Torah Discussions for the Family Table
What we discuss at the family dinner table can elevate our journey as a family. Bringing "words of Torah" into our family's conversation has enhanced our ability to connect and communicate with our children throughout their lifetimes. Obviously, any discussion needs to be scaled to the ages and passions of the participants. The willingness of the leader to share deeply sets a tone for the discussion that allows others to participate. We stress the importance of focusing on individual words and concepts in discussions that are open ended. We recommend these topics for the table discussions. They are intended as a second and third stage tool for celebration at home.
The first word of the Torah is bereshit. Jews translate it "When God began to create...."
Beginnings always have things that happened before according to the Torah. What new beginnings have we celebrated in recent times? How have these beginnings added to our lives? What beginnings are you proudest of? As parents? As parents of your children? As children?
When Adam and Eve ate from the fruit, they felt conscious of their nakedness and hid. The Holy One called to them, "Ayeka. Where are you?" Adam doesn’t answer. Where are we as a family? Where would we like to be in the coming year?
3. Am I my brother’s/sister’s keeper?
The story of Cain and Abel includes the first murder. The story goes that Cain and Abel made offerings to God. Only Abel’s received a blessing. Cain was unhappy and killed Abel. When the Holy One asks, "What have you done?" Cain answers, "Am I my brother’s keeper?"
What does it mean to be a brother’s keeper? How are we "brother’s and sister’s keepers?" The Torah says that the answer for a religious person to this question is, "Yes!" even when you don’t get the blessing.
Noah was called a righteous person in his generation. What are the qualities of righteous person? Who has some of these qualities in our family? In our community? What is our family proudest of in terms of our contribution to the world around us? What would we like to do to make a contribution of righteous action to our community and world in the next year?
The word "mentsch" is the word for good person in Yiddish. What are the qualities of mentsch?
Who are our heroes?
5. Lech Lecha-- Go forth!
Abraham and Sarah are called from the land where their parents dwelled to a land of blessing and of relationship to the Holy One. Where have we traveled physically and spiritually in recent times? Where has our extended family come from? Share some family history, some stories about travel. Where are we aiming for? What is our family mission? Has the Holy One ever entered into some of your decision making? Have you ever been "called?"
5b. Hineni: here I am
The capacity to say "Hineni" to God and to his child is a special quality. In a way it’s the Jewish answer to that initial question that the Holy One asked Adam and Eve. ("Where are you?") What do you say "Hineni" to today? How do you say it in actions? What do you hope that your children will be able to say "Hineni" to? Will they say this as Jews?
5c. Vision: "Abraham saw the place from afar."
What is your family vision? Where would you like to be next summer? Where would you like to be in life?
6. Toldot the generations
The Torah begins with a genealogy of Isaac. This is family history night at the table. Describe some relatives who were from previous generations. Share pictures.
7. Vayetze: and (Jacob) went out or fled. Have you ever fled in fear? Has it led you to anything beneficial on your journey in life to confront fear? The same word for "fear" in Hebrew also means, "awe." Can you think of a time when fear and awe were mixed or when fear led to awe?
Have you ever been angry with someone and found a way to make things better. Share an example. What were the steps to doing this? Our people call this process "teshuvah." It means realigning or returning to God.
Yisrael means "wrestling with God." What does it mean to wrestle with God? How do we do it now? Why does Jacob limp when called Yisrael? What experiences have allowed us to feel a deep relationship with the Holy One?
What is Joseph’s coat of many colors a symbol of? Do you feel that you received a blessing from someone else ever? From whom? What are the blessings in your life that you are most grateful for?
11. The pit
Have you ever been in a pit in life? If so, what/who helped you out? Did you grow from the experience?
12. Joseph’s children are named for two conditions: God has made me forget my father’s house and God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction. Does either of these apply to you?
How have you embraced your parent after considerable distance? Jacob and Joseph do it after many years. What is the Torah telling us about life?
Who has blessed you in your life? Go around the table and fill in this sentence, "May you be blessed by..." Maybe make up blessings for each person at the table.
15. Shemot: Names
For whom were you named? Why did you name your children what you did? Honoring the midwives who rebelled. What women have been the most heroic in your life’s experience? What has been your Egypt?
16. Was Moses right to kill?
Who are your kinsmen?
17. Why do we remember that "we were strangers in a strange land?" at Passover. What is the benefit of welcoming strangers and guests into your home? Would you like to do it more? Have you ever been a stranger in a strange land? Are there any ways in which you are now?
What are the plagues that we have experienced in our lives? Did they ever move you to a more positive place?
When the plagues are happening; why do you suppose we don’t hear from the Jewish people? Remember the phrase "kotzer ruach and avodah kasha?" They couldn’t respond, we are told, because of "a lack of spirit and difficult work." Are there ever times when this applies to us? What can we do about it?
19. Who am I that I should go to Pharoah?
Why was Moses afraid? If he was also a hero what does this say about the way Jews remember heroes? Have you ever felt that you weren’t up to the task and you did it anyway?
20. What are you grateful for? To whom? To God?
21. What are you proud of from the past week, past month, in your life?
What are you proudest of in your children? Your parents?
22. Family Mitzvot discussion
All the Jewish people stand at Sinai and receive the commandments. How is your family involved in doing mitzvot? How could they be more involved in doing mitzvot?
23. Sharing the burden of the work.
Why doesn’t Moses know that relying on others help make for better decisions sometimes? What is Jethro’s wisdom? How could we pace ourselves better?
Teaching: the difference between priest and prophet.
24. Idol Worship. The Jews at Sinai were afraid to wait for Moses and they had Aaron fashion an idol. After reading the passage, what should Aaron have done?
Do we worship idols today? How is this harmful?
But in worshipping an idol at Sinai, it gave the people an opportunity to demonstrate their freewill and their capacity for worship and it gave the Holy One an opportunity to be forgiving. Both are key dimensions of being in Covenant with the Holy One: freewill and the capacity in the Holy One to be loving and forgiving?
How have we experienced God’s love and forgiveness in our lives?
25. Do you believe in miracles? What miracles have you experienced? What are the extraordinary moments? "God renews creation daily." "In Israel, if you don’t believe in miracles, you aren’t a realist."
26. Slavery and freedom
Make a paper midrash of slavery and freedom. Put your heart in it. What are the dimensions of your journey that have been trapped in slavery? What dimensions of your journey have been transformational and leave you appreciative of your freedom? Think in both personal and political terms.
27. Celebrating resilience. The word resilient means to bounce back. It’s the story of the Jewish people in the 20th century. But three years after Auschwitz, the Jewish people celebrated the rebirth of the State of Israel. How have you been resilient in your own life? What challenges have you faced? How have you bounced back? What have your resources been? Whom? How has Judaism been a part of those resources?
28. "Eved" means slave. It also means worshipper. It can also be used to mean "servant of God." How are we God’s partners and servants? What else could we be doing?
29. The word kadosh means to set aside or make different. It also means holy. What things do we do that set us aside and make us holy as people, as a family, as the people of Israel?
30. Terumah is an offering of the heart. In making the Temple, the Holy One asked the people to make a contribution, but it had to be special, it had to flow from the heart. In what ways to we contribute "from our hearts?" How could it flow more?
31. The priestly clothes. If we are a nation of priests, then "Is what we wear ever important? How about what we wear at special times?" What should be our family’s practice for getting dressed up for Shabbat?
32. In ancient times, our people made offerings of animals to our God. They were called sacrifices. But since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, we have not made sacrifices. Prayer, study and synagogues and Jewish homes have replaced them. But we might still ask, "What sacrifices do we make?" "What sacrifices might we make for the betterment of our family life? For the betterment of our world?"
33. What is our chametz? What are the things that cling to us and keep us from freely and completely leaving Egypt without delay?