8 teachings I want my 7th grade students to remember.
Dear Hebrew School Graduates,
I tried to make our time together engaging and fun, while at the same time deepening your understanding of Judaism. Nevertheless, I know that a year from now almost every one of you will have forgotten 90% of what you learned in my class, and some of you may have forgotten this amount already!
Therefore, I write to remind you of what I think were the eight most important teachings I relayed this year which I hope you will remember and one day integrate into your life. In fact, I hope you re-read this letter every year because every additional year of maturing will bring more understanding and appreciation its content.
The primary source of Judaism is the Torah, but how do we know that the Torah is true? An answer is: the Torah makes several claims, guarantees, and predictions that a human author could never make. To cite just three examples:
The first example: The Torah states that in order for an animal to be Kosher it has to have split hooves and chew its cud. The Torah goes on to warn that there are three animals which chew its cud but do not have split hooves (the camel, hyrax, and hare), and there is one animal which has split hooves but does not chew its cud (the pig) (Vayikra 11:1-7). What is amazing is that zoologists have identified over 5,000 different species of mammals they have not found any contradiction to what the Torah stated over three thousand years ago.
The second example: The Torah instructs that on each of the Pilgrimage festivals–which are Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot–every male should go to Jerusalem, but not to worry because the enemy will not attack during one of these festivals (Shemot 34:23-24). In the 410 years that the First Temple stood, and in the 420 years the Second Temple stood, there is no record of any of Israel’s enemies ever attacking during one of the Pilgrimage festivals.
The third example: Torah instructs the Jewish people to let the land rest every seventh year. This Mitzvah is called Shemitah. But again, not to worry, because God will make sure that the harvest of the sixth year will be a bumper crop so there will be enough food for the sixth year, the seventh year, and well into the first year of the next 7-year cycle until that year’s crop is harvested (Vayikra 25:20-23).
No one making up a religion would ever dare include these latter two commandments with such a guarantee because all it would take is the promise not coming to fruition one time to castes doubts on the religion. Only a Divine author could fulfill these guarantees, and has!
To learn more of the evidence that points to the authenticity of the Torah, I highly recommend Rabbi Shmuel Waldman’s Beyond Reasonable Doubt: Convincing Evidence of the Truths of Judaism (NY: Feldheim Publishers, 2002).
Observing Judaism is not all or nothing. Just because someone does not keep kosher outside of their house does not preclude him/her from keeping kosher in their house. Just because someone goes out on Friday night does not mean that a woman should not light Shabbat candles nor a man recite Kiddush. They still should because every Mitzvah has eternal value and one will be rewarded for performing it.
What makes a Jew a good Jew is that s/he is growing in their Jewish knowledge and observance.
3. Jewish Education
The amount of Judaism one learns in Hebrew school is not enough to equip a person with the necessary knowledge to confront the various philosophies, isms, and the challenges one will face in high school, in college, and in their adult life.
Although selected Bible stories and excerpts from rabbinic texts have been studied throughout one’s years in Hebrew school to learn multiple Jewish values, the amount of actual text studied was less than one percent of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. The Tanakh in Hebrew is 1,000 pages, plus thousands of rabbis and scholars throughout Jewish history have written scores of books, essays, commentaries and d’vrei Torah which are necessary to understand the meaning of the text. Also, if one added up all of the excerpts of the Talmud that was studied in Hebrew school it would amount to the equivalent of just one or two pages, but the Talmud is 5,422 pages (or 2,711 Daf). Plus, an entire library can be filled with books just on Jewish philosophy.
Additionally, topics such as God’s Providence, the purpose of creation, why bad things happen to good people, what is real pleasure, what is love, the ingredients for a good marriage, medical and business ethics, Jewish mystical teachings, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict are just some of the topics that are not covered in Hebrew school but such wisdom is necessary to know at different times in one’s life.
As one can see, Hebrew school was just the beginning of the introduction to Judaism. There is a lot more to learn! In fact, the Torah commandments us to study something about Judaism every morning and every evening.
An excellent source for learning more about any Jewish topic is the website Aish.com which receives 1.5 million unique visitors every month. Their essays are short and easy to read, and many of the videos that I showed in class came from Aish.com.
In every prayer service we praise God, make requests from God, and thank God, however, these are only modes of prayer. Ultimately what we are doing when praying is connecting to God. Therefore, I view praying as meditating.
When we pray/meditate it helps us become a better person, and regularly going to synagogue builds community, but one can pray/meditate anytime and anywhere. Saying a bracha (blessing) before consuming something is a prayer and an act of awareness and appreciation. The more one fosters a sense of awareness and appreciation, the greater amount of pleasure one will have in his/her life.
A great way to bring more awareness of God in one’s life, and to take steps towards building a relationship with God, is to get into the habit of saying Modeh Ani immediately upon waking up, as well as saying the Shema with the V’ahavta every morning and evening.
The importance of Shabbat can be inferred from it being one of the Ten Commandments, and Ahad Ha’am’s statement “More than the Jews kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews” has manifested to be true throughout Jewish history.
Shabbat is difficult for a 13-year-old to understand. There’s no way to describe the weekly tranquility and transformative power of Shabbat. Shabbat is one of those things one needs to experience to appreciate.
I did not start making Shabbat special until my senior year of college when I started going to Friday night services and dinner at Hillel. Over the next seven years I incorporated more and more of Shabbat into my life, and in doing so, I came to view Shabbat less and less as being restrictive and more and more as being spiritually liberating, and I ended up fully Shomer Shabbat.
By growing in my Shabbat observance when in my twenties I had the benefit of contrasting the meaning and experience of Shabbat with the mundane of the work week, and in my thirties when I became a father I further appreciated Shabbat for the built-in family time. If God would appear and tell the Jewish people they no longer had to keep Shabbat, I, along with 99.9% of those who keep Shabbat, would still keep Shabbat anyway.
Judaism in many ways is synonymous with Shabbat. As a teenager, a great way to incorporate Shabbat in one’s life is for females to light Shabbat candles (18 minutes before sunset), and for males to recite Kiddush over a grape juice. By doing these Mitzvot one is proclaiming that God is real, He created the world, and we help sanctify Shabbat.
Only certain animals, fish, and fowl are kosher — which are mostly the ones that do not prey on others — and Jewish Law requires that animals and fowl be slaughtered in a very specific manner which results in the quickest and least painful death.
By keeping Kosher, one is reminded that one should not take an animal’s life for granted, nor should we take anything for granted. In many ways Kosher is Judaism’s compromise with our desire for meat and the ideals of vegetarianism.
Over ninety-five percent of what one wants to eat a brand with a kosher certification is available. The only time I feel inconvenienced by keeping kosher is when I am traveling and I cannot grab a slice a pizza. In these instances, however, I am reminded that I have a different value system than everyone around me — which includes a high regard for animals.
7. Ahavat Yisrael (Unconditional Love of Every Jew)
Rabbi Akiva taught that the Mitzvah to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself (Vayikra 19:18) is the most important Mitzvah. Maimonides codified that this is fulfilled by having the same care and concern for all of our fellow Jew’s money, possessions and well-being as we have for our own money, possessions and well-being. This is a high standard to strive for.
A teaching of the Baal Shem Tov helps us better understand this Mitzvah. The Baal Shem Tov taught that every Jew has not only an Animal Soul–which animates us and gives us desires, but also a second soul called a Nefesh Elohim (literally translated as “Godly Soul”) which is our Jewish soul. A Jewish soul is part of God inside us while it still remains connected to God, and at the same time is also connected to every Jew’s Jewish soul. Since every Jew has a Nefesh Elohim, on a soul level there are no differences between Jews. An application of this teaching is that we should not judge fellow Jews based on the type of clothes one wears, nor on their appearance and mannerisms, nor on their popularity (or lack of), rather, we should view every Jew as a soul.
Additionally, just like we know negative things about our self but this does not stop us from loving our self, the same should apply for our fellow Jews. A way to live this Mitzvah is to not speak Lashon Haror. Lashon Haror, in short, is saying something about X to Y that X would not want that said about him/her. Even if it is factual information it is not permitted. The fact that it is true makes it Lashon Haror, otherwise if it was false information it would be defamation which is also forbidden. Thus, if one would view every Jew as a Godly Soul there would be less gossiping, and one would be fulfilling one of the greatest Mitzvot of Judaism which is unconditional love of every Jew.
8. Jewish Identity and Pride
One of the most popular Jewish songs today is “The Chanukah Song” by Adam Sandler in which he mentions sports stars and actors who are Jewish (original 1994; and new versions in 1999, 2002, 2015). For many Jews this gives them pride in being Jewish. Many Jews are also proud that one-third of Nobel Prize recipients are Jewish, that the State of Israel is world leader in the various sub-fields of agriculture, the environment, and high-tech, and that the Israel Defense Force has by far the highest moral standards of every military in the world.
In addition to the above “cultural” reasons, there is a “religious” reason why a Jew should be proud to be a Jew. The reason is: God chose the Jewish people for a special purpose, specifically, to teach the world about Monotheism (belief in one God) and morals, and to make the world a better place. Through the Torah–which both Christianity and Islam accept as a divinely given text–we gave the world values such as the value of life, world peace, justice and equality, universal education, the centrality of the family, responsibility for the environment, animals, orphans, widows, and the infirmed; plus the idea of a weekly day of rest to physically and spiritually rejuvenate.
These religious values are so important in American civilization that a verse from the Torah was cast onto the Liberty Bell (Vayikra 25:10), and the 10 Commandments were put on many government buildings throughout the United States (although in most cases the commandment of Do Not Murder was mistranslated as Thou Shall Not Kill.)
For a Jew to fulfill his/her mission of teaching the world about God and morals s/he does not need to stand on a street corner preaching, nor do any similar actions. A Jew just has to live a Jewish life. By a Jew continuing to learn more about Judaism, making Shabbat special, growing in their observance of Kosher, praying, not speaking Lashon Haror, engaging in community service, and being ethical, this activates a moral osmosis effect on our surroundings and improves the world.
A Concluding Thought
There is one more teaching I want to remind you of and I hope you will remember it throughout your life. I did not make it its own section because the topics in this list are actually subsets of this teaching. The teaching is: God loves you, and he gave you the gift of Judaism so you will know how to get the most real pleasure out of life and know how to live a meaningful life.
Like everything in life, the more one puts into something the more one gets out of it. For example, the more one studies, the better his/her grades (maybe not on every test but overall), and the more one practices the fundamental skills of a sport the better s/he will be at that sport. With Judaism, however, the spiritual rewards from doing Mitzvot are received not only in this world, but also in the next world.
Please keep in touch. I love hearing from my former students.