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The Art of Inquiry

Posted on 12/20/2013 @ 02:18 PM

What does the Shema mean? So what’s this week’s Torah portion about? What does Judaism have to say about people experiencing homelessness and poverty? Why isn’t chicken parmesan kosher?

So often we are tempted to give an answer to these questions. And while giving teens and colleagues information and guidance is important, helping them work through exploring the question is even more educationally valuable. It’s the educational equivalent of giving a man a fish or teaching him to fish.

Let’s use an example from this week’s parsha, Parshat Shemot, the first Torah portion in the book of Exodus, to explore this idea:

“It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens. And he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, one of his brothers. He turned this way and that, and saw that there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:11-13).

What happened? The simple reading of this passage is straightforward enough: Moses began to empathize with the Hebrew slaves, he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave mercilessly, he checked to make sure nobody would see him, and then he killed the Egyptian to protect the Hebrew slave. OK, Done.

But, if we hold off a bit and not answer the question straight away, but delve a bit deeper, we may learn even more.

“…he turned this way and that, and saw that there was no man…”

What happened? 1. He wasn’t looking because he was afraid somebody would see him – he was looking because he wanted to see if anybody would be doing anything about this injustice. When nobody else did anything, he intervened. A passage in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 2:6) supports this reading: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” Moses acted because he saw that nobody else was going to act.

2. One might also interpret “that there was no man” literally – the Egyptian’s behavior was so morally reprehensible that he has been degraded in Moses’ eyes to less-than-human. This reading is supported by what happens next – Moses is able to kill the Egyptian. Had Moses regarded the Egyptian as a person, it would have been more difficult for Moses to take his life. We see this illustrated in several examples throughout history when a persecuted people are “dehumanized,” and the persecution becomes easier for the oppressor. Even The Hunger Games references this concept: “’You know how to kill.’ [Says Gail] ‘Not people,’ I say. ‘How different can it be [from killing animals], really?’ says Gail grimly. The awful thing is that if I can forget they’re people, it will be no different at all” (40).

There is so much depth in our tradition, and so much to understand and process – it’s often just easier to jump right to the answers. But when we do so we take away a great opportunity. It’s not just an opportunity to find new learnings, but the important process of learning to understand and create meaning in Judaism for oneself.

It is an authentically Jewish practice to wrestle with the words that we have inherited in our prayer and our Torah, and one of the most valuable roles we as Jewish educators can take is to facilitate our teens’ experience through their own process of inquiry.

This Shabbat Message was written by Ira J. Dounn, Director of Jewish Enrichment of BBYO’s Northeast Hub.

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