Teaching Chumash Skills using The Torah: A Modern Commentary
The Chumash, which I used when I first began to learn Torah in-depth, has a special place on my shelf. The notes on its pages are invaluable, not just for their information, but also as a connection to a time in my past and to the teachers with whom I learned, among them Rabbi Judith Abrams, z”l, whose lesson about the words and letters of the Priestly Benediction remain an important part of my kavannah whenever I bless someone with them.
When I arrived at my congregation, there was a religious school book list which asked our 7th-graders to purchase a Chumash. Though, I would soon learn that they never used it or learned how to use it.
If we want the Chumash to be a meaningful tome with which our students connect, and if we hope that it does more than gather dust on a shelf, we need to teach our students to engage with it and make meaning.
I don’t necessarily anticipate the same kind of connection from our students that we as clergy may have with a Chumash. But, the hope is that by engaging with the Chumash they will gain a connection to it. This cannot happen if a wrapped copy is handed to them on the bimah and put into the backseat of the car on the way to their party.
At my weekly Torah study, I noticed that many of those attending didn’t fully understand the jargon nor did they possess the skills needed to navigate a Chumash. In fact, many seemed intimidated by it. So together we learned how it works and how to use it. It’s important not to take for granted the facility we have with a Chumash. For many of our congregants, odds are they have rarely opened or even seen a Chumash outside of the sanctuary. All the more so our b’nei mitzvah!
So, what do we do? First, we transitioned to the Plaut (Torah: A Modern Commentary) Chumash both in our sanctuary and on our book list. This sends a message that as a congregation, we use a commentary to which congregants and students can relate. Next, we needed to work within the religious school to make use of this book we asked families to purchase.
In addition, beginning a couple of years ago, the Chumash became a textbook for the 7th-grade. I introduce it to the students when together we pick the verses from their Torah portion which they will chant. I show them the book, discuss why it’s titled: “A Modern Commentary,” and use the maps to help them see where their portion takes place. Then I use the structural outline from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary to help them pick the section they will read when they are called to the Torah. Not incidentally, I also ask why they think that the second volume is called “A Women’s Commentary” and explain that almost every other commentary on my shelf was written by a man, and so these two volumes work together to give a complete, multi-faceted, modern approach to Torah that values everyone’s input.
When they reach their 7th-grade classrooms, they use the Chumash in a few different ways and for a few purposes. First, they use it to learn more about their parashah and where it falls in the context of the Torah, ultimately creating a story board of their entire parashah. They also learn Chumash skills. How does one read this book with Hebrew and English and columns? How do we talk about something in the Torah in a way that everyone understands and everyone can find? What are chapters and what are verses and what do they tell us? Why are there essays?
As a rabbi, it’s quite special when I meet with the students later in the year to work on their divrei Torah and I hear them correctly refer to chapters and verses. This skill is not innate; and it is a skill that I believe all Jews should possess. Helping our congregants powerfully and confidently engage in Torah is our goal. Using the Chumash as a central text in our 7th-grade means that our students engage not just in words of Torah, but in the practice of Torah and the art of studying as Jews.
Rabbi Daniel Bar-Nahum is the Rabbi and Director of Education at Temple Emanu-El of East Meadow, New York.