Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

By Rabbi Rachel Easserman
The Vestal, N.Y. Reporter 

Torah for Teens

 


For many students, one of the most difficult parts of their bar/bat mitzvah preparation is writing the speech about their Torah portion. While there are many Torah commentaries, it’s rare to find one whose comments relate directly to the lives of contemporary teenagers. Fortunately, the publication of “Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens,” edited by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin (Jewish Lights Publishing), solves this problem. Its title contains a play on words that refers to the younger generation’s dependence on technology: Salkin notes that just as the Torah text contains “our sacred stories, laws and teachings” so do we send text messages “to God during prayer... [while] God and our tradition ‘text’ back to us in the words of Torah and wisdom.”

“Text Messages” contains one or two short essays (most are two to three pages) on each Torah portion. The commentary was written by rabbis, cantors, educators and activists. In order to make certain the subject matter appealed to those of bar/bat age, a teen editorial advisory board was formed. Members of the board read each essay and offered advice about whether or not they were appropriate for their age group. Although this means that the discussions may be simplified as compared to adult commentaries, the essays provide enough thought-provoking material that adults might find it of interest. Parents may also be surprised to discover how much they learn about their children when asking their opinions about the topics covered.

The essays address a wide variety of subjects, including sexuality, body image, impulsive behavior, connections to Judaism and relationships to parents, siblings and friends. While it’s difficult to single out specific essays because they are all uniformly excellent, some did stand out. These either offered new insights into the Torah text or had subject matter that spoke to me personally.

When looking at the different answers Adam and Abraham gave to the question “Where are you,” Rabbi Brad Hirschfield discusses what they can teach us about “living the best lives possible.”

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder shows how Isaac and Rebecca’s marriage can also serve as a model for friendship.

A very clever look at Esau’s dysfunctional family by Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Ph.D., offers a lesson on the importance of honesty.

The question of why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart serves as the basis for two essays: Rabbi Howard L. Jaffe discusses the difference between having strong convictions and being stubborn, while Dr. Ron Wolfson takes a more personal look at the consequences of hardening one’s heart.

Social justice serves as the theme for Lisa Exler and Ruth W. Messinger’s essay, which questions why all Egyptians—rather than just Pharaoh—suffered from the 10 plagues when they were not directly at fault for the injustices done to the Israelites.

Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin believes that God does “sweat the small stuff” when it comes to a person’s well-being and suggests we should do the same.

How we can, and should, bring holiness into our daily lives is the theme of Rabbi Amy Schwartzman’s essay.

The question of how we perceive ourselves—and how that perception affects our lives—is discussed by Dr. Erica Brown.

Rabbi Edward Feld explores different styles of leadership and the need for leaders to “behave in loving ways.”

Even though Jacob and Israel are names for the same person, Cantor Ellen Dreskin believes they represent very different modes of behavior.

Does silence offer consent for inappropriate behavior? That question is explored by Rabbi Laura Geller.

Rabbi Harold S. Kushner focuses on anger and how we can’t truly love someone—including God—if we’re afraid to express it.

When discussing Moses’ last conversation with the Israelites, Dr. Arnold M. Eisen explains why “everything we do matters.”

The need to channel conflicting impulses is discussed by Rabbi Micah D. Greensteen.

Two essays examine our ability to focus: Rabbi Denise L. Eger writes about the need to truly listen to what others are saying, while Rabbi David B. Rosen talks about how we should also listen with our eyes.

“Text Messages” would make a wonderful present for a bar/bat mitzvah student, but parents may want to be proactive and give a copy to their children during their tween years. These essays show how Judaism and the Torah remain relevant, even as technology and our metaphors for understanding the biblical text radically change over time.

 

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