Archive for April, 2014


I would guess pretty much everyone who spent their childhood in a Jewish household has memories of Passover seders. Almost all of us took our turns as the youngest child at seder reciting the “Four Questions.” They are really not four questions, but one question with four answers, Ma nishtana halailah hazeh mikol halailot? “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This is immediately followed by another “child” oriented piece – the 4 sons (or children) and the different ways each is taught about the story of Passover.

There is a lot in the seder that revolves around children. Children are an intrinsic part of the ritual. Children are sent to find the Afikomen, a child is usually given the task of opening the door for Elijah. Further, think about the different pedagogical tools in the seder. There is the telling of the story (maggid). There are teaching songs (Dayenu is a song about not expecting too much from God, Echad Mi Yodei’a is a song that teaches some basic Jewish literacy), there are experiential pieces (think the drops of blood for each plague). Even the food provides lessons about aspects of the story as well as how Passover is connected to recognizing the agricultural cycle. The entire seder, really, is a tool to teach children about the basic Jewish story of the move from slavery to freedom, covenant with God, our commitment to justice for all, and some basic Jewish ritual.

All of this is a way to carry out the instructions in the fourth Mishnah of tractate Pesachim. “If the child has insufficient understanding, his father instructs him…” What follows is pretty much the exact wording of the “Four Questions” segment from the Haggadah. Finally the Mishnah tells us, “according to the knowledge of the child the father instructs him.” That is exactly what happens during the seder. By using the various teaching methods described above, methods that utilize the senses, reading, listening, singing – different kinds of children can each carry away central lessons from the seder. Children of different learning styles are given the opportunity to learn. The section about the 4 sons is just a reminder that there are different kinds of children with their own needs and ways of learning. The seder, with its variety of experiences, becomes a model Jewish classroom. The seder is a critical educational part of creating the next generation of caring Jews.

The Talmud is very clear about the value of children and the obligation to tailor teaching methods to the needs of the child. The Talmud teaches, for example, that a lesson should be repeated even a hundred times if there is one child in a class that is having difficulty learning it. Think of this as kind of a Jewish version of “no child left behind” many centuries before the phrase became popular in America. And that is the truly sad thing – only the phrase is popular in America, not actually converting the concept into reality.

Politicians pay lip service to education. It is a popular issue to support. But the reality of our schools is in stark contrast to the rhetoric offered. Here, I think, is where our country could learn something absolutely critical from Jewish tradition. If we fail in the task of instructing our children, we fail in creating the next educated generation that can advance our society. I am seeing this as a sad, stark reality every week when I go to an elementary school to tutor a little first grader in math.

His classroom is an impossible environment in which to teach or learn. It is an old style “open” classroom, which contains 4 classes in each corner, with open common area in the center. The buzz from around the room is constant, and the teacher struggles to keep the attention of her students. In the first grade corner are 19 students and 1 teacher with no aid. The curriculum demands things that first graders are not developmentally ready to do. For example, in January the teacher was attempting to teach the concept of “carrying” in addition. The little boy I tutor was so frustrated by his math worksheet, he just scribbled on it. The children are expected to read and comprehend word problems, which would be great if all of them had the sufficient reading skills. When I questioned the teacher, she said the curriculum assumes all the children learned to read in Kindergarten.

Therein is the real tragedy in all of this. No one cares about the individual needs of the students. Well, actually, the teacher does. She expresses her frustration to me every time I am in the classroom. I consider her a saint. She feels a personal responsibility for the success of each child. She brings in snacks from her own home for children whose parents do not send snacks to school for them. I have never seen her lose patience with a child. But the system is rigged for her to fail, not to succeed. Between a curriculum divorced from the reality of child development, too many students with no aid, and a classroom detrimental to controlling the class let alone teaching, many of these children will just not learn. Their needs, their learning styles are ignored.

As these children begin to fail, they will be labeled, much like the way we label the children in the seder. Some will be called “wicked” because of their resistance to teaching methods that do not help them. Some will be called “simple” because they are just not understanding the material. What I have come to realize is that these labels are really the indicators of our own failures in educating them. I have to wonder about the little boy I tutor. If he is not able to grasp basic math, the frustrated scribbling on his math worksheet will turn into graffiti on walls as a teenager. Right now he really wants to learn, but the day will come when his sweetness will fade, when his desire to please will turn to anger. We will have lost this child.

Why is this night of seder really different from all other nights? It is the yearly reminder that all children are valuable; all are teachable. We have only to exert the effort to help them learn.

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For a long time I have been a huge fan of the cartoon “Peanuts.” I used to own a bunch of collections of cartoon strips run in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but they have long been lost. Around my 13th birthday in 1967 (May 29, 30, and 31), a series of strips ran that has always stuck with me; probably because I first read them at a very impressionable age.

In the first strip Charlie Brown sees Linus patting birds on the head. The birds love this. Charlie Brown goes up to Lucy and says, “Your brother pats birds on the head.” POW! Lucy levels Charlie Brown. In the last frame of that strip he says, “Some people are pretty sensitive about their relatives.”

The next day’s strip opens with Linus patting a bird on the head. The bird is sighing with contentment. Lucy comes up to Linus screaming, “What are you doing!” She tells him people are coming up to her saying “Your brother pats birds on the head.” She yells at him to stop doing it. She walks away from Linus in anger. In the last frame a bird sticks out his foot and trips her.

The last strip in the sequence has Linus talking to Charlie Brown. “What’s wrong with patting birds on the head?” he asks. “It humiliates your sister,” responds Charlie Brown. “I can understand that,” says Linus, “but what’s WRONG with it. It makes the birds happy and it makes ME happy…so what’s really wrong with it?” Charlie Brown stares at Linus for a panel then responds, “No one else does it.”

I love the layers of meaning in this series of simple comic strips. Here is what I think is the p’shat or plain sense meaning of the series. Linus is going to be Linus no matter what anyone thinks about him. My friend and colleague Rabbi Brian Michelson says that Linus is not afraid to take off the mask most of us wear to the outside world and just be himself. He questions why others can’t see things as simply as he does.

The remez, or hint of something a little bit more is this: Altruistic Linus just wants to make others feel good. He does not discriminate against anyone – be they person or animal. He just wants to bring them a little happiness. Doing those simple deeds is fulfilling to him. I love it when I am Linus. Lucy is a control freak who gets upset when people do not conform to her standards of behavior. She places herself as judge and arbiter of what is appropriate. I sometimes behave like Lucy without even thinking about it. I then have to question the Lucy in me. Why am I reacting that way? What is it I think I am trying to control? Why am I not more accepting, go with the flow? Charlie Brown is the innocent messenger. He tells people what they sometimes do not want to hear. Often he gets slammed for it. We often look at Charlie Brown as a bit of a schlemiel, the hapless person who cannot keep from stepping into the mud. But I think Charlie Brown is admirable. He will say the truth even if he suffers for it. To be Charlie Brown is often very hard and I have to really motivate myself when it is time to be him.

The drash, or explanation of all of this is a question. How often are we Linus, Lucy, or Charlie Brown? All three exist within each of us. How do we balance these different personality traits? Where ever we fit in this comic strip says much about who we are and how we relate to others.

Now for the sod, the hidden meaning to all of this. There is Torah everywhere. It is all around us. Even in the comics.

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