April 25

Sage Advice: Holistic look at Pirkei Avot

The second semester for Grade 8 has been focused on a particular section of Oral Law, a section of Mishna otherwise known as Pirkei Avot. The objectives of this Lookstein course are manifold but the overall goal is to learn the process the Sages took to focus on character development and thus to translate it into our lives. Particularly, as Grade 8 nears their commencement this course is selected as way of honing in on Jewish values through Jewish texts.

We began with a focus on the “rule of three” and connected it to a famous mantra of “the world stands on three things.” The following units elaborated on Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Chasadim. Under the umbrella of Torah, we discussed concepts such as significance of location (where we live/who we surround ourselves with), motivation (what works and doesn’t), how to prioritize time and who should receive honor as beacons of Torah (can be anyone that has taught you anything). We continued with the overarching theme of Avodah. In our study, we used as a way to further discuss how to get the job done and a further analysis of motivation. Finally, we concluded before Pesach with the topic of Gemilut Chesed. In this unit we addressed topics such as identifying different ways to treat others with dignity, different types of interpersonal relationships from friends to community to wider society and finally focused on explaining why Pirkei Avot discourages rejoicing at the downfall of an enemy.

With each area of study, students respond to discussion prompts and write reflections, applying the texts/concepts to real life situations.

Looking forward to continuing our study together!

April 25

Grade 7 Navi: King David’s “ups and downs”

It’s been awhile…and here is a general review.

The focus of Shmuel Bet is the kingship of King David. While it took some time to establish it firmly, once he did it becomes a model of secure and steadfast leadership, one that we invoke in much of our liturgy.

Perek Hay:

The initial step David takes as a king over the entire nation was to establish a capital for all of the Israelites, the city of Jerusalem.  This move from Hebron (which is in the land of Judah) demonstrates that his monarchy is for all of the people. His new capital  is an area that borders Benjamin and Judah, yet it is not in situated in a particular tribe’s territory (so that all have claim to it equally). {Similar to Washington DC not being in a particular state in the US.} The Jebusites who were residing there then posed as a threat to the conquest but David’s army overcame thus establishing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the city of David as the area of the palace. (It is noteworthy that this is not the building of David’s own focus but of an ally, Hiram of Tyre.)  In this chapter, we learn of the Philistine attempted attacks and David’s army emerging as the victors.

Perek Vav:

The next step that was significant to David as king was to move the aron (Ark) to Jerusalem as it had been situated in the plains of Judah for several decades. David wants to ensure that Jerusalem is not merely a political capital but also the spiritual center of the Jewish people. There is a procession that sets out to accompany the Ark to Jerusalem. The festive atmosphere leads to a calamity wherein Uzzah (one of those whose family was charged with guarding the Ark for the past duration) reaches out in an attempt to protect the Ark but is struck down for overstepping the normal boundaries. This tragedy gives pause to David to the ceremony and they halt the procession. Several months later, there is indication that they are ready to give it a second try; this time it is a successful mission. We noted the differences in each of the processions and the evaluation that David does after the first mission fails. We noted the ability of great leaders to admit failure and to find means to improve for the future.

Michal, David’s first wife (who had been separated for some time while Saul, her father, was in pursuit of David) is critical of David’s expression of joy and dancing with the Ark. She observes his actions to be less than dignified for a king and tells him so. David retorts with a harsh response too, noting God’s choice of David over her father, Saul. (The relational epithets in this chapter indicated where Michal is aligned). The different approaches to kingship are highlighted in this episode.

Perek Zayin:

David’s third initiative as a king is his desire to build the Temple, the beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem, a furthering of creating it as the spiritual epicenter for the Jewish people. Natan, the prophet initially encourages David’s plan. Hashem though quickly informs Natan that in fact, David should not be the one to do so but that in his stead, David’s future son, Solomon will be the one to do so. From the perspective of Chapter 7 in Shmuel Bet, it seems that God wants David to have a ‘house’ (dynasty) first before building a house for God. (Different than the reason brought in Divrei HaYamim/Chronicles). David’s response to this “no” was noteworthy as he is full of gratitude for what God does promise him. We noted that strength of character and what each of us are like when our work and expectations are met with a negative response.

Perek Chet:

Given that David knows he will not build the Temple, he wants to get all the materials ready for it. This chapter focuses on his conquests and the expansion of boundaries of Israel. The spoils that he amasses in this Perek are set aside for the future Temple and do not go to his personal treasury. We noted the allies and the gifts bestowed upon David and the enemies and battles that he was involved in.

Perek Tet:

Among David’s priorities is to extend his gratitude and pay on a promise he had made with his close friend, Yonatan. Although the normal practice in ancient times was to eradicate the preceding dynasty, David had no such intentions. The opposite was true. He sends forth a commission to find out the whereabouts of any remaining relative of Jonathan (who was a son of Saul). Mefiboshet is found and David ensures the he has ownership of his family’s estate and a constant ‘seat’ at the king’s table. Although this is a personal commitment, the ramifications are significant nationally. It is another moment of uniting the people and in particular, the tribe of Benjamin.

Perek Yud:

David continues to be the warrior personality and fights the wars of Hashem & the Jewish people. He also builds alliances as mentioned above. Early in this chapter, he sends a delegation to then newly anointed king of Ammon to express condolences over the loss of his father. David felt a debt of gratitude to him as well (although in the text it is not clear why, the Midrash suggests an idea). The new king’s advisors are suspicious of David’s delegation to be spies and express their sentiment to Hanun, the king. Unsure of which perspective is the correct one, he orders their beards and coats to be cut, demoralizing them but not killing them. David, upon hearing of this grants them residence in Jericho to allow for them to regain their dignity. Battles then ensue between Israel and some of the neighboring countries (some were hired as mercenaries), ultimately David’s army prevails.

Perek Yud Alef:

All of David’s contributions as leader and role model for three decades or so come to a striking halt in this chapter. Here we learn of the nadir of his career as he falls for Batsheva, a married woman. The chapter depicts his army being at war while he is at home (something we haven’t seen before) and he sends for this beautiful woman. Shortly thereafter, she sends a message to David that she has conceived a child. David summons her husband back from the battlefield. This tactic doesn’t work as Uriyah, her husband refuses to listen to the king’s order and does not go home. After several attempts to convince him, he is sent back to war with his death sentence in his hand, unbeknownst to him. He is placed in the front lines and killed there. Yoav, David’s army general informs of the losses of the battle including Uriyah. Batsheva mourns (on some level as the text does not indicate a ‘normal’ amount) and she then marries David. The chapter is full of complexity but it ends with a clear disapproval from God (“and it was bad in the eyes of Hashem”). Thinking about leaders and their failures and flaws is a significant theme in this chapter.

Perek Yud Bet:

Natan the prophet is sent by God to admonish David. He begins with an analogy as if it were a case for David to judge. David, upon hearing the case is harsh in his sentence. Natan then points out that David is the one culpable. Thereupon David realizes the gravitas of his wrongdoing and immediately confesses. One part of the punishment is not meted out, as a result but he will suffer four-fold as will be seen in the coming chapters.

David’s wrongdoing is intense but his ability to admit his mistake immediately without any excuse is noteworthy. It is especially noteworthy to contrast to Saul, when he was confronted about his wrongs.

We are currently in the middle of processing this narrative and will likely begin Perek Yud Gimmel in the next class or so.

Look forward to continue learning with you/Grade 7!

March 17

Grade 8: Current Event (Due: Thursday 3/24)

This year students will be responsible for researching, analyzing, and presenting a current event in our Jewish Studies course.

Directions: Find an article either in the newspaper or online from a newspaper source. Examples include: CBC News, USA Today,  CTV News, Associated Press, The New York Times, Ynetnews Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Times of Israel,  etc., or any other reputable national or local source. Read the article and fill out the statements or answer the questions below.

Please find and read about important issues that relate/connect to antisemitism.

Because this is a current events assignment, you are to choose an article that is no more than two weeks old from when the assignment is given.

Be prepared to discuss your article in class on the due date!


Please click the link below to access the current event template: 

Current Events Write Up Assignment Instructions

December 21

Who’s Talmud – Grade 8 (Lookstein)

A review of our learning:

What is Oral Torah? How did it develop? Who were the key personalities that influenced its evolution?

What is Oral Law as opposed to Written Law? (Unit 1)We began our course with explaining what the Talmud is, why we need an Oral Tradition and used an example (from the Talmud) to show how the Oral Law provides another layer of understanding to the Written Torah.

How does a page of Talmud look differently than the average book? (Unit 2) We discussed how to navigate the different sections of a Talmud page and learned of the historical period when each section was written.

Who are some of the main figures that are featured in the Talmud? What significant stories and impact did they have on the Jewish people & Judaism in that particularly turbulent time of Jewish history?

We learned of Hillel & Shammai (Unit 3) who lived during the Second Beit HaMikdash (Temple) period. We compared their personalities and explained an important Talmudic concept that they are famous for- machloket-dispute in Torah study. We discussed some of the famous examples of their disagreements. We evaluated the positive contribution of machloket to society.

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai (Unit 4) was our next personality. A student of Hillel who lived during the turbulent times of war both with the Romans and within the Jewish people. We defined sin’at chinam (baseless hatred) and analyzed its message as it emerges from the Kamtz/Bar-Kamtza story. We learned of his initiative and creativity in requesting what he did from Vespasian, and we evaluated how his bold choice kept the Torah relevant.

Our learning continued with explaining the challenges facing the Jewish people after the Sanhedrin (High Court)’s move to Yavneh (unit 5). We learned of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s edicts to remember the Temple (takanot Zecher l’mikdash) helping retain the centrality of the Beit HaMikdash in the Jewish collective memory. We interpreted the story of R’ Yochanan on his deathbed as he worried about his own life accomplishments, and we too evaluated his decisions.

We then moved on to Unit 6 where our central figure was R’ Akiva.We learned of his determination to transform from a simpleton to a leader of the Jewish people. We discussed his approach to Torah learning and contrasted it with a contemporary of his day, R’ Yishmael. We also noted the different approach he took regarding the Romans (different than R’ YBZ). We learned of his commitment to faith and defiance of the Romans through his parable of the fox and fish. R’ Akiva’s legacy is one of optimism in the face of despair.

The last unit (7) which we have started is focused on R’ Gamliel, a leader who emphasized the authority of his position of Nasi. His position was to discourage dissenting opinions and unite the people under one authority and set of practices. (Very different from Hillel & Shammai) This, at times came at great cost. We will continue after the break to analyze the advantages and costs of maintaining a central religious authority.




December 21

Navi 7- Shmuel Bet (Lookstein)

Will the real king please stand up?

Transition of Royalty, loyalty and Loss

Shmuel Bet: Chapters 1-4

Perek 1: David is informed of the tragic end of King Shaul and his son, Yonatan by an Amalekite lad. He informs David that he was an accomplice in killing Shaul. Thinking that the Amalekite was trying to win over David, David reacts strongly to this Amalekite on several fronts. David clearly wants all to know that he is not interested in annihilating the previous dynasty and that doing so will not be a cause for promotion or favor.

He then laments the death of King Shaul (his father-in-law) and his best friend, Yonatan. Although his relationship with Shaul was complex, he recognizes the greatness he possessed. As for Yonatan, he mourns his best friend and their friendship. He recognizes them both as significant warriors to Am Yisrael and mourns the national loss.

Perek 2: David had been anointed privately awhile before (in Shmuel Aleph/I Samuel) and recognized that his time to ascend the monarchy had arrived. Consulting with Hashem, he moves to Hebron making it the capital of his tribe, Judah. Avner, the army general of Shaul is reticent to let the monarchy leave the tribe of Benjamin. He coronates Shaul’s surviving son, Ishboshet for the rest of Israel. The division fuels play fights led by both Avner and Yoav, David’s army general. A civil battle follows with casualties, including Yoav’s brother Asah’el.

Perek 3: Ishboshet accuses Avner of criminal charges, intimating that he is trying to assume the kingship himself. Avner responds angrily to the accusation, informing him that he will switch over to David’s side. David accepts Avner’s move with one condition, the bringing back of his first wife, Michal. With the acquiescence to the condition, Avner sets out to convince the Israelites to all proclaim David as king. Yoav gets wind of Avner’s move and explodes angrily at David for allowing this traitor to join forces. He then summons Avner back, assassinating him with guile. Upon hearing the news, David is appalled and criticizes Yoav harshly and both leads Avner’s funeral procession as well as offer a eulogy for this leader in Israel.

Perek 4: With the tribe of Benjamin losing almost all of its power, two army generals plot and assassinate Ishboshet. They approach David in a similar manner as the Amalekite thinking they will win his favor. Their end is similar to that of the Amalekite with David articulating & demonstrating his strong opposition to those who act criminally in order to gain his favor.

With the ‘rocky’ transition of leadership now ending, we will begin with David assuming the throne fully when we return from winter break!