Posts Tagged ‘education and Torah’


One of the underlying themes in the book of Deuteronomy is the responsibility inherent in our choices – they will result in blessing or curse. After chapters of retelling the Israelite wanderings in the wilderness, and recounting the law code derived from experiencing revelation, parashat Re’eh begins with these words, “See, I give before you blessing and curse.” The Ramban explains this as meaning God provides a way for us to attain either a blessing or a curse – and the words “before you” signify that the choice is ours to make.

Deuteronomy outlines all the tools necessary to attain blessing. The overarching command is simply to follow the commandments, but what is that exactly? Well, it includes establishing a complex and fair justice system, and allowing for conscientious objection in the time of war (parashat Shoftim) It means fighting poverty by any means available including remission of the poor person’s debt every 7 years (parashat Re’eh). It means just treatment of captives taken in war (parashat Ki Tetzei), and it includes many other passages that reinforce the idea that our love for God, required in the words of the V’ahavtah (chapter 6), is best expressed by how we treat each other. Parashat Nitzavim – next week’s Torah portion – teaches that these demands are not hard to understand. They are neither “in heaven” nor “across the sea.” They are of this world and we are capable of handling them. It is in this week’s parashah, Ki Tavo, that we are given an outline of the consequences of our choices. We read the lists of curses, if we choose poorly, and the list of blessings if we choose wisely. The consequences for choosing poorly are fairly nasty, including calamity, disease, defeat by our enemies and the rain from the skies turning to dust, wiping us out.

Our tendency is to dismiss this kind of theology as childish. We all know people who are good who seem to be constantly cursed as well as those who are bad who always seem to come out ahead. The traditional rabbinic answer that this injustice is worked out in the olam haba (the next world) not only seems like a copout, but actually counter to the plain sense meaning of the words of the Torah. Moses (and God) are talking about real time physical consequences for failure to follow Torah. Maybe there is justice in the afterlife, but do you really draw comfort from that? Don’t you think there might be a Torah message that is just a bit smarter, a bit more on point?

I do.

I believe Torah is trying to make us face something very real as opposed to soothing us with the fairy tale of an afterlife in which all is made right. Deuteronomy in particular, rubs in our faces the consequences of making choices. We have the free will to choose what we will do. This week’s laying out of the blessings and curses, I think, is Torah’s way of telling us that life can be really hard, really tricky – and that the choices we make actually do have consequences. We need to learn the responsibility of bearing the results of those choices. We need to learn that life is filled with challenges, moral, physical, mental – the list is endless. It is our choices that determine if those challenges become “blessing” or a “curse.”

There is an additional layer that Torah does not address. Sometimes the choices we think are correct and will lead to blessing actually result in a curse. For this reason, I believe, our rabbinic tradition, indeed Judaism in general, emphasizes the need for constant questioning, for not accepting things at face value. Whether it is Abraham arguing with God over the fate of Sodom and Gemorah, or the Talmudic stories of rabbis arguing with God or questioning God’s nature, we are pushed as part of our religious obligation, not to accept things at face value. This means our education, both religious and secular needs to be sharp, preparing us for the task of processing an increasingly complex world.

All of this, the reality and responsibility of facing our choices as well as not just accepting things at face value, was brought into a sharper focus by a conversation I had this week with one of my congregation’s members, who teaches undergraduate courses in classical literature at Florida State University. She told me about the discussion going on regarding giving “trigger warnings” to students about course content. Trigger warnings are a qualifier put into the course description or the syllabus to warn students that there is some material they might find offensive or disturbing. For example, at Santa Barbara University in CA, where there are a lot of military veterans enrolled, the warning would be about literature or presentations containing scenes of war or violence. Women who might have experienced rape would be warned about book content that discussed rape. The idea is to prevent those who have gone through some difficult experiences additional post traumatic stress.

But is this really a good idea? Or is this one of those seeming blessings that is actually a curse in disguise? I think it may be the latter. The last 20 years has been a time in which more and more parents are over protective of children, preventing them from taking ANY risks. The blessing of protecting children can actually be a curse. If children are not allowed to fail, they cannot learn to cope with life. Wendy Mogel writes about this in her book, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.” Children need to be challenged in order to improve the quality of not only their work, but their choices. I have noticed a lot of the objection to the Common Core standards is over the frustration of students trying to reason through the material. Parents object that the answers are not rote, but require more complex thought. This is called “critical thinking.” It is necessary to navigate an increasingly difficult world. Trying to dumb down school content, giving awards for simple participation or “A’s” for just showing up in class, only creates a generation that cannot cope with life. It is a generation that thinks it deserves to stand on 3rd base even though they have not hit a triple. This results in adults who think they deserve top jobs with no experience or training.

College students who are supersensitive to violence and rape from reading “The Odyssey”, or to the anti-Semitism in “The Merchant of Venice” are the adult consequences of over protective childhoods. Colleges should be physically safe for sure, but intellectually they need to be places where students (who are adults not children by the way) are challenged by new ideas, by different experiences and confronting the reality of the world in the rather safe world of literature and learning. Allowing challenges to course content every time a student feels uncomfortable with it, is just training them to be drones in an overly litigious society – and that is a curse to be sure.

This week’s parashah opens with the formula we are to recite upon bringing the first fruit offering at Shavuot. It begins with the words, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” It recounts the suffering of our forefathers, the slavery in Egypt, and how God responded to their suffering. One of the key reasons to recite it is to understand our history, including all of the hardships and struggles. We cannot appreciate the blessing of what we have now without feeling a sense of our struggle. Maybe it hurts, but it is necessary. Perhaps now we know the greatest blessing of the text of the Torah – it gives no trigger warnings.

Shabbat shalom.



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