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I love to teach Hebrew. In the early eighties I was "Lay Rabbi" for congregations in Vermont (which was less than an hour's drive from where I lived and went to college in Albany, NY). I created a Primer for the students. I was a songleader in the summers and teaching Bar/Bat Mitzvah students (among other classes) during the school year. I took all of the songs that I sang at summer camp, and all of the prayers and blessings the students needed to learn for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah and I used Lotus 1-2-3 (a DOS based spreadsheet) to determine which were the letters that were used most often. I took that information and created a Primer that helped teach about five letters and one or two vowels each lesson, and then I taught songs that used only the letters that they had learned. The first song was Bim Bam Shabbat Shalom. It was always exciting when a student was reading the practice lines and realized that they had just read "Shabbat" or "Shalom" in Hebrew. I really loved teaching the class I called: Dr. J's Hebrew Sing and Say.

I did not move to Shreveport directly after Albany, but once I got here, I started teaching Hebrew. When I taught at Centenary and LSUS I was honestly shocked that none of the students were Jewish. None of the students got excited when they could read "Shabbat" or even "Shalom." I realized that this Primer wasn't as helpful for this demographic as I needed it to be. 

I created a new Primer, I realized that the students I was trying to teach had practically no Hebrew for me to use to help them get excited about realizing that they could read the words. Usually when someone first learns to read, there is a picture of a thing: for example a dog, and then the letters that spell "dog," and then the novice reader learns how to read the word that they already know. It is an effective way to learn. If they don't know what the picture is, the letters don't help. 

It turns out that - as you probably know - many students in America spend their limited time learning Hebrew just to be able to read some prayers - and more often than not - they probably don't know what the words to the prayers mean. That is not a helpful way to learn, and it is not a helpful way to retain what they do learn. 

I decided that if my students were not going to be able to read words that they already recognized, I would have to approach teaching Hebrew from the opposite direction. Have the students learn to read things that they would love to know how to read. Obviously the practical thing for them to read is Hebrew Scriptures. I was thrilled to realize that the first day of the first Creation story has all but seven letters. Those seven letters all exist in the Decalogue in Exodus. Those are the two texts that I use with my Primer to teach students how to read Hebrew. 

I call this Primer: Hebrew From Day One (get it - students can already read Hebrew from day one of the class, and we are using Day One of the Creation story as our source text). In six lessons I teach all of the letters. After the first lesson students can read the first two words of Torah. Soon they can read the whole first sentence. The first sentence, as you probably know, means (please understand that I do NOT like translations, but that is a story for another time) "In the beginning G-d created the skies and the land." There is a lot to learn from that one sentence. What I want to talk about today is the last word in the sentence: Ha-'aretz "The Land." Most people may only see that G-d created the universe - land, sky. Some people think of it as "heaven and earth. " Linguists notice that the things mentioned are opposites, which creates a "merism" - when someone uses opposites to mean "everything." (For example, if someone says, "that's the long and the short of it" they don't mean that it is the long version and the short version - they mean that is everything about it.

The fact that the last word of the sentence is "Ha-'Aretz" "The Land" has a number of scholars saying that it could be specifically referring to The Land of Israel / The Promised Land. That the whole purpose of Creation is for G-d to promise us The Land. In Hebrew, whenever someone says, "Ha-aretz" even though it could just mean "the place," "the property" everyone would presume that you were talking about "THE Land," which means Israel.

I spent a year in Israel after high school - before I went to study in Albany. My heart is still in The Land. It has obviously changed a lot since I was there, but I still love it. 

This week we celebrated Earth Day. Obviously "earth" is another way of translating what it said G-d created on the first day. I believe that although Israel has a special place in our hearts, G-d commanded us to help take care of the entire earth. I think that is also what is intended by the first sentence in the Torah. 

In English, the words "earth" and "heart" have the same letters. 

The fact that we are staying at home does not detract from us loving the earth, and finding ways to appreciate it. There are online park tours, and mountains to climb, and waterways to explore. There are animals to watch - I have seen some amazing things since I have been at home. You may have seen my videos of my owl neighbors. I have more. The baby is fine. I saw a robin trying to carry a worm that was three times as long as she was. She dropped the squirmy worm, and I thought it was a snake. 

I hope you had a happy Earth Day. Now we can prepare for Yom Ha'Atzma'ut - Israel Independence Day, which is next Wednesday (5 Iyar / April 29). I have posted a lot of learning materials to help you learn HaTikvah. I have challenged my Hebrew students to learn it. Let me know it I need to post anything else to help you. (I can send you a transliterated version - just don't tell my students.)

So I realized once again that HaMakom, the place where you are, influences what you do. My teaching methods have changed based on place and the people in the place. The world we live in - our place - takes on new meaning for me each Earth Day. 

From my place to yours, wishing you safety, health, love, and peace. 

Tue, December 1 2020 15 Kislev 5781