Category Archives: Leading Idea

Leading Idea: Seeing and Naming God

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Leading Idea: Seeing and Naming God

Hagar’s journey is unique in that she both sees and names God. Both this act of seeing (she seeing God and God seeing her; naming God) are obscurely phrased in Hebrew and open to different understandings and translations. The significance of this is captured in the reading by Rabbi Michal Shekel. Firstly, the difference between hearing and seeing is an important one – both literally and the way we use these terms metaphorically (phrases like “I see what you mean” and the notion of insight). Secondly, we have the significance of seeing another’s face. You might like to explore together why the face has unique status in terms of our access to others.
There are further resources in this booklet for exploring these: see: “Face”, p.45 and on naming and naming God. Relevant exercises and discussion plans can be found in those sections.

Leading Idea: The Experience of Laughter

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Leading Idea: The Experience of Laughter

In this text Sarah laughs be-kirba (בְּקִרְבָּהּ). What kind of laughter is this? The laughter is a ‘close’ laughter, translated variously as laughing ‘to herself’, ‘within herself’ or ‘at herself’. For Samson Raphael Hirsch it is “the natural, involuntary laughter which we can hardly keep back at the sight of some absurdity” (Hirsch, 1963, p. 352). The question is whether Sarah’s laughter is one of sheer incredulity or of irony, or something else. Two things happen later that further complicate things.

(i) She denies laughing (18:15). Why does she do this? What might this say about her laughter? (is she embarrassed? Is she in denial? Is it possible she was so amazed she was unaware of laughing? Or maybe, if she had worked to suppress her laughter, she now wanted to assert that she hadn’t really laughed because she had consciously controlled herself from doing so, keeping her laughter within.)

(ii) She speaks about laughter (21:7). When she gives birth to Yitzak a few verses later she says: “ God has made laughter of me, everyone who hears will laugh”. Here too the passage is open to different readings – is she saying that, in giving birth in old age, God has made her into a laughing stock and everyone will laugh at her (Hirsch), or that God has brought laugher to her and that everyone who hears will laugh with her in joy (Rashi)?

Those who read Sarah as fearing laughter tend to read her earlier reaction in the tent as a negative laughter, while those who read it as joy see her earlier laughter as incredulity or disbelief when told good but improbable news.
Sarah is not the only one who laughs. One verse earlier (Bereshit 17:17) Avraham ‘falls on his face and laughs’ when he is told he will have a child by Sarah. If Sarah’s laughter is inward, Abrahams laughter seems to be blatantly outward.

Several discussion plans and exercises explore the nature of laughter:

(i) One looks at how we laugh (where it happens in our body, the control we have over it, inward and outward laughter). This provides different resources for reflecting on how Sarah might have laughed be-kirba (בְּקִרְבָּהּ).

(ii) One looks at emotions that lie behind laughter and causes of laughter (insecurity, joy, embarrassment, etc). This looks at what Sarah might have been feeling as she laughed.

(iii) one looks at kinds of laughter (some distinctions to think about include whether the pictures shows people laughing with or at something, laughing as expression of joy, laughing inside or laughing openly, seeking to hide laughter, openly showing laughter, embarrassed laughter, laughing in amazement).

Leading Idea: Telling Lies

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Leading Idea: Telling Lies

When God asks Abraham why Sarah laughs Sarah denies that she did so. Is this denial? Embarrassment? Fear? A lie or… maybe even the truth (if she ‘laughed within’, managing to suppress her laugh, has she still laughed? (is she embarrassed? Is she in denial? Is it possible she was so amazed she was unaware of laughing? Or maybe, if she had worked to suppress her laughter, she now wanted to assert that she hadn’t really laughed because she had consciously controlled herself from doing so, keeping her laughter within.)

At face value this seems a pretty clear cut case of lying – yet god does not administer any form of divine retribution. Why does Sarah get no punishment? Could it be because it was in some way excusable? If so what would make it so? Sarah lies because she was yirah – in fear, or struck with awe – Can we be so overwhelmed that we lie without intending to? (it just slips out?).

The discussion plan explores lying and the texts that come after explore lies that seem to be good lies. Could Sarah’s lie be of this sort, If so, how would we have to understand the situation she was in?

Leading Idea: Sarah’s Miracle?

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Leading Idea: Sarah’s Miracle?

The text tells us that when Sarah gave birth to Yitzak she was 95 years old. Even if Biblical years are calculated differently, the story tells us she was past childbearing years, and of a ripe old age. Is this, then, a Miracle? If so, what kind of miraculous event is this? Use the resources on Miracles in Parshat Shemot to explore this (and yes I know we need some sources from women here – just having trouble finding some so if you do…..

Note, that the sources are for primary and high school – so pick ones appropriate to your age class if you take up this topic.

Leading Idea: Establishing (מֵקִים), remembering (לִזְכֹּר) and remembering in the future (זָכַרְתִּי)

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Leading Idea: Establishing (מֵקִים), remembering (לִזְכֹּר) and remembering in the future (זָכַרְתִּי)

In Verses 9:8-17 God turns his attention from Noah to himself. “As for me…” Within this passage he reflects on the act of establishing a covenant and remembering it – that is maintaining a covenant (keeping it over time), and the intention to keep it in the future (I will remember). God also reflects on the ‘sign’ (אות) , or rainbow, as representing the covenant (as a sign of the covenant), as a way of showing us of his intentions (it stands as a sign between me and you), and as a way of reminding himself of his covenant. These exercises and discussion plans explore these subtle yet very powerful distinctions.

Leading Idea: When is enough enough?

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Leading Idea: When is enough enough?

Sarai doesn’t do just one thing to Hagar; rather, it seems that she treats her badly time after time. Hagar finally runs away because she decides she has taken enough of Sarai’s harsh treatment. How do we make the decision that enough is enough? There are two things to consider here (i) When to draw the line and say “no more!” and (ii) What constitutes good reasons for leaving a situation or person. Here the question is not only one of quantity, but also a matter of deciding what factors are the relevant ones in the first place. For instance, two people might both ‘draw the line’ at eating one candy bar per day – but the relevant factor to consider for one person might be health, while the relevant factor for the other might be the cost.

Leading Idea: Consequences and Responsibility

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Leading Idea: Consequences and Responsibility

In verses 4-6 Sara speaks to Avram complaining of Hagar and Avram says to her “do what you want to do” – Sarai then treats her badly. Hagar then runs away.
In this passage Avram seems to take no responsibility for addressing the situation – is he then partly responsible for Hagar’s leaving? Our actions can have consequences we don’t foresee, but does that absolve us from responsibility toward the outcome?
The discussion plan “Consequences and Responsibility” explores the relationship between actions we take, their consequences and our responsibility toward the outcome.

Leading Idea: Going from – Going to

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Leading Idea: Going from – Going to

When you decide to move, does it make a difference if your reason for making the move is tied to leaving behind the place you are currently in, or tied to the place you heading toward? Sometimes the place we are heading towards is also a place we once chose to leave (coming home after camp, leaving the home town where we grew up, then coming back there later in life). Sometimes that ‘return’ is from a place our ancestors left generations before (Jews going to live in Israel, second or third generation immigrants returning to their parents/grandparents’ country of birth). Is a return to place always motivated by the desire to be there or can there be other reasons to ‘return home’?
Susan Babbitt, writing on American slavery notes that the decision to leave often also involves a bold step of imagination. In going to this involves the capacity to imagine one’s life differently from how it is, and perhaps to imagine yourself capable of things you have not yet done. To have both to desire change and some imagined life that you are moving toward. In going from imagination also comes into play, as it may involve playing out the consequences of staying where we currently are. Of course both might be the matter of implusive action (without much forethought) – but is that the case here?
Hagar has left Avram’s house and she is ‘on the road to Shur’ – heading back toward her place of birth, Egypt. It looks like she is fleeing from one home and returning to another home. Yet she turns around and returns to the place of conflict – her home with Avram and Sarai (and that doesn’t seem to turn out too well for her!). These discussion plans explore going form and going to and the reasons we might have for making these journeys.

Leading Idea: Rhetorical Questions

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Leading Idea: Rhetorical Questions
“Where have you come from? Where are you going?”

When the Angel comes to Hagar he asks: “Where have you come from? Where are you going?” Does the angel want an answer? Rhetorical questions are questions we ask when we do not expect (or even desire) an answer – rather, their intent is either: (i) to lead us along a path of reasoning (in which case the person asking the question then proceeds to answer it (e.g.; “Why am I saying this? Because…), or (ii) to point our attention to something we are already expected to know (e.g.; “Do you really want that third cookie?”).
In the case of Hagar, it seems the angel is asking the second kind of rhetorical question. So what is the angel seeking to get Hagar to think about? Hagar has left Avram’s house and she is ‘on the road to Shur’ – heading back toward her place of birth, Egypt. It looks like she is fleeing from one home and returning to another home. The question might be: “To what home should you be returning?” or “Where do you belong?”
Other cases of rhetorical questions in the Torah involve other pivotal events.

  • God to Adam and Chava in the garden of Eden, (Bereshit 9-13)
  • God to Cain “Where is Hevel your brother?” (Bereshit 4:9)
  • God to Moshe “Why are crying out to me?” (Exodus 14:15)

Leading Idea: Caring for our world

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Leading Idea: Caring for our world

This section of text about the Keshet comes after the flood – after God in his anger almost completely destroys the world. The Keshet is a reminder to God to avoid global destruction in the future. This raises a larger question about our relationship to the world and our care for it. Molly Cone’s poem invites discussion around our sensory experiencing of the world and our care for it. You might like to create your own poem or artwork that draws on the way your students’ own experiences of connecting to the world through their senses.