Hammer, Shalom. “The Family Parsha Book”, Magid Books, 2006, new edition, 2016.
A Joy That is Educational and User Friendly
I love to give divrei Torah because of the discipline involved with not only writing one but also finding something new that I had not noticed previously. It is the challenge of preparing that gets me going so that when I sit down to write I have a lot of energy. I am always looking for new approaches to the Torah and my latest find, “The Family Parsha Book” may seem to be simple but it is actually quite intense. A seed is also simple but when planted with love and care and nourished, it grows into a mighty tree. I find this also to be true of studying Torah and we see what at first seem to be simple stories are actually the beginning of deeper thoughts. What I found with this book is how user friendly it is. It has fine jumping off points for discussion and is suitable for all ages. The questions that are included encourage not just discussion but almost total interaction with what we read each week. When I was a youngster, my father would often give us assignments about the Parsha so that we could bring them to the table at Shabbat lunch and have family discussions and I remember what great fun that was. However, it was also a bit frightening because of us wanted to please my father by showing him how well we prepared. If I had had this book back then it would have made my life so much easier but then again, I doubt I would trade that preparation for anything. We knew that we could make our father proud by finding something fascinating and that, I believe, was the real goal for those Shabbatot.
Today it is not too difficult for kids to prepare discussions for Shabbat and this book makes it all the easier. We see that talking about Torah can be great fun. For each Parsha, Rabbi Shalom Hammer provides a “Parsha Puzzler” that presents an analysis of one of the major issues in each Torah portion, promoted a thorough analysis of one of the main issues in each Parsha through questions that bring up points of discussion on Jewish laws that relate to the answer. By going over these laws, we see the connection between the written and oral law. The Puzzlers ask participants to think about how the newly learned concepts and follow them to their logical conclusions. In this way memories become long term and last. “Parsha Points” both highlight and review the reading and this allows those who are not familiar with Torah or have a limited knowledge to take part. These points list the fundamental ideas in the Torah portions being studied and are followed by questions that prompt answers in an alphabetically and ordered manner
There are also sections on the Haftarot that emphasize the relation between the Parsha and the Haftarah. There is a section of Learning Lessons that focus on moral and ethical lessons that come out of the weekly portion allowing us to identify with from the Parsha.
As it was in my youth, the Shabbat table served as the main family meeting place where our commitment to Torah was the main purpose (of course, aside from the family being together). Youngsters love games—the capture their attention and I can tell you that with a career in education, this also works in the classroom. Learning is to be a pleasure and not an onus and understanding is as important as the understanding is how we get to it. The journey is important as the destination.
The book also contains a glossary in both Hebrew and English. Sometimes we forget the importance of the basic idea and we need to teach others to survey that which is to be learned and use those other three “R’s”, Read, Recite and Review. Learning is most effective when one questions the material to be learned. I decided today to look at the section on this weeks portion, “Shemini” for two reasons—first, I am chanting it Saturday morning and knowing what it says makes it come alive and secondly, there is not a lot there to talk about aside from the deaths of Nadav and Avihu and the laws of Kashrut. What I had forgotten is that in this Parsha is the section on holiness. Suddenly I began to wonder if we need to be holy these days and before I knew it, there I was digging into the text and finding a great deal to think about.
Spiritually the book is a treasure trove. The section on faith is gorgeous as is the treatment of Vayera. There are some great tidbits like what we learn about dough that is slow to rise in a holy place and God’s clarification that we, as Jews, cannot be slow about holiness and that the mitzvoth will come to us. How many times have we heard that God helps those who help themselves and this is true for faith and holiness.
I am sure that there are those who wonder if this is mainly for Orthodox Jews and whether it is suitable for other streams of Judaism. Remember that whether you are Orthodox, Reform, Conservative or belong to a Reconstruction or Renewal group, we all read the same Torah and we all have the same questions. My answer is an emphatic “YES”, this is a book for Jews, plain and simple. You and every one you study Torah with will look forward to learning.