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Saturday, July 12, 2014

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What’s the blessing for returning to earth?

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In the opening scene of a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory, Howard Wolowitz, the Jewish mechanical engineer, is returning to earth after a stint on the International Space Station. The Soyuz capsule rattles and rumbles as it barrels earthward, and Howard screams uncontrollably in fear. The Russian cosmonaut sitting next to him yells, “Calm down!” In response Howard sings “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min haaretz.” Mike, the American astronaut asks, “What’s that?” and Howard replies, “The Jewish prayer for eating bread! We don’t have one for falling out of space!”

He’s right. We don’t have a prayer for falling out of space, but should we?

The misappropriation of blessings is too common in Jewish education.

Two summers ago, I visited a Jewish day camp where the educators had set up a compost heap. Hanging above the pile of table scraps and grass cuttings was a large sign with the blessing, “Baruch Atah Adonai, mechayey hametim” – “Blessed are You, God, who revives the dead.” The second brachah of the Amidah, recited three times each day, speaks of the resurrection of the dead during messianic times, a central tenant of traditional Judaism set out in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. But the blessing can hardly be construed as a reference to the compost cycle.

A few years earlier, I was on a hike with a leading Jewish nature educator when our students came upon an injured snail in the middle of the path. As we crowded around the debilitated snail, the educator urged us to “back away! It’s pikuach nefesh.” Pikuach nefesh is the cornerstone Jewish principle that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious consideration. The educator could have enacted the mitzvah of tzaar baalei chayim, concern for the welfare of animals, instead of granting the snail a soul akin to that of a human. But he didn’t.

Texts are the backbone of our study and our prayer. We pour over millennia-old verses of biblical and rabbinic texts to bring meaning to our contemporary lives. In public celebrations and private introspection, we turn to the centuries-old words of the siddur to root our innermost thoughts in tradition.

As an educator, I am at once disappointed by the compost heap and the snail encounter, but encouraged by Wolowitz.

Excellent educators envisioned Jewish tropes in the compost heap and reacted to the encounter with the snail with an eye toward teaching Jewish values. But their responses overreached. In doing so, they jeopardized the authenticity of the text and the way learners connect to the rich Jewish canon.

Wolowitz, on the other hand, reached into the deepest places of his Jewish knowledge and authentically pulled words that spoke to him at the moment he most needed them. While his selection of a blessing seems odd, for him it was the right text at the right time. 

There’s no need for a blessing for landing a spaceship. Wolowitz found words that are imbued meaning. But there’s a need to carefully consider the ways we teach our students to use texts as touchstones for connecting their lives to the canon of tradition.

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