Bnei Mitzvah Artists

Parents and fellow educators, this update is for you! 

Our class is a hands-on group of creative artists and thinkers. So when we studied the Shema at our December meeting, we focused on the ways artisans have expressed the ideas in tangible form.

First we discussed the meaning of “one” and veered off into a bit of numerology.

Then we learned the Shema’s secret teaching about how to listen:

Sh… Mmmm … Ah!

Get quiet, reflect, understand!

The second paragraph of the Shema, the “v’ahavta” says, “Tie them as a sign upon your hands, and let them be amulets between your eyes.” We looked at the inside and outside of tefillin, handmade leather creations that place the very words of the Shema in small boxes on our arms and our foreheads. I brought enough sets for everyone. Jacob showed us how to wear them, tied to our left arms and our foreheads. When everyone was ready, and I led the group in a quiet reflection on each box. “Feel the box on your forehead…how can you think in kind ways that will help make the world a better place? Feel the box on your arm…what actions can you do to bring more mitzvot into the world?”

The final paragraph of the Shema, the “vayomer,” says, “make yourselves fringes on the corners of your clothing…see them and remember God’s mitzvot and do them!” This sounded a bit like “tying a string around your finger.” We recognized that macramé artists had developed a special style of tying, and that fabric artists had developed many beautiful garments – talitot – on which to hang the tzizit.

Each of us chose a talit, and we practiced putting it on with the correct blessing. I led the class in another reflective moment, sharing my personal practice of preparing for prayer. “Imagine that this is the day of your bar or bat mitzvah. What are your hopes for the service today?” And, with our talitot on, we sang the Shema together one last time.

After we respectfully put away our talitot, we learned to tie tzizit, using blue and white yarn tied to the back of the chair. I suggested that each student hang their tzizit at home in a place where they could look at it and be reminded to do mitzvot!

At our January meeting, we picked up where we left off. With the help of iTunes, I played three different new tunes for the Shema, from three different countries. Three out four class members preferred the upbeat Ugandan melody (performed by the Abayudaya choir – click & listen!). As one student said, “When Moshe says, ‘Listen up, people, it’s God talking!’, why should it be a downer?”

Next we honored each student individually by exploring each student’s parashah with a short reading, discussion, and bibliodrama.

For Daniel W’s Toldot, we played the scene where Esau negotiates away his birthright for soup and bread. Our audience concluded that Esau wasn’t very interested in the birthright. In every iteration of the scene, Jacob easily won the negotiation. And Esau wasn’t really very hungry. He hadn’t eaten only since breakfast, and seemed full after a bowl of soup and a piece of bread!

For Maya’s Tazria-Metzora, we played the scene where the priest conducts the purification ritual for the person healed of skin disease. Some students took great pleasure in miming a zombie-like style of affliction! We discussed the symbolism of the two birds involved in the ritual. The one that dies represents the unhealthy part that the healed person is leaving behind, and the one that lives represents the healthy part that can now “fly free.” Alternatively, the bird that flies free carries the impurity far away.  We discovered that no one in the class approves of killing a bird to help ritually purify a person. So we acted out a ritual where both birds live.

For Kai’s Ha’azinu, we focused on the scene where God informs Moshe that Moshe will die without entering the promised land. We looked back at the story where Moshe strikes a rock in anger. As we played the scene, we discovered it was not fair to punish Moshe for one mistake when he had done so much for God! Why couldn’t Moshe at least enter the land and then die? In our scene, Moshe simply refused to follow God’s instruction to climb the mountain and die.

When we got to Daniel S’s Ki Tavo, we were stuffed with cookies and drama-ed out. We read the terrible curses that will come upon anyone who doesn’t follow the mitzvot. Two seemed especially random – if you get engaged, someone else will sleep with your partner! Enemies will come and take your sheep! We looked back at the text and realized that some of the curses were simply the opposite of the blessings, which included abundant animals and children.

After all that heavy duty intellectual work we relaxed by making individual yads – pointers for Torah reading. There was no specific instruction beyond, “enjoy these materials!”

Images: (1) class notes by LDK; (2); (3) table of talitot by LDK; (4) our materials by LDK; (5); (6); (7)
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