Welcome back to the arena for the second game in our series of Mensch Madness: The Creatures of Judaism. Both of our contenders are underdogs (not that either of them are literally dogs—one team isn’t even mammalian!) who never imagined that they’d make it this far.
On one side of the court, we have The Frogs. Yes, the frogs from the ten plagues—they hopped here all the way from ancient Egypt. They’ve accumulated assists in previous games by annoying Pharaoh into letting the Jews go. Unfortunately, their win was short-lived, as Pharaoh changed his mind and refused to let the Jews leave. Ultimately, their W was changed to an L.
On the other side, we have Baxter the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher. Although he wasn’t successful in becoming kosher, Baxter had a slam dunk in learning about Judaism. His pre-game ritual of downing pickles and challah has served him well in the past, and we’re excited to see how he’ll compete in today’s game.
The ball is tossed to start the game, and the frogs have a big advantage with their vertical leap. Frogs have first possession, and Baxter can’t focus with all the frogs on his nose and frogs on his toes. Frogs here, frogs there, frogs were jumping everywhere. The game has barely begun and there is already a penalty for too many players on the court. Baxter gets to take a foul shot and….it’s good!
As the game continues… Baxter is really hogging the ball today. His confidence has grown and Baxter flies across the court to score again! The frogs call a time out to regroup and come up with a new, ribbeting play. These frogs come to us from an area where basketball isn’t very popular and they’re still getting accustomed to the rules. These guys tried to come onto the court today with open-toad shoes! Come on, frogs! Do better.
As for Baxter, he’s conferring with his coaches on the game, thus far, and developing their own plan for winning.
Time out is over! The frogs and pig are back at it, fighting for the win as the game clocks winds down. It appears that Baxter has been practicing and hammed up his offense! He is wiping the floor with these frogs today, and they are hopping mad! In a turn for the worst, the frogs seem to have lost focus. Aaaand, there are flies on the sideline… and now the frogs are going after the flies.
All of the frogs have left the court, leaving our treif-rific friend Baxter with the win. In the least-kosher matchup in our series, we’re excited to see this little piggy go wee wee wee, all the way to the next game.
I am very active personally and professionally in the New Orleans Jewish community. Recently, I began teaching a beginner adult education class entitled “The Stories of Genesis and Exodus.” This eight week series is free and open to the public with no prior knowledge required.
On our first day of class, I had everyone introduce themselves and say a sentence or two about what they hoped to learn. The make-up of this class is very interesting. The students include three individuals who are in the process of converting to Judaism; one Catholic who has been married to a Jew and participating in Jewish life for over 20 years; and one woman who identifies as Christian but recently learned of her Jewish heritage and wants a full understanding of what Jews believe and what our holidays are all about.
“I am here to learn THE truth,” this last student said.
And suddenly I realized the serious responsibility of teaching Torah to beginners.
Many years ago, I taught another group of adult beginners—those brave enough to attempt an adult beginner ballet class. Back then, I recall how surprised I was by how much more difficult it was to slow myself down. To go back to the basics, and teach new learners the concepts behind the techniques, even before breaking down the physical basics, bit by bit. I was usually extremely exhausted and sore after those classes, unlike going through my regular motions teaching intermediate and advanced classes. You would think a beginner class, with no advanced moves and only basic skill-building, would be easy! But making sure we have the core concepts and basic moves down, going from nothing to step one, is sometimes the hardest step of all.
Teaching Torah is no different.
While I thought it would be simpler, in actuality, teaching “new Jewish learners” is much more complicated than teaching intermediate Jewish learners, because with the intermediate there is already an understanding. We have shared terminology, make more assumptions, and assume a certain level of “same page knowledge” with those who sit at the intermediate tables. With these beginners, before I could even get to the basics, we needed to talk technique—just as with my dance students.
I realized the first order of business was NOT starting with “In the beginning….” It was to explain that Jewish thought does not consider any one thing as “The” Truth; that is a far more Christian concept. We Jews are filled with questions, interpretations and thousands of years of written thoughts to ponder and learn, which are amazing.
Of course, we do thank God in our blessing after the reading of Torah reading for giving us a “Torah of Truth.” But as we learn to study Jewishly, we realize that this can mean a Torah full of truths, not one single Truth. We can also have a rich discussion of the beauty of the truths in the Torah, with an understanding of the difference between truth and fact, between Truth and truths, and so on.
I had imagined this adult beginner class would be “easy.” Instead, it is a daunting task—and also an awesome responsibility. I look forward to next week when I walk in much more prepared to listen first, and teach second instead of the other way around. We will focus on the technique as much as the steps, learning like dancers.
See there, I am already learning again… and that is the truth!
This year’s Mensch Madness Baaaaaa-sketball Tournament opens with a play-in game between the #8 seed, One Little Goat from the famous Passover song Chad Gadya, and the #9 seed, the Ram from the Akeidah.
Which of these two feisty beasts will make it to the next round?
Hardcore fans will recall the Ram from the story of the Binding of Isaac, back in Genesis 22. God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, then an Angel swooped in to stop the slaughter at the last moment. As Abraham looked up in gratitude, his eyes “fell upon the Ram caught in the thicket.” Now this Ram is almost a sure winner. After all, when they were walking up Mount Moriah Abraham said to Isaac, “God will see to the sheep for the offering.” We never doubted this Ram would come through, and we think he will perform similarly today!
On the other team we see the underdog, the main character from the Passover song, the One Little Goat that My Father Bought for Two Zuzim, also known as Chad Gadya. This is one small goat, folks. He got beaten up by a cat – A CAT, Y’ALL – and his size is still a big concern today!
We now go live to the game:
The Ram won the jump ball and has taken off down the court. Unfortunately, this is one clumsy Ram. Remember how he got his horns tangled up in that thicket? That’s how Abraham spotted him in the first place. Well, now the Ram is tripping all over himself again and the Chad Gadya quickly moved in to take the ball away.
Now here comes that One Little Goat down the court, and oh no! The stick appears out of nowhere to beat the dog who bit the cat who ate the goat my father bought for two zuzim. Sheesh, Little Goat can’t catch a break!
And that’s the halftime buzzer. One thing you really have to appreciate about both these players is their symbolic value. Abraham offered this Ram as a sign of his gratitude when God spared his son, Isaac. God’s acceptance of this offering really put an end to child sacrifice. The Goat from Chad Gadya also carries deep meaning; he represents the paschal offering, the reminder of how God freed our ancestors from Egypt. Both these beasts carry weighty symbolic burdens.
And we’re back! Now as the Ram takes the ball down the court. The aforementioned Angel of God appears to set a pick, and the Ram shoots from the 3-point line and scores. What a play! Chad Gadya has divine beings on his team, too, and as he takes the ball the Angel of Death who killed the butcher who slaughtered the ox who drank the water that put out the fire that burned the stick that hit the dog that bit the cat that ate the goat that my father bought for two zuzim has appeared on the court to come to the Goat’s assistance.
Angel of God! Angel of Death! Holy… basketball!
This has been a tough game, but when the final shofar blows, it’s the Ram from the Akeidah walks away with the victory. You just can’t escape the fact that this Ram has divine sanction on his side. Abraham saw this Ram caught in a thicket, and made him the symbol of God’s mercy. As Yehuda Amichai wrote, “The real hero of the Isaac story was the Ram,” and it’s tough to beat that.
In the next round, the Ram will face off against the Golden Calf! See you there, sports fans.
 Yehuda Amichai, “The Real Hero.” Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. Translation by Chana Bloch & Stephen Mitchel. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).