The woes of a Sunday school teacher: Teaching ancient Jewish practice

The worse part of being a Sunday school teacher, for children, in our church, is that nothing has prepared me for teaching. You sit down with a complicated manual, written by men, who work on inspiration no doubt, but sometimes the distance between their inspired thoughts and the children in my class room, is as far as the distance to the moon. From this manual, I am supposed to make some sense, for the children whom I teach. Without having any teaching skills what so ever. But not just make sense for them. Not bore them to tears. And not lose control in the classroom. And that last thing is very easy with two children having ADHD in the room. One of them is not diagnosed, but the symptoms are there and the problem with this child is not just having no attention span at all, but he hardly ever comes. So when he comes, he is clueless to what has been discussed in the weeks past, and shows his frustrations with just calling out comments aloud or he “screams”.

What makes me lose control in the classroom? When there is no table present at the beginning. When I try to do the initial “gathering activity” , which is supposed to set the stage, not create chaos! Like this past  Sunday, when I was supposed to set the stage for walking in someone’s footsteps, the way Ruth did. I was supposed to put out steps made out of paper, on the floor, before class, which made the kids go crazy outside the door. And then they were supposed to walk on the steps to their regular seats, which of course could not be done in a quiet manner, but had to be done with accompanying screams. Now I know I should have skipped the activity! It’s very easy to be smart afterwards, teaching this class! All the things one should have avoided, all the things one should not have said:

Like last week, when the lesson was about Samson. I decided to explain what a Nazarite was and is today. And I lost it of course, already at the fact that a Nazarite was not allowed to be in company of the dead. “But what if there is a dead mouse on the road?”, “How could he then eat meat?”,  “What if someone is dying, would he run away so he wouldn’t be there when the person died?”, … Thousand questions about something that was not the topic of the lesson. But it got worse. Samson going out and killing a lion and then walking by it, at a later date. It was a dead lion! And “gross”, him taking honey from the mouth of it! A discussion ensued on how disgusting it must have been to eat something from a dead body and did he tell his parents where the honey came from? And when Samson killed 30 men, in order to get their clothes, to give to his wedding attendants, after the men of that party, tricked his wife, in to finding out the answer of a riddle he had given them. You imagejust can’t mention killing in my class! If you do, it is on your own risk. They want to know the weapon and all the boys have to demonstrate the way the killing went about. And I just want to rip my hair and ask myself, how do I get them to sit down again? But it did not end there, did it? They were soon out of their chairs again, when Samson picked up a donkey’s jawbone and killed a thousand men with that! I don’t quite think I am cut out for this!!!!

When I finally got to the part that they were all waiting for, the cutting off of the hair, I carefully had to avoid the fact that Samson and Delilah might not have been married and what  he was doing in her room, falling asleep on her lap. And how to explain that it was not the hair in itself that made him strong, but the hair was a sign of a promise he had made to God, and with it gone, he had broken the promise. I finally had to explain it with, that the hair was like a wedding ring, a visual sign of a commitment one has made. But yes, I do agree with the children, he did not cut the hair off himself. So there must have been some more naughtiness going on and I had to explain to them that Samson must have expected that she was going to cut it off, since every time she had asked about his strength and how to capture him, he had said that she could tie him in this and that manner and she had then tied him that way, and had called out that the Philistines were coming, in order for her to see if the ties held him.  Of course I could not tell them that Samson’s lust for Delilah was bigger, in a weak moment, than his commitment to God. And that is why it is SO enormously difficult to teach these lessons, since a lot does not make sense to the children, since they only get the appropriate truth told to them and it happens, to often be, only part of the truth. To fully understand the impact of the story and why it was deemed important to record it in the Bible for generations to come, to learn from others’ mistakes, one really has to get the entire truth. But you can’t teach that to 10-year-old children nor to ones having ADHD. Needless to say, the violent end to poor Samson, who we deemed a hothead, finally, came as a shock to the only girl in the class. It was no easy task to try to explain why Samson had to die. That his mission on earth was over. Why you die when an entire house falls down on you. And all this after there has been a knock on the door, signalling that everyone is waiting for our class. Again!

This Sunday, I did not think there could be anything controversial in the lesson. Nice Ruth who did everything for her mother-in-law and married a nice man. Right! I should have known better. As I said, I lost the reverence, when they were walking on the foot steps. Trying to get someone who is giggling, to say opening prayer, was just an ordeal in itself. But then we moved on to looking at the biblical map of Israel, locating Bethlehem and Moab, and Naomi travelled safely with her family there without any interruptions. And all was well, till we got back to Bethlehem and Naomi told Ruth to go and sleep under Boaz blanket. Right! These children are innocent so they were more concerned with Boaz’s footsmell. Iimage was more concerned about how to explain, that it was not a good thing for a young, unmarried woman to be out during the night, sleeping by a group of men and tongues always wagging. As an adult woman, I of course know of the dangers, which Naomi warned Ruth of. Boaz suggested Ruth staying in his fields only, and with his female servants (for protection of course). Naive Ruth did not understand, so Naomi had to inform her that the men could attack her. That is why Boaz said that he had forbidden the men to touch her. I had to carefully steer clear of what can happen to a girl among a lot of men, a girl who is not protected by society. Being a historian, specifically interested in social history, a family historian, watching the news about Muslim women being raped as a weapon of war and who knows for what reason, girls being raped in India, I do have knowledge which these children do not have. And yet, how to navigate through all the violence and still keep their innocence?

Talking about Ruth sleeping by Boaz feet, was not the toughest part though. You really have to have reached a certain level of maturity, to understand, which these children do not have. For them, it was all about smelly feet and I had to read all of it, over and over again, to myself, when preparing the lesson, to get a clear picture. And then draw my own conclusions, as to why Boaz got so excited over what she had done and what she said. Saying that she was his servant and he, her redeemer, in essence meant that she said told him that she believed in Jewish tradition and fully accepted it, even though she was a foreigner and a Moabite who was brought up worshipping several Gods. What she really said to Boaz was, “I know you are supposed to marry me, so do your duty, you are supposed to give my dead husband a child, so his family name does not die out”. When she got home, Naomi knew that Boaz was going to do the right thing. But Boaz, Naomi and Ruth belonged to a world long gone. We are in Sweden, 2014, and to explain these ancient traditions, is not a simple thing. Explaining that, just like the ultra orthodox Jewish women today, are only brought up for one thing, and one thing only, so were all women back then. They were supposed to get married as soon as possible and have children. An unmarried woman was an anomaly which one did not really know how to deal with and there were clear economic problems with this marital status as well. When a man died, the woman was still part of the family and had he not had children, there was a big problem! Easily solved if the man had brothers. They had to take his place. One of them had to marry the widow and give his brother a child. How insane does that sound to a ten-year-old in 2014? And when the Bible then speaks of it cryptically, saying that Naomi wanted to sell her husband’s land to the closest redeemer… Well, I had to explain that yes, Christ is called our redeemer, but the closest male relative to a widow, was also called a redeemer, not to be confused in other words. Boaz even had to point out to his male relative, that it wasn’t just Naomi selling the land, but very much so Ruth, who had the claim on the redeemer, of having to marry her and give her husband Mahlon a child. Most of us know how the story ends, the redeemer without a name, withdrew his offer of doing his duty, and Boaz took his place. A discussion followed why the man did not want Ruth. I suggested that he might be married already. They thought he found Ruth ugly. Maybe he was Xenophobic? Whatever, all is well that ends well.

Apart from the fact that the last chapter talks of Ruth’s son Obed and whose ancestor he was. These children love when I write down people’s genealogy and tell what all names mean. I don’t know how I ever was able to finish the lesson on Esau and Jacob, because the children thought the way babies were named, was hilarious. Especially poor Esau! His name meaning “Hairy”. It took at least five minutes to stop all the comments about that name! Well, going through Boaz genealogy, was a sensitive matter indeed. I understand why we skipped his origins, months ago! I jumped back and read it, in preparation for this lesson, since I knew that there would be questions and let’s say, this was something I was not going to go in to! How Judah’s son died, how his second son refused to make his brother’s widow Tamar pregnant, how Judah sent Tamar home to her father, to wait until his son Sela was old enough to marry her (son number three). For those of you who are familiar with the story, it is not one of those uplifting Biblical stories, is it? Judah’s wife dying, him not honouring tradition and marrying off his son to his daughter-in-law and her taking drastic measures. Drastic indeed, dressing like a prostitute with a heavy veil, parking herself by the city wall, father-in-law promising payment for her services, her asking for a pawn of his signet ring, her disappearing after a night of passion, so he has to keep his goat, people coming telling him that his daughter-in-law must be killed because she has got pregnant out-of-wedlock and him discovering that the prostitute he was with, months earlier, was Tamar, his daughter-in-law who had not received Sela for husband as promised. This is NOT a story to tell children! So, I just wrote up Judah fathered … down to Boaz to… David to… guess who? I had the attention of all the class, before I wrote the final name, when I asked “who had to go to Bethlehem?”, “who was born in Bethlehem?”. They finally exclaimed, “It was a family reunion!”. I thought it finished on a happy note! What do you think?



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2 responses to “The woes of a Sunday school teacher: Teaching ancient Jewish practice

  1. Your article is pretty good to read. Excellent!!
    Thank you very much for sharing, can I post it on my Tumblr to share with my families?