would imply that these were words of blessing, not prophecy. Indeed, the Sages explained that from the outset Jacob wished to say to them something quite different from the words he actually uttered.

What else might that be? So now, let’s return to our own families. We all know that loving those most dear to us also entails TRULY SEEING THEM. This often means separating ourselves from our wishes for our children and instead yielding to their visions of themselves or the paths they may take in life that may not conform to those we have mapped out for our “ideal children.” These in fact are our REAL CHILDREN and for our blessings for them to be real, we have to acknowledge them – their good points, their differences from us, things that they do which may not meet with our approval or what we think best, and yes, those negative qualities that they may even have inherited from us.

Let’s complete the circle and return to Menashe and Ephraim. One conventional explanation as to why we bless our boys in their name and not in those of the established Patriarchs as we do for our girls is that they lived in a secular society as the children of royalty, with their father in such a high position in Egypt. Yet, they were able to simultaneously retain their religious values and the observances of their upbringing according to Chazal. This is a most practical and meaningful balanced legacy that we want to pass on to our children.

As for Reuven, power is a dangerous thing and we are taught and must teach our children to use it sparingly and thoughtfully. Reuven WAS the leader when it came to saving Joseph and for this he is blessed. Simeon and Levi may have had noble reasons for what they did regarding Shechem but this does not excuse their actions. We therefore acknowledge that Yaakov was upset with their intentions and resulting actions and wanted them to use their position carefully and thoughtfully, considering what the outcomes of their misguided actions would be. Life and becoming is a process, not a stative position.

This is our blessing to our children.

May they be like Menashe and Ephraim in being part of the world around us as well as faithful Jews. May they learn the lessons of Reuven that we are to be different than others and not act in the ways we see around us if they are not noble. May they control their cruel thoughts, as justified as they may think they be, in the legacy of Simeon and Levi. May they not take things into their own hands without carefully thinking them through, as Judah did. May they not laugh at G-d’s plan as Sarah did and show more compassion than she did towards Hagar and Yishmael. May they not incite family conflict as Rivkah did. May they promote family peace as we would have liked Rachel and Leah to do. In short, we bless our children, their humanity, their potential, what we like and consider good about them, what we may not like and consider not-so-good about them, the potential their future holds, and in the end the blessing of their lives as our children….. just As Yaakov did for his children, so too we do for ours.

Shabbat Shalom!

Note: I was honored to be able to share This D’var Torah at Congregation Mekor Beracha in Philadelphia (a Modern Orthodox shul) on Shabbat VaYechi, 2013.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Education Should Be A Blessing

A few months ago in Parade Magazine (and in other similar publications), there was a series of articles about what is wrong with education. I read through the various elements , ranging from misappropriation of funds to ineffective leaders to being more and more out of touch with how our many different students learn and so on. Further, in our technology age, the very face of education must look so different to keep up with the vicissitudes in our daily worldly lives. Sadly, as an institution, we are failing in way too many instances. So to respond to these many ailments that are plaguing our attempts to prepare our children for the future that awaits them, on Sunday August 10, 2013, seven ideas were presented in this series of articles: 1. We need to make sure that our students are fed and are nutritionally strong. 2. LEARNING should be emphasized, not testing. 3. We must teach 21st century skills. 4. We should FLIP the classroom by having students listen to the “lectures” on their technology and use classroom time for meaningful interaction and cooperative efforts. 5. We must say YES to recess! 6. We should all get creative! 7. We should focus on the process of education!

Here is a program for going into our next chapter of collective progress. This all makes so much sense to me. In my work with bringing Best Educational Practices to Jewish Education through the consulting work of BeYachad, which I founded and have directed for more than two decades, I have always worked on what we call “Thinking Outside of the Box” both for myself as an educator and for those with whom I have been privileged to work.

So why is it that at this point in time, when technology is at the “ready and able” to allow us to focus more on our students and the process of their educational growth and with so much psychological sophistication, are more and more people dissatisfied with what is happening in educational venues. About 15 years ago I was quoted in a national magazine as being opposed to Home Schooling due to the socialization aspect of education, the opportunity to learn with and from others, the change to negotiate and collaborate and so much else. Now, unfortunately, I am not so sure.

For one thing, too many superb and amazing educators are not in positions they should be while those that are looking at the “business” of education are in positions of power and decision making instead of having creative and innovative soulful educators in these positions. To be sure this is not the case everywhere, but the point cannot be ignored that it is the situation in too many institutions.

Last year, I took an hiatus from Jewish Education and participated in an experiment, the creation of a ROTATING BLENDED CYBER CHARTER SCHOOL (which I had worked for the previous two years to bring into being). These schools are brand new and only exist in a few places in this country, combining the best of face to face education with the advance and resources of cyber learning. This is definitely a matter of thinking OUTSIDE OF THE BOX and when we began this experiment, I immediately “got it.” I looked at the faces of our students, who were strictly an urban population. They DID NOT LOOK at all like the pretty faces from the pretty homes of well fed and well clothed children who were well tended by Mom and Dad, one of whom would have lunch on the kitchen island in the many well done commercials for cyber schools in Pennsylvania, the state in which we live.

Our students were from the populations generally not able to avail themselves of the opportunity of cyber learning and as for a quiet pretty place to learn at home, for many of them, you can forget that option as well. We worked hard, this amazing faculty and I, and actually achieved in some cases miraculous results, ranging from students who entered a good seven to eight years below grade level and were able to progress as much as THREE entire grade levels in three months, students who just learned to write with us, oppositional students who became so cooperative and developed warm relationships with wonderful caring faculty and so much else.

Yet, we were plagued by the State’s lack of understanding of what we were doing and eventually it was clear that ROTATING BLENDED CYBER EDUCATION was way too far ahead on the learning curve for this state. What was preferred were the business managers of education. How sad! We were feeding students with food (since some of them came from homes where this was limited) and knowledge, being creative, being available virtually 24/7, using and teaching skills of technology, using interdisciplinary learning, flipping classrooms, created a values based and intentionally diverse learning environment of respect and so much else -- in the end, none of this mattered to the powers-that-be.

I was taught by my parents and have always felt that Education should be a blessing. Unfortunately too many have lost this notion and schools are being pulled by the agenda of whoever runs them, often NOT informed by the students and families who need the Blessing of Education. What do we do about this? I know there are beacons of light out there, but until this becomes the norm and not the exception or not enough of the norm, we have our work cut out for us.