by Wendy Grinberg, RJE
This weekend I was supposed to be up at Eisner Camp with a cohort of folks working on bringing mindfulness to camp. (I’ve written about this initiative before.) Unfortunately, the snow has caused us to cancel the retreat. When it rains, we get wet, but when it snows…we stay home! What’s a Jewish educator to do when she has prepared some thoughts on the weekly parasha, only pertinent to the week we read Parashat Sh’mot? Thanks to this blog, I can post it here for all of you.
When I looked at the Torah portion this week, I focused on a “mindfulness mindset”, meaning the way that a mindfulness practice can affect the way one approaches life, learning, teaching, and camp. I chose a few sections of the parasha to focus on, each one highlighting a different aspect.
Sh’mot 1:1-4, Names and gratitude
Why begin with names? In this touching commentary, Rabbi Bradley Artson of the American Jewish University reflects on the purpose and effect of starting this section of the Torah with a list of names. He notes that while long dedications in books or thank yous in speeches can be tiresome, they signify what we value about each individual and the power we have to impact others’ lives. He writes,
“You can see that a list of those people who contributed to who you are today would be tremendously long. To other people, your list would also be boring. But each of us cherishes such a private list of gratitude, since that list represents the many facets of our own personality. By insisting that we endure several such lists, the Torah opens us to recalling our own dependency on others, and also spurs us to be such influences for those people whose lives we can touch.”
Gratitude is both a starting point for mindfulness as well as an outcome of it. When we notice how others have touched our lives, we feel appreciation as well as the potential to (as we say at camp) “Be the one” who others think of when they make their lists.
Sh’mot 2:11-15, Appreciating different perspectives
When Moses sees a Hebrew slave being beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster, he rises up to defend the slave and commits murder. The next day, Moses is shocked that the event is known among the slaves. Moses saw no witness to his actions, even though the obvious witness is the slave who he defended! It is amazing how our own perspective can blind us to the experience of others.
In our work with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, we are often reminded, “Other people are not failed attempts at being you.” This adapted quote from anthropologist Wade Davis originally referred to other cultures, and was apparently apt for the ancient Egyptians. In his commentary on the Torah, Plaut quotes philosopher André Neher’s description of Egyptian artwork:
“The scenes depicting slavery and forced labor are brutal in their massiveness. Human beings are so closely packed and piled upon each other that they appear as a single whole yoked as such to its work, without any individuality at all.”
Moses is part of Egyptian royalty, even though he knows his roots. In this scene, Moses is taking the first step in appreciating the perspective of others when he attempts to right the injustice he sees. But, he cannot comprehend the individual experience of the Hebrew.
In this story of becoming a nation, the Jews are not a singular mass but a community of individuals. In this parasha the word Ivrim, “Hebrews”, is oddly spelled with two yuds. Also cited in the Plaut commentary, 19th Century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that this unusual grammatical construct in which the singular is not absorbed into the plural form shows that the Jews were individuals as well as a group. This appreciation for the individual experience is central to a mindful approach. We invite others into experience, but we don’t dictate it, and we don’t have expectations of what that experience will be. We practice listening with full awareness and try to cultivate an appreciation for a diversity of experience.
Sh’mot 3:1-3, Curiosity about experience, interest in one’s inner world, embodied awareness
In this scene, Moses has a revelation about God through a vision of a bush that burns but is not consumed. To me, this section reflects Moses’ growing curiosity about his experience. Daniel Rechtschaffen reminds us that the goal of teaching mindfulness to children is their growing interest in their own inner world. Sometimes when we meditate, we practice repeating the following: (Inhale) “What’s this?” (Exhale) “Don’t know.” Similarly, Moses exclaims in chapter 3, verse 3, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight! Why doesn’t the bush burn up?” It is this curiosity that opens Moses up to revelation, which is his and his alone.
Moses is next instructed to remove his sandals. Perhaps this can further be tied to curiosity about embodied experience. Where in the body do emotions lie? What is going on in my body at this moment? Taking of our shoes helps us to feel the sensations of grains of sand or blades of grass beneath our feet, our bones spreading to support us on the earth.
A lot of attention is paid to Moses’ objections to God’s request. It seems foolish that Moses challenges God, raising the issue of his speech impediment; even God says (essentially), “I know you have a speech impediment. I make speech impediments!” But God doesn’t correct Moses’ speech. These objections may be the first signs of Moses’ attention to his inner life, as he verbalizes his feelings. In mindfulness practice, we are taught to “notice what you notice, feel what you feel”, and then to continue to experience it rather than cling to it or run from it. At camp, we can help campers to experience something unpleasant, get curious about it, and learn from it, rather than rush to fix it.
Sh’mot 1:9, Becoming a People
Pharoah refers to Am B’nai Yisrael, the first time the people of Israel are referred to as a nation. Throughout this d’var, I have touched upon the balance between individual experience and community. At camp, we are a group of people each trying to “Be the one.” Many people refer to camp as a place where we can live Jewish lives and experience Judaism holistically, and they see this as a unique strength of camp as a Jewish educational experience. Some of you know that I’m doing my doctoral research on the evolution of Jewish education at camp, and I’ve been interviewing various people who have been involved in camp from an educational perspective over the past 25+ years.
Recently a respondent suggested that our Jewish camp experience transcends time. Each summer we experience the quintessential Jewish story– a group of individuals coming together to figure out what it means to be an enduring people, with both individual and communal revelations that bind us together through shared values and experience.
A close attention to individual experience partnered with an awareness of the cosmic significance of our being is also part of a mindfulness mindset. This insight gave me personally a new perspective and sense of purpose for my work at camp, and I hope you find some meaning in it as well. I’d love to hear your perspective in the comments. Stay warm, and Shabbat shalom!
Wendy Grinberg is the Director of Jewish Education at URJ Eisner Camp and is pursuing an EdD at the William Davidson Graduate School of Education at JTS. She has her own Jewish education consulting business called the Jewish Education Lab, and this post originally appeared on her blog.