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Torah Commentary
Bo (January 19, 2013)

Abra Lee, Coordinator of School and Family Learning

AS THE MOTHER OF two Chinese-Italian-American Jewish children, I take great pride in sharing our family’s rich cultural heritage. In each new season, I seek meaningful ways to blend our multicultural background with contemporary Jewish living so that my children may have the opportunity to develop their own Jewish identities and to inspire within them the desire to live Jewishly and pass on to the next generation the Jewish values that guide our lives.

With the Chinese New Year rapidly approaching, our family soon will begin preparing for the celebration. We will feast on ritual foods that symbolize renewal, prosperity and good wishes. The extended family will gather to remember the generations of Lees before us. As I think about what this year’s celebration will include, I am reminded once again of the parallels between Chinese and Jewish traditions. In fact, each year, as the Chinese community prepares for its New Year, the Jewish community reads from the book of Exodus, which recounts our own story of renewal as a people freed from slavery. We, too, mark the occasion with symbolic foods and a family feast.

Parashat Bo tells the tale of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart and recounts the final three plagues, which include the death of the first-born Egyptians. Our ritual of observing the Passover festival and the seder are derived from this parashah as well. As the first-born Jew in my family, this parashah reminds me of my role and responsibility toward the next generation. Furthermore, as an educator, I can see that there is something more here. In our sacred writings and rituals of Passover, there is the proof-text in support of experiential education.

In the Religious School at Temple Emanu-El, our curriculum development focuses not on rote memorization of facts, famous figures and dates. As a member of the Coalition of Innovating Congregations, our mission is to provide our learners with meaningful and impactful experiences that become the tools to transform learning into Jewish living. This methodology, known as “whole-person learning,” is concerned not only with what the learner will know at the end of a lesson but also with what the learner will do and believe. And, it allows learners to develop a sense of belonging. This all seems very philosophical, when in fact there is a great deal of science behind the process of learning.

In simple terms, the brain first retains information that is essential for survival. Next, the brain retains information regarding emotion. This means our learning must be meaningful for us in a personal way. That is why experiential education is not only more engaging for the learner, but it also is scientifically more likely to produce successful results. What Jewish activity could be more experiential than participation in a Passover seder, rich with symbolism and activities that evoke all the senses? Still, there is further support in Parashat Bo that whole-person learning is critical in Jewish education. Exodus 10:2 states, “And that you may tell in the ears of your sons and daughters, and their sons and daughters, what things I have wrought in Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them, that you may know that I am The Lord.”

This is a curious statement: “Teach your children that you may know...” It seems counterintuitive. Shouldn’t we first know something in order to understand it and then teach it? On the contrary. In order to understand a concept best, we must be involved actively in the learning process. Retelling the story of our Exodus in every generation is not enough. We must eat unleavened bread, remember the bitterness of slavery while eating bitter herbs and taste the salt water to remember the tears of our ancestors. Yet, we also look forward with hope for renewal, while we eat new spring greens and eggs.

So, in celebration of the Chinese New Year, I will close with one of my favorite Chinese proverbs: “Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand.”

For more information on how to create a meaningful and engaging Passover experience for your family, please contact our Department of Lifelong Learning.

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