The Kids Are Alright
by Jhos Singer
About a decade ago I was coaching kids in the Coastside Jewish Community’s b’mitzvah program on drash writing. To be perfectly honest, I’m a terrible coach. I can write a compelling drash, but I have no idea what I’m doing technically. I don’t write or think according to any system or paradigm. I don’t follow writing rules. I just write and rewrite and rewrite…until I’m happy with it, or the deadline has come and I just have to send it in anyway. While it works for me, it’s not a great method for passing along these skills to kids!
So, when it came time to work with a particular young person, I had some trepidation. But, after some loving prodding by Julie, I finally made an appointment to read the kid’s drash and offer what paltry help I might. I read through the Torah portion, Emor, in preparation—and then the dread set in.
Parshat Emor is long and loaded with rules that pertain to the priests who can and cannot serve in the Temple. It prohibits the (male) priests from getting anywhere near death except for their parents, children, brothers, or virgin sisters. It talks about who he can marry (only a virgin), and how physically “unblemished” he has to be, and what he has to do to maintain his purity. Then it goes on a tear about the unblemished animals he may sacrifice. Finally, there is a long section that details all the festival in which he must serve.
By the time I got a few chapters in I had a sinking feeling. I would have understood if I was met with outrage or overwhelm by my student — there was so much to offend the 13-year-old, whom I knew to be a feminist, animal rights, and disability activist. What could I say to help her connect meaningfully to this arcane and troubling parsha? We met over the phone and I asked her what she was going to be exploring in her drash. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried.
With clarity and insight, she focused on a short, fiery section at the end of the parsha in which two people are fighting, and one of them blasphemes. The blasphemer is put in custody, while the leaders try to figure out what to do with him. God tells the Israelites, “One who pronounces blasphemously The Name shall be put to death, the entire assembly shall surely stone him…” (Leviticus 24:16) This is followed by an enumeration of the consequences for mortally striking a human or animal life, which is “a life for a life” and this leads to the famous quote, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” (Leviticus 24:17-20)
I asked, “OK, so what do you make of it?”
“Well, Jhos, I thought, you know, like blasphemy is a kind of bullying. I mean, like, the guys who were fighting, they were hurting each other. And, like, hurting someone else, is like blasphemy.”
I was a little baffled. “How so?”
She continued, “Well, so, I remembered when we learned that people are created b’tzelem Elohim, like, we are an image of God, right? So, if you like SEE that, like, everyone is sort of Divine, like, you wouldn’t mess with them, right? So, if you don’t see it, that’s like blasphemy, right? I mean you are missing the most important thing. And if you don’t see that everyone, is like, you know, Godly, well, then you might say hurtful things, like insults or racist remarks, or tell lies about them. And that’s blasphemy too, right? So, I think that the Torah is saying, when you do that, you are basically, like killing yourself, because you couldn’t act like that if you really believed that YOU were also like, created in the image of God. So, that’s really, like, the most blasphemy you could do, which is basically spiritual suicide, right? And that’s like totally blasphemous.”
It was one of those delicious moments, when the student becomes the teacher. I never encounter this Torah portion without thinking about her and this drash. She is now pursuing her Master’s at the University of Chicago. I can only imagine what light her thesis will bring into the world.
Ben Zoma said: “Who is wise? [One] who learns from every [person], as it is said: ‘From all who taught me have I gained understanding.’” (Psalms 119:99)
—Pirke Avot 4:1
May we all open our hearts and minds so we, too, may learn from everyone and everything. And may we all be blessed to learn from our students.