Throw Him in a Pit: Sibling Expectations

What do you think are reasonable expectations for an average sibling relationship? At first glance, the relationships Yosef has with his brothers don’t seem like very good examples for us. But looking more closely, we can learn some interesting things.

At this point in our story (Genesis 37: 18-28), Yosef has found his brothers grazing their flocks of sheep. As they see him approaching, they plot to kill him. Reuven, the oldest brother, convinces them to instead throw Yosef into a pit. The text tells us he secretly intends to save Yosef and return him to their father. In the meantime, Yehudah, the fourth oldest brother, thinks better of leaving Yosef to die and suggests that they instead sell him to a passing caravan of Ishmaelite traders. Here are some quotes from your thoughtful kiddos on what’s going on in those relationships:

What was different about Reuven’s relationship with Yosef that he wanted to save him?

  • Reuven knows Yosef is the favorite and that Yaakov would be heartbroken if he were to die.
  • Reuven is older and more mature than the other brothers are.
  • Maybe Reuven is Yaakov’s second favorite son so he feels closer to Yosef.
  • Reuven is nicer because he’s the oldest.

If Reuven wanted to keep Yosef safe, why did he suggest to throw him in a pit? Why not just tell the other brothers, “No, we’re not going to kill or hurt Yosef at all”?

  • He still wanted to stay close with the other brothers.
  • He was trying to be a role model and to show that he understood the brothers.
  • He was worried that standing up to the brothers to save Yosef would mean risking his own life.
  • Reuven wanted to be a hero!
  • Reuven was worried that if he didn’t agree to do something to get rid of Yosef, the other brothers would all hate him too.

When Yehudah and the other brothers choose to sell Yosef, they seem to be looking for a way to be rid of him that makes them feel less guilty than killing him outright would. In contrast, Reuven seems to be doing some real work juggling and managing everyone’s feelings—his own, Yosef’s, Yaakov’s, and his other brothers’. From him we can learn some interesting things about what to expect from siblings.

What do I understand the expectations between siblings to be?

  • Best friends
  • Be nice to each other
  • Only say nice things (especially in front of other people)
  • Take care of each other
  • Be a little competitive
  • Annoy each other sometimes

Who gets to decide what’s true about a text? All of us!

This week we’ve been learning about commentary. Commentary, as one of our students put it, is the story of what you think about a (typically missing) detail in a text. We learned some commentary written by a well-known, medieval, French rabbi named Rashi. Looking at his work allowed us gain a different perspective and a deeper understanding of our text. It also provided us with practice for our own interpretation and story-making skills.

We took advantage of one of the half-day camps to dig deeper into this commentary work. First of all, I want to say how impressed I am with the engagement and attentiveness with which your kiddos attacked our extra projects! Half days are always a challenge for them with the changed schedule, but these excellent students listened so respectfully to us and each other, and worked together so well. I am so grateful for getting to teach and learn with these impressive kiddos!

For the project, each group got just one sentence of text to work with. First they brainstormed as many questions about it as they could. Then they chose one or two of their questions and came up with as many answers for them as possible. Finally, they chose their favorite answer and made either a popsicle stick puppet show or a comic strip to tell their story.

Here are some of the questions and answers your kiddos came up with that would have made Rashi proud:

  • Question: The text says Yosef’s brothers took the sheep to graze at Shechem. Why did they have to take them there?
    • Answer: Because they needed to eat, and that’s where there was food.
  • Question: The text says Yosef has two dreams that his family interprets as predicting the future. How does Yosef have the power of prophetic dreams?
    • Answer 1: Because he’s a superhero.
    • Answer 2: Because his father was a literal star.
  • Question: Yaakov sends Yosef to find his brothers at Shechem. By the time Yosef gets there, his brothers are gone. A man comes up to Yosef and tells him where his brothers went. Who is this guy?
    • Answer 1: One of the brothers in disguise.
    • Answer 2: A spy one of the brothers hired to wait for Yosef.
    • Answer 3: A poor man who was looking for wheat or other food in the field to eat and overheard the brothers talking about where they were going.
  • Question: Yaakov gave Yosef a rainbow striped coat because Yosef was his favorite. Why rainbow striped? Why a coat?
    • Answer: It was the only thing in the store Yaakov could afford.
  • Question: The text says that in one of Yosef’s dreams 11 sheaves of wheat “gathered round” to bow down to his sheaf. What does it mean that they “gathered round”?
    • Answer: They literally stood in a circle around him.

Walk and Talk: A Model Family?

This week, we began studying the story of Yosef and his amazing, technicolor dream coat. It’s often easy to feel highly critical of our families, especially as we’re all juggling so much and want to be phenomenal parents. I want to suggest that Yosef’s family offers an interesting lens for thinking about how families function together (or don’t) that maybe also gives us room for a bit more compassion for ourselves. It’s easy to wish we had more time together as a family, but I am going to go out on a limb here and guess that none of us are giving special, obvious gifts to our children so everyone knows who the favorite child is!

The opening of this story is that Yosef’s dad, Yaakov, asks him to go and spy on his brothers and bring back reports. The sentence that immediately follows says that Yosef is Yaakov’s favorite child and that Yaakov gives him a colorful coat. Yosef’s brothers are SO upset about the coat that they cannot even say a peaceful word to him. Then Yosef has two dreams that his brothers interpret as communicating that Yosef is (or will be) superior and they will have to bow down before him.

Your bright and inquisitive children had some great questions about this opening narrative (none of them with straightforward or “correct” answers). You might want to discuss these with them while you’re walking in the city or have a quiet moment in the next few days:

  • Was Yosef lying or telling the truth about his brothers when he reported back to Yaakov?
  • Where are the girls in this story?!
  • What if they interpreted the dream incorrectly?
  • How do I feel when I see someone else being the favorite?
  • How do I feel when someone else rubs in my face that they are the favorite?
  • Why do you think Yosef decided to share about his dreams? What did he want to have happen?
  • How do I handle it when someone else is full of themselves and it aggravates me?


Bingo! I Learned 5 New Things in Hebrew!

The enthusiasm for Ivrit (Hebrew) learning over this past week has been so high that we decided to keep our Shulchanot Avodah (learning centers) available through Friday. Our students could not get enough of letter identifying, vocabulary learning, trope singing, and text translation. It helped to have a little extra motivation in the form of a Bingo board. Every time a kiddo completed a task at a Shulchan Avodah, we marked off a spot on their board. When they got five marks in a row, they earned something extra from our snack bin. Here are some stories of the hard work and learning your brilliant kiddos put in for the sake of a spoonful of marshmallow fluff.

At one Shulchan Avodah this week, our Boker (pre-K—1) students practiced identifying and singing along with the 2 trope we’ve been learning during Tefilah (prayer, music, and movement). The text of one of the prayers we do comes from the Torah, where trope symbols tell us what notes to sing. Our learners listened repeatedly to a recording of the prayer. Then they made hand motions for etnachta and sof pasuk (the most important trope symbols) every time they heard the corresponding notes. Two weeks ago, these trope and their names were entirely unfamiliar to most of our Boker students. Now, though, every one of them knows how to sing an etnachta and a sof pasuk.

Our Erev (2—5) students had an even bigger trope challenge in order to complete squares on their bingo board. They used an app on our iPad called Pocket Torah to practice not just the 2 trope we’re focusing on in Tefilah, but as many families of trope as possible. There are 12 different trope families on the app, each one containing between 4 and 8 combinations of trope within the family. Some of our students sat and practiced with this app tirelessly until they could sing all 12 trope families! That’s some really impressive work and dedication! We’re looking forward to carrying all these Ivrit skills with us into the new curriculum unit we begin next week. 

Hebrew Learning That’s Intense—And Fun!

As usual, your brilliant kiddos blew us away this week. Over the past few days, I’ve watched the Boker (pre-K—1) students pick up the basic mechanics of Hebrew reading and all the Hebrew vowels. Beverly challenged the Erev (2—5) students to all read and sing at least two words of text with trope, and every single one of them did. I spent two days with one Boker kid working on ordering and singing all the letters in the aleph-bet. On the second day, he spent maybe a third the amount of time that he did on the first day completing the task and hardly needed any help finding the correct letters. Here are some other success stories from this week of intensive Hebrew learning.


At one of our Shulchanot Avodah (learning centers) this week, we stuck a dozen or so Hebrew letters to the windows of our big space. Someone called out one of the letters on the windows, and the kiddos raced to find and point to it first. At the beginning of the week, a teacher was usually calling out the letters. By the middle of the week, our students knew the letters well enough that they could run the activity for each other without our help. The joy and excitement with which they played the game make me wonder whether they even realized they were learning a new alphabet in the process.


At another Shulchan Avodah, the Erev students were tasked with translating a pretty long pasuk (verse) from Torah. The ones who completed it worked at it with impressive dedication over the course of several days. After finding all the words in our Hebrew-English dictionaries, they then had the much harder job of figuring out how to swap the grammar and word order into something that made sense in English. These Erev kiddos are well on their way to becoming masters of targum (translation). 

God is ________, Just Like Me!

What do we know about God? The answer is a LOT of things, from a LOT of different stories, which are at times repetitive, comforting, contradictory, and upsetting. Over the past week, we examined half a dozen stories from Jewish text and pulled out what God is doing, how God is treating Bnei Yisrael (the Jewish people), and what we can learn about God from those actions. Then we filled in the gaps with everything we know about God that didn’t come up from one of those stories. Here’s what that looked like (these words and ideas are 100% produced by your insightful children!):

40 years wandering in the desert, raining down manna Mt. Sinai, 10 commandments, Golden calf Land of Israel – settling down Creation of the world Leaving slavery in Egypt, plagues What’s missing?
  • helpful
  • bossy
  • kind
  • compassionate
  • caring
  • loving
  • brave
  • teacher
  • murderous
  • kind
  • loving
  • caring
  • loyal – like a good friend
  • helpful
  • thoughtful
  • role model
  • creative
  • caring
  • happy and content with the world and the people in it
  • omnipotent
  • wise
  • magical
  • dramatic
  • power hungry
  • wants control over Bnei Yisrael
  • kind and caring towards Bnei Yisrael
  • scary
  • powerful
  • invisible
  • lives forever
  • really old
  • spooky
  • floats
  • silent (unless you’re praying)
  • kind-spirited
  • fallible
  • selfish
  • persistent
  • faithful
  • generous
  • BFF with the Jewish people

On our last day of Snacktime Learning for this week, every kid looked at this chart and wrote down for themselves about 10 words that describe who God is, according to them, on that day. Then, with all the ways we can describe God in mind, we talked about relationship.

What does Bnei Yisrael want from their relationship with God?

  • For God to protect them.
  • For God to take care of them.
  • For God to give them something to look up to and aspire to be.

What does God want from God’s relationship with Bnei Yisrael?

  • For them to worship God.
  • For them to love God.
  • For them to be a family for God.
  • For them to believe that God is sort of half-real, half-mysterious.

What do I want from my relationship with God?

  • Maybe to help me occasionally when things are really hard.
  • Nothing—I can take care of myself.
  • Help influencing my mom to give me whatever I want to eat!

We also brought the conversation back to how we all have some godliness, some tzelem elohim, inside each of us. I’ll leave you with the ideas just one kindergartener had about what that tzelem elohim might look like:

  • We can be brave, kind, and creative.
  • We can be generous and giving.
  • We can help each other find our way when we’re lost.

Walk & Talk: Who is God, anyway?!

When I share with other Jewish educators what we teach our students on weeks like this one, they are either jealous or amazed that we take on theology in such a complicated way with such young students. But at the end of the day, this is child-led learning! And your children have asked a lot of questions about God. So we wanted to make space for them to think about those questions. Note: I said think about those questions, not answer them. We may all emerge from this week more confused than clarified, and that’s okay. Part of our intention for this week’s content is to present a nuanced view of God in Jewish tradition so that our students can find room to think, challenge, and see what resonates for them right now and know that there are other models to revisit later when that one no longer resonates.

As we go through this week, our students will have the opportunity to reflect back on the ways God has behaved in a number of moments in Torah that we have studied together. Here is a quick overview for your reference, as these conversations come home:

God at Mt. Sinai

Made a HUGE public presentation of smoke, lightening, shofar blasts, a shaking mountain, and a LONG, private visit with Moses. Only then to get VERY upset and subject some people to the death penalty when they got scared while Moses was away and built a golden calf. God was vengeful and murderous here, and that was hard for us to relate to!

God while Bnai Yisrael wandered in the desert
Carefully set up systems to care for Bnai Yisrael. There was a pillar of fire to lead them through the desert by night and a pillar of cloud by day. Food rained out of the sky in perfect quantity to eat every day. Their clothes and shoes never even wore out! God was kind, compassionate, and loving.

God when Bnai Yisrael entered the Land of Israel
Rescues Bnai Yisrael over and over from their own mistakes, helps them conquer the people already living there, and generally makes sure they have lives of bounty and comfort. Your children reflected that this is how real friends treat each other, with kindness and love.

God when the world was created
Has INCREDIBLE power to create only through speaking. Once the creations are finished though, draws back from the world, admits that people have free will and expects us to use it to take care of the world.

A few questions for you to think about:

  • Do any of these God models resonate for me?
  • What works or doesn’t work about these God models for me?
  • How on earth do all these different models (and lots more!) co-exist in Jewish tradition?
  • What from each of these God models do I want to share with my children as they are thinking about God?

We know this can be an especially intimidating conversation to have with our children. Please be in touch if you want to talk with me before or after this comes up while you’re walking home or doing bedtime! I love getting to support our families as they learn and grow together.


Comfort: The Root of All Evil?

Bnei Yisrael (the Jewish People) have finally made it to Israel and life is good! After centuries of slavery and decades of wandering in the desert, they have a home where there’s plenty of water and food and space. They settle in and get comfy. And in their comfort, Bnei Yisrael forgets the brit (two-way promise) that they made with God. They stop being good people and following the Torah. So God lets the other people in the region conquer them. Life suddenly isn’t so good anymore, so they cry out to God, who saves them and makes life comfortable again. But then because they’re comfortable, they throw away the Torah again. And again. And again.

Bnei Yisrael should be learning that even when they’re comfortable they should still do the right thing and follow the Torah. But instead they keep making the same mistakes over and over. Here are some of your brilliant kiddos’ thoughts on that cycle.

 Why do Bnei Yisrael keep making the same mistakes?

  • They’re so comfy cozy that they don’t realize they’re doing the wrong thing.
  • They’re too tired from being slaves in Egypt and then walking to Israel to do the right things.
  • Maybe they felt like they were already good enough and like they didn’t need to keep putting work into being good people or having a relationship with God.

Why do people that I see repeat the same mistakes over and over again?

  • Maybe they’re copying someone else (someone older).
  • Maybe they’re doing it because they want to, they like doing the mistake.
  • Maybe because they don’t know how to stop – they don’t know what to do instead.

Am I the best version of myself when I’m totally comfortable?

  • Not really. I snap at people when they try to talk to me when I’m reading.
  • When I’m the most comfortable it’s easier to upset me when my comfort gets disturbed.
  • I get angry when someone tries to get in the way of me being comfy.
  • If I’m too comfortable, I might not want to do something that someone asks me to do.
  • I might fall asleep, and then it’s hard to get up and do things.

Hello, God? It’s us, the Jewish People.

Is God present in our lives? How can we tell?

This week we continued studying the summary of Jewish History that the Levi’im (Levites) recounted during the first Yom Kippur celebration. We read the part of the story where Bnei Yisral (the Jewish people) were wandering in the desert and counting on God for food and water. This is a part of the Torah that includes a lot of complaining, grumbling, and discontent. Bnei Yisrael repeatedly tell Moshe that they were better off as slaves in Egypt where at least they weren’t starving or thirsty. Here are some insights our learners had on these stories:

Why is Bnei Yisrael complaining to Moshe now when they used to cry out to God?

  • Because they think Moshe is responsible for their lack of food and water.
  • They can actually see Moshe, but there isn’t so much evidence that God is with them.
  • They’re not sure whether God is real and whether they can trust God.
  • Maybe they complain to Moshe instead of God because they’re afraid of God—God was kind of scary getting them out of Egypt and after het ha’egel (the golden calf).
  • God is in Moshe’s staff and the sand and the water and everywhere, but maybe only Moshe can really see that and the rest of Bnei Yisrael doesn’t know.

Bnei Yisrael looking to Moshe rather than God to solve their problems is also their way of testing God. When the people are thirsty and hungry, they wonder: “Is God present among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7). We asked ourselves the same question:

  • No, because God wouldn’t waste time on us. If God exists, people aren’t important enough for God to bother with.
  • Yes, because God is in us and created us.
  • Yes, because God is everywhere and created the world, so without God I wouldn’t be here.
  • Yes, we see God when we see each other because we’re all God’s creations.


Walk & Talk December 19: What are your actions telling your children about gratitude today?

This week, one of the texts we focused on together was the Levi’im (Levites) re-telling the whole history (as they see it) of the Jewish People. What they highlight and don’t is fascinating all by itself. One piece they highlight is the Jewish People’s inability to be grateful for how bountifully God provided for them while they are wandering in the desert.

Earlier this week, I asked some of our students to write down things they were grateful for. We got some great lists!

Parents, family, siblings, houses, food, friends, learning, books, toys, dogs, cats, and water were on nearly everyone’s list.

Interestingly, not even one student mentioned having a coat or shoes—on a particularly cold day (though they all have great coats and shoes). Once I pointed that out, we had a really interesting conversation about the challenges of being grateful for things we have always had and expect to have.

Here are a few questions that might spark conversation at home (or walking home) this week as you talk with your child about their learning at Makom Community:

  • Who all takes care of you?
  • What do they provide for you?
  • Why is it hard to be grateful when I already have a lot?
  • What can I do to make sure that I both feel grateful and express my gratitude?

Additionally, you and the other grownups in your child’s life might want to create a game plan for how each of you is modeling gratitude to your children and each other in front of your children in the weeks and months ahead. This is certainly a case where actions speak louder than words. What are your actions telling your children about gratitude today?