The Torah seems to begin with preschoolers in mind. The story of the creation of the world in Genesis 1 is full of concrete images and simple repetition, and it has a plot that is easy for kids to follow.
As the weeks move forward, however, it can be harder to engage young children with the parashah, the weekly Torah portion. Even in the colorful stories of Genesis, characters make strange and disturbing choices. Later, the plot drifts altogether into a maze of technical details about building the Tabernacle and offering sacrifices.
Despite these obstacles, parents and children even as young as three years old can actively participate in a discussion about the parashah.
There are several reasons. First, establishing a weekly routine of parashah study when children are still little sets the stage for more sophisticated discussions in the years to come. By the time kids are old enough to engage more deeply in the text, they will already be familiar with the major characters and themes. Further, this is an activity that parents and children can do together–with learning taking place on both sides. And finally, the stories and themes throughout the Torah provide a wonderful launching point for talking about some of the most fundamental issues in children’s lives.
As a general rule, in parashah discussions try to focus on one specific incident or passage. While the Torah contains a tremendous number of characters, laws, and stories, below are four central themes that arise over and over. Each week, look through the parashah, and try to relate it to one of these themes. This can help focus your discussion with young children, who learn best through repetition and will be happy to identify the same recurring themes from week to week.
Theme 1: Opposites
Young children readily connect to opposites–and the Torah is full of them.
In the six days of creation (Parashat Bereshit), God sets up opposites: Light and darkness, heaven and earth, land and sea, etc.
This theme continues throughout the Torah as many other opposites are explored. We are introduced to opposite people, like Jacob, a man who dwells in his tent and Esau, a hunter (Genesis 25:19-28:9, in Parashat Toldot). Opposite behaviors–good and bad–and their consequences are also a prominent theme (see, for example, Deuteronomy 23, in Parashat Ki Tavo). Permitted vs. forbidden activities can also be presented as opposites, for example the rules about foods that can and cannot be eaten in Leviticus 11, Parashat Shemini. Even opposite times–the holiness of Shabbat contrasts with the rest of the working week–can be explored (for example, in Deuteronomy 5:12-14, Parashat Va’et’hanan).