Friday, May 26, 2006

A Shavuot teaching moment

by Nance Morris Adler

A couple of years ago I was asked to teach a session for families at the beginning of our tikkun leil Shavuot. This session was for kids from about age 4 up to maybe middle school. I decided to teach about God’s various names in the Torah and in Jewish tradition and the importance of God revealing a new name to Moses at the burning bush. I began by telling the story of Moses at the burning bush and his reticence to accept God’s calling and then read Sh’mot 3:13-15. These are the verses where God reveals God’s name as “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh”. We talked for a few minutes about what life was like for the Hebrew slaves and what their reaction might be to Moses coming and announcing that “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” was going to come and help them escape their slavery. I then gave the kids and their parents a list of names of God from Jewish tradition (unfortunately in English only) and asked them to read over the names together and decide which name they would want God to have if they were going to trust him to lead them out of Egypt. This list is from the Higher and Higher curriculum by Steven M. Brown and contains about 100 appellations for God. The younger kids in particular picked names reflecting healing and nurturing. Older kids will pick names that reflect strength. I did the exercise with first graders this year without the list and having them make up names. Many of the names were actually those of their fictional superheroes but all reflected a need for God’s name to promise strength and protection. I closed by explaining to both groups that the actual meaning of the name revealed to Moses has been much debated and that it is seen as possibly meaning that God is perhaps what we need God to be and therefore the needs reflected by all their different choices could be met by one God named Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.

I was impressed by the awareness of the first group, particularly among the younger children, of the likely physical and emotional state that the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Their need for a God who was a healer and a caretaker, rather than a superhero, showed the important place God holds in their lives as a source of comfort and healing. They were more focused on the immediate needs of the people rather than how they were actually going to escape from Pharaoh. My first graders on the other hand – particularly the boys - were more concerned with the God that is celebrated in Shirat Yam – God Man of War. Considering the developmental state of the group, this was not really a surprise. God with light sabers to fend off Pharaoh and his army is not a surprising response from little boys who spend all of recess playing “Star Wars”. Perhaps the presence of parents in the first group made them a bit more reflective and a little less silly, but I think that their response are a truer reflection of our real expectations of God. When I use this list of God’s names with 9th graders they are almost universally repelled by “God Man of War” and universally drawn to names that imply God is a maker of Peace. Children, who are reliant on adults to care for them and to make the world a safe place, tend to expect the same from God or, especially as teens, they may find little use for God in their lives. Quite rightly, I believe, they identify the Hebrew slaves of Exodus as being emotionally the same as children, as they prove to be in the Wilderness, and attach their own expectations of God to this group.


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