What Teaching About Covenant Taught Me About Teaching and Covenant

Matt Bar
May 24, 2013
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Hi all, Matt Bar here. This is written by Bible Raps Education Director Eliana Light. She’s a wonderful writer, educator and musician and I felt compelled to add her voice to the discourse this month!

What Teaching About Covenant Taught Me About Teaching and Covenant

“Wow, you really don’t wanna mess with God!”

I’m sitting at my messy desk, but all my student can see through the camera is my smiling face.

“No, I guess you don’t!”

We are studying parshat Nitzavim for her Bat Mitzvah. Originally her parsha was Ve’etchanan, but her parents just switched the date. She’s a pro at this Torah-learning thing, though.

“So many curses, it’s just so intense!”

This student, who I’ll call Alexis, is a joy to learn with. She has such a mind for questions and insight, even without a strong Judaic background. She goes to an independent Hebrew school, and her family doesn’t belong to a synagogue. Her parents were looking to do a “make-your-own-Bat Mitzvah” that would be open and engaging for both the Jews and non-Jews of the family.

“Well, let’s think about this. Why do you think Moses keeps repeating all the bad things that will happen if they go astray? Remember, this is his last speech before he dies…”

At first, I was skeptical. What can we really accomplish in 8 months? How much Judaism can I impart, when it hasn’t been a priority for her family? But Alexis assuaged my fears quickly. We’ve talked about God, obligation, Shabbat, morality…. her parents wanted a “values-based” course of study, and we found it right in the text.

“Maybe Moses is afraid that the people will forget about the covenant and about God when he is gone…”

“And that’s scary, because he’s spent all this time teaching them. He only does it because he cares about them…”

“He scares because he cares!”

“Just like Monsters Inc!”

Cue the smiles and laughter. It’s amazing when Torah can make you feel this much joy. And with Alexis, this happens all the time, but it doesn’t happen with all my students, and certainly not often enough.

As an educator, I often feel like Moses, worried about a student’s commitment to Judaism and what will happen when I step out of the picture. I’m sure Bar and Bat Mitzvah tutors feel this especially.  We spend all this time prepping and learning, getting ready for this one big day. And unfortunately, instead of the beginning of a Jewish life, it’s usually an ending. Like Moses, some of us threaten and curse. Some of us use guilt, invoking duty, invoking history. And I’m not sure all that works. But a covenant has two sides, both blessing and curse. Nitzavim is all about covenant, that sacred, never-ending commitment between God and the Jewish people. If we view our relationship with our students through the lens of this covenant, we can learn so much about how to help them along their own winding road of Jewish life.

1)  Everyone is a part of this covenant

Nitzavim opens with Moses reminding the people that everyone, from the young to the old, the priest to the water-carrier, is there to take on the covenant. Each individual Israelite has a place in the covenant. It speaks, and can speak, to each person on his or her level. Moses goes on to say that this covenant is to be made not just with the people who are standing there, but with those who are there and not there. Every Israelite. Every Jew. Every student, no matter how far removed, is a part of the covenant. We owe everyone the chance to find a way in, to connect, to add their own voice to the Jewish people. We can’t give up, because they are a part of the covenant too, just as much as we are.

2)  There is always a way back

Nitzavim devotes a lot of space to the curses, to what awful things will befall those turn away from God. But it devotes twice as much to what will happen when, not if, they return. God will embrace them, rejoice in them. God will “circumcise your heart,” a remembrance of the covenant that cannot be forgotten. Just as the Jewish people strayed, we know that our students may stray. After their Bar Mitzvah, they may take a break. They may not even think about Jewish life for a year, five years, ten. But we must always, as a community, welcome them back in. They are still part of the covenant.

3)It is already in their hearts

“It is not in heaven… nor is it across the sea… but rather it is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.”

I have studied this passage many times, but always through the lens of the Talmud. It was Alexis who opened my eyes to a contextualized reading of this. “You don’t have an excuse,” she said as we discussed it. “It’s in your heart. You don’t need someone to get it for you. You already kinda know what to do.” It is up to us to teach Torah as a guide-book for life, given to us out of love by God as God’s side of the covenant. Much of the Torah, the laws and the values behind them, are self-evident. If our students know this, then the Torah will remain close to them no matter where they go in life. We must give them the tools to be good people, a be part of the Jewish community. That way, they will remain good people, and be able to re-enter the Jewish community when they are ready. It is already in their hearts, that they may do it.

4)  Choose life, that you may live

Even though the biblical covenant is one of obligation, even Moses recognizes that there is a choice. “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.” If there was no choice, he wouldn’t have needed to list all those curses and punishments. Today, as it is said, every Jew is a Jew by choice. There is an almost infinite number of options for how to live a life. So how do we convince our students that a Jewish life is the way to go? By shame, blame, and guilt? Or by making Judaism engaging and transformative enough that they will choose it? As much as people need Judaism, Judaism needs people, for growth, vibrancy, community. And this covenant isn’t one-sided; God needs us. If we help students understand that they are each a part of the covenant, give them the tools and a way back in, then they will, as Moses says, “choose life.” And so must we. There is joy and wonder in living a Jewish life. We must live by the commandments, not die by them. We must teach them in order to live, not to be scared, or get by. This is what I hope to impart to my students from here on out. And this is what studying Torah with my students has taught me.

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Matt Bar is founder and Executive Director of Bible Raps, a non-profit born from Matt's desire to engage his Hebrew School classes on a deeper and more contemporary level than the way they were being taught at the time. Bible Raps launched out of Bar's participation in the PresenTense Institute during the summer of 2007. He continued to further his Jewish education during his 2008 year of study at The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Since its inception, Bible Raps has reached tens of thousands of young Jews with Torah-rich performances in schools, Hillels, conferences and camps across the US and abroad. Their teaching materials are being used in countless classrooms and teachers are currently being trained to be certified "Bible Raps educators". ‬ ‪In 2011, Bar was also named to The ‬NY‪ Jewish Week's "36 Under 36" list, a prestigious list ‬"highlighting the dedicated lay leaders who are reordering our legacy organizations alongside community activists and social justice crusaders whose startups are chock-full of innovation,". He is also 2009-2010 member of slingshot. Before his current role as Executive Director of Bible Raps, Bar was also featured on MTV and NBC, has opened for Grammy winning group Outkast and performed at numerous clubs and venues as a folk rapper. Matt currently resides in Philadelphia and is working on Bible Raps Album #3 and hoping to put out Hip Hop Lullabies, within the calendar year.

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