Unhewn stones: ‘whole’ or ‘peaceful’ stones, the adjective שלמות being of the same root as שלום, ‘peace’. The Altar, whose purpose is the forgiveness of sin, can only fulfill its mission when peace and brotherhood reign in Israel.
Rabbi J.H. Hertz Commentary, p.862 (quoting Mekhilta of R. Yishmael, – a passage in the name of R. Johanan ben Zakkai)
Leading idea: Stating it plainly
What does writing ‘very plainly’, or ‘very clearly’, mean? It might mean writing on the plaster with clear lettering, in a way that can be read from afar – or it might mean ‘clearly’ in the sense of ‘easily understood’ in uncomplicated, plain language. Writing law in a public space for everyone to say could mean either or both of these meanings of ‘plainly’.
Laws are often written in complicate language – this is as true for our own legal system as it might have been for Moses. Do we have a responsiblity to communicate laws guiding our society in language that everyone can understand? The instructions given here state that the law is to be written clearly and plainly. The Rabbinic tradition interpreted this to mean that it should be translated into the spoken language of the people hearing the text.
The discussion plan ‘Knowing how to act’ explores where in the children’s own world civic norms and rules are posted ‘plainly’ and asks how such public behaviors are meant to be learnt – who has the responibility for making sure people know how to follow them? whose authority lies behind them?
Very Plainly: The Talmud notes ‘Very Plainly’ So that the words of the Law could be easily read and understood ‘In 70 languages’. Translation enabled the words to be understood by those unable to read the Hebrew original. The words ‘baer hetev’, demanding that the words on the stones be lucidly explained, gave rise to the school of Sopherim, the Scribes, whose office it was to read Torah distinctly, giving the sense, causing the people to understood the reading (Nehamiah VIII, 8). In time this activity resulted in the various Targumim [translations into other languages]. Rabbi J.H. Hertz Commentary
“And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people… and when he opened it all the people stood up. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. And all the people answered Amen,Amen lifting up their hands. They bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Yeshua and Bani [and others and the Levites] explained the Teaching to the people, while the people stood in their places. They read from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it and giving the sense, so they understood the reading”. Nehemiah 8:6-8
Do not use iron in fashioning an alter
For iron is created to shorten man’s days, and the altar is created to lengthen man’s days: what shortens may not rightly be lifted up against what lengthens. (Mishna, Middot 3:4)
Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, offers a different interpretation. He quotes Isaiah 44:12-13:
The craftsman in iron, with his tools, works it over charcoal, and fashions it by hammering…He forms it with scraping tools, marking it out with a compass. He gives it a human form….
Discussion Plan: Inventing New Rituals
- Do you have any rituals that are specific to your family? If so, what are they and how did they come about?
- Do you have a bedtime ritual? A homework ritual?
- Do you have any rituals in your classroom or school? If so, what are they and how did they come about?
- Is there a difference between habits and rituals?
- Do rituals involve emotions? actions? reasons? (something else?)
- If I develop a way of doing something that only I know about, can I call it a ritual?
- Do rituals need to be connected to a religion?
- Can rituals be empowering? If so, in what ways?
- Does a ritual need to be a shared understanding between people?
- Can any repeated practice become a ritual?
- Can we create new religious rituals?
- Could the same ritual be practiced in two different religions?
- Are rituals important to you?
- Do you think rituals ought to be important? Why / Why not?
- Do you think human beings need rituals?
Activity: Form and meaning – creating ritual
In small groups – decide on a value that you all think is important. Create an action or a ritual that conveys this value to those taking part in it. Keep in mind that you will be leading the rest of the students through this action/ ritual, so keep it manageable given the time and resources you have available.
Exercise: Form and Meaning
If you wanted to capture the meaning conveyed by an object in the way you constructed it, how would you go about:
- Making a sign to remind people to recycle
- Making Challah for Shabbat
- Designing a synagogue
- Baking or icing a cake for a wedding
- Making a notice board for student notices in your school
- Creating an artwork to be placed in the school foyer to mark the beginning of the school year.
- Designing your school entrance
Leading Idea: Capturing the meaning of things in how we construct them:
How are form and meaning connected? In this passage we are told of two purposively built objects in which the ‘how’ of their construction seems to be connected to the ‘what’. There is the alter for peace-offereings that is to be made of unhewn stone on which no iron has been used, and ‘great stones’ that are to be erected at Mount Ebal, they are to be plastered and then have the words of law written ‘plainly’ on them.
In regard to the stones, there is one tradition that sees the plastering of these ‘great stones’ occurring in multiple layers. This reading is offered because of the seeming repetition of this instruction in the text. Here the text is not seen as a repetition, but rather, as two sets of instructions to be done one after the other. First the stones are plastered and covered with the exact words of law. Then the stones are to be plastered over the first writing, and then the law is written a second time in ‘plain’ words for everyone to see. If we were to see the construction happening this way, what might be the meaning that is being conveyed in this multi-layered construction?
Providing an opportunity to discuss the ways in which meaning and form might be connected in objects in the student’s our own environment may lead students to a richer discussion of the connections between form and meaning in this text.
Discussion: Establishing new civic norms.
Do you think the following civic, or societal, norms were in place 30 years ago? If not, how do you think they came about? Who put them in place? In what ways are they moral or cultural norms? If they are moral norms, what values do they express?
- Facebook etiquette
- Expecting there to be a security check at the entrance to schools
- Sharing the bill when going out on a date
- Swapping clothes with a friend
- Lighting candles at the sight of a tragedy
- Considering it wrong to hit children
- Having recycling bins in public areas
- Having service learning programs in place in schools
- Judging work in terms of productivity (rather than satisfaction or gainful employment)
Discussion: Norms and rules in our own institution
What norms, rules, habits and rituals do you see around you in your school or synagogue – to what extent do you think they necessary for the school/synagogue to function? In what ways do they convey its values? Are there any that you think go against the school or synagogue’s stated values?
Discussion: Norms and rules in our own institution
What norms, rules, habits and rituals do you see around you in your school or synagogue – to what extent do you think they necessary for the school/synagogue to function? In what ways do they convey its values?