The parashah (section) Tazria/M'tzora (these two portions are read together many years) describes a series of detailed rituals that must be undertaken by the priests as part of a process for ritual cleansing. It describes elaborate measures taken to transform the person in question from a state of tahor (impurity) to a state of tameh (purity). It wasn't solely the content of the steps that was important, it also was critical that they be done in a particular sequence.
What can parents and teachers of young children learn from this portion of the Torah? Let's examine the concept of sequencing and how it relates to the importance of order and predictability in a young child's life. This most certainly will help us raise the standard and quality of the environment in which our children thrive.
Have you ever watched an infant keep putting on and taking off a sock or shoe, for a long time, patiently, with a fixed expression, slightly open mouth and total concentration? This is not a game, nor imitation, and neither is it a senseless waste of time but real work. A child's development curve has its springtimes and its autumns, alternating periods of intense work and rest. -Janusz Korczak
Think about the life experience of infants. When they cry with hunger (usually on some sort of natural schedule), we respond by feeding them. When they have soiled diapers, we change them. Cause and effect: Their requests are met with love and consistency; they learn to trust their environment and the people in it. A certain sequence or chain of events that they set into motion ultimately enables them to view their world as a safe, predictable place in which to exist.
Soon after they begin attending preschool, young children learn that each day has both predictable and unpredictable features. They walk into their classrooms, and they choose the toys with which they want to play while waiting for the other children to arrive. Once everybody has arrived, they meet with their teacher for circle time. They sing greeting songs and talk about what will happen that day. They are then free to choose a "center" to play in, as well as with whom they want to play, until it is time to go outside on the playground. Certainly there are variations in this schedule from one school or classroom to another, but regardless of the content of the day or the actual order in which events occur, children come to rely on a predictable schedule. The routine helps them know what will happen next, and the consistency reduces stress. More so, the important people who make it all happen help build their sense of trust. When parents, teachers or caregivers pay attention to children's needs, when meals and naps and routines take place on a fairly regular schedule, then their world becomes a trustworthy place in which to live.
At its best, play can bring a sense of holy joy. And holy joy is the beating heart of the universe.
When children feel safe-when their environments are calm, consistent and predictable-they feel free to explore and take risks. For children, this often takes place in the context of play, a most important and crucial aspect of their daily lives. It is through play that children strengthen their sense of identity; they try on different roles and experiment with social situations they have witnessed or imagined. In many ways, it is a dress rehearsal for life. Whether it's solitary or in parallel with others, whether it's at home or at school, play helps children learn to navigate through the everyday circumstances of life.
Just as the structure of the school day and the play environment help build strength, Judaism, too, has a built-in structure that strengthens identity: a yearlong tapestry of Jewish holidays and celebrations; a body of prayers that includes those we say at home and those that comprise our synagogue worship services; customs and rituals we partake in at home or with our community. How fortunate we are that this also includes the weekly celebration of Shabbat, when we say blessings in a specific sequence.
Following are some ideas for activities as well as behaviors/choices that can build sequencing, order and predictability into the lives of your children and students. If you already are incorporating similar ideas into your family's life or into your classroom, this will acknowledge and support the choices you've made. If you are interested in furthering the commitment that you have made to live Jewishly, we hope this list will serve as a jumping off point.
- Bake homemade challah for Shabbat.
- Display a Jewish calendar that helps your family or students keep track of the Jewish holidays.
- Build a family sukkah (purchase a kit for building your own) or help decorate your synagogue sukkah.
- Decide as a family the charities to which you will donate money.
- When a friend is ill, make a family card and send it to him or her.
- Establish a bedtime ritual of saying the Shema.
- If your family has a pet, make sure that the pet is fed before everyone sits down to eat a meal.
- Establish a morning ritual of saying the Modeh/Modah Ani prayer.
- While refraining from speaking ill of others is the ideal, if you slip and say something nasty about someone, try to counteract it by wishing him or her peace.
- When someone in your family experiences something new, say the Shehecheyanu prayer.
- Introducing and practicing the concept of learning to "agree to disagree" will help teach your children or students how to work towards sh'lom bayit (a peaceful and loving home).
- When a family in your child's class at school has a new baby, make dinner for that family.
By exploring and embracing the customs and values that are inherent to Judaism, you will help your children or students develop strong Jewish identities. You'll give them a gift that will support and nurture them throughout their lives.
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 826-838; Revised Edition, pp. 735-745