Our family decided to try learning Tanach together, following the schedule of the site http://929.org.il, which started the cycle with Bereishit 1 yesterday.  We read through the chapter pretty quickly to keep their interest, but asked questions as we went.  As in the past, I found that our children waste no time in asking questions that they don’t even realize get to the heart of some pretty complicated issues.

When we read about the sixth day, my eight-year-old daughter asked, when were the dinosaurs created?  I said, millions of years ago.  She then asked, were they created before Hashem created the world?  Wow…

I explained that the Torah is not meant to be what we would now call a scientifically or historically accurate reporting of what happened, but rather it is here to teach us a message.  In this case, it is telling us that man rules over animal.

But then my ten-year-old (who has been the student in most of this blog), one-upped me and said, no, the Torah is telling us how they thought the world was created.  And really, she is right.  The authors did not know about dinosaurs but decide to teach us a different moral lesson that didn’t involve them; they did not know about dinosaurs, and recorded a tradition of how the world was created, namely in six days by divine utterance.

Maybe both approaches are valid, though.  The authors also did not mean to record science or history, but rather to explain the world in the way they understood it, which has served as a message for us for all these thousands of years.


Simple Questions and Simple Answers

My daughter is often focused on whether the stories in the Torah actually happened, and over the years I’ve given different explanations.  Yes, maybe, probably not, we think so, yes but not in these exact words, etc.  I am often nervous about how directly to share ideas of scholarship that seem to remove the divine element from the text.  And sometimes a simple question can make me question my approach.

I read a standard verse (not sure which one) involving Moshe saying something to God.  My daughter asked, “How did they know?”  “How did who know?” I asked.  She said, “The authors.”  Ooh.  OK, two easy answers came to mind first.  Moshe wrote it, or God wrote it.  But I explained that just like anyone relating a story, they may have heard the story from previous generations, but in relating it, they may provide direct quotes that are not necessarily exactly what was said, but help tell the story.

I did feel bad about so explicitly giving an explanation that deviated from what seemed to be the simplest answer – Hashem wrote the Torah and He knows everything.  I discussed this with R’ David Steinberg of Project TABS, who had a really helpful insight.  He said, absent the narrative we grew up with where God dictated the Torah word for word to Moshe, is that really the simplest explanation?  It seems a lot simpler to say that people wrote stories, as people have done for millennia.  But, I asked, does that mean I’m telling my daughter that the stories aren’t true?  He said, how many stories are “true?”  And I think that’s exactly the point.  I am getting caught up in the same question my daughter is – is the text related historical fact?  And, it’s not.  These are stories.  Not just any stories – they are the foundational myths of our people, passed down from generation to generation, and preserved and revered because they are so meaningful to us.  But don’t look to the text for direct quotes of what Moshe said to God.

Let’s skip this part…

A lot of what I’ve chronicled on this blog has dealt with how to teach the Torah, which clearly was not written for children, to a child.  Issues such as sex, murder, rape, death, etc. all have to be dealt with in their own ways.  So far, I’ve managed to cover everything.  Some things had to be tweaked, like replacing sex with marriage.  That doesn’t always work so well, but it was good enough.  I’ve never had to skip over anything because I couldn’t figure out a way to teach it to my daughter.

Until now…

We had just gotten up to parashat Tazria.  My wife and I used to teach chatanim and kallot, and we had always started with the sections for Vayikra 15 and 12 to introduce the topic of hilchot niddah, so we are very familiar with the texts.  My daughter is now 10, and I told my wife that I was about to explain periods to our daughter since we’d be learning about menstrual bleeding.  My wife wasn’t happy with that.  I have to agree – this is probably something she should do, and I’m not sure combining this sensitive topic with hilchot niddah, zava, and yoledet is the best approach.  So, we decided to skip those two parshiot.  Dodging that bullet made Aaron’s two sons being burned to death seem like a breeze!

My daughter asked why we were skipping those, and I told her that Mommy wants to learn those parshiot with her.  So, we still have to figure out when she’ll have “the talk” with her, and hopefully come back to these parshiot another time.

Finally Finished Shemot

It took a really long time, but we finally finished Shemot on Simchat Torah.  It took so long for a few reasons:

  • The second half of the book is “boring”
  • We started building a mishkan to make it interesting, but that took a lot of time
  • My daughter was learning to read, and wanted to read herself, which is great but took a lot longer
  • My daughter in general lost interest

Although we started learning when she was five, we’re now running behind on our goal to finish before her bat mitzvah.  So, we’ll see what happens.  But I’m going to need ot push to do it more often and for more time in order to finish.

How is this bread different?

As in past years, I baked matza with my daughters on erev pesach.  Someone else at our Seder also baked his own matza, except he made hard matza, and we made our usual soft matza.  I want filled with pride when my daughter picked up one of his matzot and asked, why is this matza so hard?

Some of our matza:

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I experimented with making chapati.  This is an Indian bread made without yeast, just flour and water plus a little salt and oil.  It is then quickly fried in a pan, about 30 seconds on each side.  If it weren’t for our practice of avoiding matza ashira, I think this would qualify as matza.

Here were my chapatis:

An interesting discussion ensued when my daughters asked if this what matza, and I explained the differences and similarities between this and our usual matza.  The kids were really excited and asked a lot of questions about what exactly qualifies as matza.

Another successful lesson in experiential Judaism!

Reward and punishment

Our learning has gone very slowly lately, but I’m trying to get my daughter back into it. We recently started Ki Tisa, and had an interesting discussion this morning.

We read 31:14, “מחלליה מות יומת”, stating that a Sabbath violator will die. My daughter immediately said, “that’s not true.”  Lots of people don’t keep shabbat.  I wasn’t sure how to answer that.  I didn’t want to just say that she is right and we don’t believe that people who violate shabbat will die, even though that’s what the Torah says.  I thought for a bit about whether this verse is a commandment to beit din, a prediction, a threat, etc.  The second part of the verse refers to karet, stating that someone who violates shabbat will be cut off from their people.

I ended up separating the two concepts.  I told her that when there was a Jewish court, they could have killed someone for violating the shabbat, though that was very unusual.  But now, if someone breaks shabbat, they are separated from their people in a practical way.  I talked about how we see everyone in shul, at meals, and at the park on shabbat, but someone who doesn’t keep shabbat might be out shopping or at work, and thus they aren’t part of the shabbat community.  This way, the verse goes from being a Draconian threat or an empty prediction, to a natural consequence that I hope will motivate shabbat observance in a positive way.

Making the boring parts interesting

Over the last few months, my daughter has been less interested in learning together, usually preferring to spend our time on other things.  So, when we got up to Parashat Terumah, I thought for sure we were done.  There’s no way she would sit through lists of cubit measurements; plus, what lessons could I really extract from it?

I came up with an idea that so far has worked spectacularly well, which is to try and build a model of the mishkan together as we read the “instructions” in the Torah.  I looked online and found a couple of very expensive kits.  Aside from the cost, these are likely to include all kinds of interpretations of the text, and I’d rather us connect directly to the text by trying to figure it out.  I am completely unskilled at arts and crafts, and made my first trip to A. C. Moore to pick up supplies.  My daughter was really exciting about the project.  In fact, yesterday when I came home from work, she was jumping up and down asking to learn the parasha!  I could never have imagined so much excitement for Parashat Terumah!

Here is our ארון:


We are building it to scale of one amah to one inch, and using whatever materials we could come up with that don’t require tools, so we’re using poster board for walls.  The rings were from the jewelry supply area, the poles are lollipop sticks, and the keruvim are basically stick figures made out of wiki sticks.  What I like about them is that all we know from the Torah is that the keruvim were facing each other, and spreading their wings towards each other.  So, the stick figures are as reasonable as any other depiction.  Everything is spray-painted gold.  My daughter even picked out a pretty rock to put inside as the “edut.”

I’m hoping her excitement lasts, and look forward to posting more pictures.

These are the rules

It took us a long time to get through Mishpatim, as the material was more difficult than the story format of most of the Torah up until this point.  In addition, some of the rules were arcane, such as those around slaves and oxen.  It did provide some material for discussion about how different life was back then, and how things like slavery were acceptable then, or discussing fathers’ involvement in their daughter’s marriages in the time of the Torah.

Other rules were more relatable, but the frequent use of the death penalty was hard to explain.  When I read the verse “מכה אביו ואמו מות יומת”, my daughter said, “even kids?”  I explained that the Torah is just saying that you really shouldn’t hit your parents.

The most challenging “rule” (my chosen translation of mishpat since it seemed relatable) was 22:15-16, wherein a man who rapes a woman is required to either marry her or pay money to her father.  In most cases, I was able to replace sex with marriage, but that really didn’t make sense in this case.  I ended up explaining it as a man hurting a woman in a way that would make someone else not want to marry her, which is pretty much how they would have seen loss of virginity back then, without explaining an awful lot of difficult topics for a seven-year-old.

We finally finished the parsha recently, and it was time to move on to Terumah…

Talking about God

I haven’t written here in a long time, since my daughter had lost interested in Chumash for a while.  Mostly it was due to learning how to read.  She was starting to learn to read Hebrew, and would want to read instead of me when we did Chumash.  But since she was just learning to read, it would go very slowly, and we’d usually only cover a few pseukim.  Then, her English reading really picked up, and she wanted to spend every night reading books.  Both of these instincts were great, so I encouraged them and let Chumash slip, only occasionally finding the time to do a little bit.

In the last week, her interest came back, and we finished up parashat Yitro which we had started many months ago.  We learned the story of the revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments.  (Though, my commitment to sticking to the pshat made me conflicted about calling them the Ten Commandments, since the Torah does not do so – the phrase first appears 14 chapters later in 34:28.  But sometimes I need to make concessions to using common phrases and concepts.)

A question that comes up a lot is around anthropomorphism, where she asks if God really speaks, or why it talks about God moving from place to place when as we all know, Hashem is truly everywhere.  I think it’s pretty common to see at least some of the language in the Torah as anthropomorphic.  For example, God does not really have a hand, so we say He took us out of Egypt with a “strong hand” only metaphorically.  Same thing with God “going down” to see what was happening in Gan Eden.  But what about God speaking?  He doesn’t have a mouth, of course.  But is “ויאמר ה’ אל אברם” to be taken literally – did God really speak to Abraham?  If not, how literal are the stories to be taken?  And of course, the big one – if God doesn’t literally speak, does He literally write and dictate books?

If we understand any or all of this metaphorically, then the reason the Torah is written this way is “דברה תורה בלשון בני אדם”, that the Torah is written to be understood by people.  Given that, when teaching my daughter, I can take one of two approaches – either continue the tradition of “speaking in the language of people” and tell her that yes, God speaks and travels and gets angry and has regret, and leave the complexity of religious philosophy for a later date.  Or, I can explain to her how I understand it, which is that human language and human beings can’t understand or comprehend God.  So, if these ten commandments are from God, then somehow they were transmitted from the realm of the divine to that of us humans, but exactly how is something we can’t fully understand or express.  The best we can do is say that God came down from the sky onto a mountain and recited them.

It might be too complicated for a seven-year-old, but I think that most adults have not moved on from childhood understandings of God, so if not at seven, when would I start?

To end on an amusing note, at some point when I was discussing these concepts with my seven-year-old, my three-year-old came into the room and started asking what I was saying, so I tried explaining it to her, but she just kept asking, “What are you saying?” Then, my seven-year-old helpfully interjected, “you wouldn’t understand – you’re too little.”

עד מאה ועשרים

Sometimes, the most innocuous or seemingly uninteresting verse will bring up the most interesting discussions.  Today, I started parashat VaEra with my seven-year-old daughter, and we got to Shemot verse 6:16, which reads:

וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי-לֵוִי, לְתֹלְדֹתָם–גֵּרְשׁוֹן, וּקְהָת וּמְרָרִי; וּשְׁנֵי חַיֵּי לֵוִי, שֶׁבַע וּשְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה.

Levi had three sons, Gershon, Kahat, and Merari, and Levi lived 137 years.  My daughter asked, doesn’t the Torah say that people will only live 120 years?  She was referring to Bereishit verse 6:3, which reads:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, לֹא-יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם, בְּשַׁגַּם, הוּא בָשָׂר; וְהָיוּ יָמָיו, מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה.

I was really impressed with this question.  I’m not sure why it didn’t come up earlier, as there are plenty of people before Levi who live longer than 120 years.  It could be because I recently learned that verse with my five-year-old daughter, so my older daughter may remember it from then.  Whatever brought it up, I love when my kids think of the same questions that scholars have struggled with for centuries.

I have been getting more comfortable presenting ideas based on modern scholarship to my daughters.  I remember hearing a lecture a long time ago about when to introduce these ideas to children, and the suggestion was high school or college, once they are able to comprehend more sophisticated ideas.  However, I am leaning towards starting early.  Firstly, as I’ve discussed before on this blog, I don’t shy away from discussing complex ideas with my daughters, figuring that they will comprehend what they can, and perhaps come back to the ideas later, but at least I am giving them an honest answer.  Secondly, I am not so convinced that the traditional explanations are any simpler, and this is a great example.

I told her that this was a great question, and explained what a contradiction is.  I further explained that there were different traditions about things that are presented in the Torah, and they don’t always agree.  One tradition is that people can’t live longer than 120 years, but another tradition said that some people a long time ago lives for hundreds of years.  She then asked when the Torah was written, and I told her that it took hundreds of years to complete, but it was likely complete by around 2500 years ago.  Of course that number has little meaning to a child, but other than that, the explanation seemed pretty simple.

I actually wasn’t aware of the traditional explanation, but I looked it up afterwards.  Rashi explains that the verse in Bereishit doesn’t mean that people will only live to be 120 years old, but rather that the generation of the flood will have 120 years to repent.  Rashi anticipates the question, which is that this is hard to understand, as just before this passage, the Torah states than Noach is 500 years old, and he is 600 when the flood begins.  The solution is that the decree was given 20 years earlier.  There is no textual proof for this – but it seems to be the only way out of the contradiction.

However, I think this is a pretty complicated kvetch, and at least as hard to explain to a seven-year-old as the concept of a contradiction.  Furthermore, I’d be curious to see the traditional explanation for this, but it is pretty clear that culturally we accept the plain meaning of the verse, as we all wish people to live until 120.  Where else does that tradition come from?  In fact, the verse seems quite prophetic, as to this day that seems to be the limit to how long a person can live, though it must have been much rarer back then to live so long.

I will have to see how my “simple” explanations go as time goes on, and if the discussions become more complex, or bump against things she is learning in school.  But I also can imagine a scene where a friend in college is having a crisis of faith, having just discovered the Documentary Hypothesis, and my daughter replies, “Yeah, I knew about that when I was seven – so what?”

As an aside, it is interesting that she noticed this fairly obscure contradiction, but missed the more commonly observed one that involves two other nearby texts.  We had just read Shemot 6:3, where God introduces himself with His new name, saying that no one before knew that name:

וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.

But in Bereishit 4:26, it says this name was used first by Enosh (and of course later the Avot do as well).

וּלְשֵׁת גַּם-הוּא יֻלַּד-בֵּן, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ אֱנוֹשׁ; אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה.

Not to mention that this is the second time God reveals His name to Moshe – this already happened in Shemot 3:13-15.  I briefly mentioned these contradictions as well to my daughter which she found interesting, but not much discussion ensued.