We are sitting in a restaurant with out-of-town family, and passing the time with a game of Spot-It!, Jr., in which players identify matching images on sets of cards. Through the game, my daughter is playfully learning all about numbers, colors, and shapes, and hopefully having some fun in the process.
These days, I’m learning some new shapes as well—challah shapes! For while I’m very familiar with the braided oblong challahs that normally grace the Shabbat table, and the round challahs that symbolize the new year, there are literally hundreds of other symbolic shapes that bakers use when making this traditional bread. In The Hallah Book, a classic challah-making “bible” by Freda Reider, recipes include The Dreidel Hallah for Hanukkah, The Hamantasch Hallah for Purim, The Ladder Hallah for Shavuot, and the Dove of Peace Hallah for any Sabbath. Julie Seltzer, a Torah Scribe with whom I had the pleasure of getting to know a few years back during an exhibition at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, bakes challah in different shapes every single week—inspired by the Torah portion that is being read in synagogues around the world!
Last week, I decided to try my hand at this—by literally shaping the challah in the form of a hand! Why a hand, you ask? In last week’s parsha, Vaera, God speaks of helping to free the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, and promises: “And I will redeem you with an outstretched arm.” (Exodus 6:6) This image reminded me both of the “helping hand” image that is so powerful in our our own contemporary lives, and its counterpart, “the stumbling block.” When are we “stumbling blocks,” getting in the way of others’ successes, and when are we “helping hands,” helping to lift up those who have fallen? And how do we teach the difference to our children?
As I’ve written before, we teach by example, and often unknowingly “shape” the way that our children act in the world. For example, Aviva’s been fascinated with puzzles for a while. When she was first learning, we suggested strategies that could help her along the way: look at the puzzle image carefully so you know where things are located, determine whether pieces are edge, corner, or interior, etc. Last night, after working on a construction puzzle before bed, Aviva turned to me and asked whether she could invite one of her younger preschool buddies over to do some puzzles with her. And then she said, very seriously: “He’s younger than me, so let’s leave this one together, and we can show him what it’s supposed to look like before we actually do it.”
Another example that comes to mind; when Aviva cried as a toddler and we didn’t always know why, we would first ask her if she could identify a reason (was she tired, hungry, mad, etc.), and then we would comfort her, often with a hug. These days, when she hears a baby cry in public, or a friend at school, she immediately asks why they are crying, and if she knows the child in question, often gives them a get-better hug.
It occurs to me that underlying the actions in both of these examples is a connection with one’s heart. For if we can experience both the pain and the joy associated with how we act, we can act in ways that encourage the best in ourselves and others. As we continue to "Challah-it-Forward" this year, I hope that more often than not, I lead by a “helping hand” rather than “stumbling block” example, and look forward to seeing how this ethos manifests itself in my daughter’s heart and actions.