Friday, February 24, 2017

Using Word Clouds To Illustrate Literary Devices When Teaching Tanakh

One of my favorite literary devices when learning and teaching Tanakh is the leitwort, leading words, or מילה המנחה. This term refers to a word, root, or series of words in the Hebrew text which repeats itself multiple times usually to hint at a big idea embedded within the unit. This can be illuminating to students as it comes across as a "secret code" within the chapter of Tanakh which our students have to find and unlock its meaning.

It is also a device where students clearly see the value of studying in the Hebrew text since the leading words are only apparent in the original Hebrew. This is lost in even a very good translation since Hebrew is a much more versatile language than English with its ability to do word plays by converting the same root into nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

One of my favorite strategies to teach leading words is the use of word clouds, randomly computer generated images in which words are sized based on frequency. The more times a word appears, the bigger it is in the word cloud. These clouds can be beautiful pieces of art when using the right app and since they are created at random, lend a level of authenticity to the finding of the leitwort since this is not an artificial process pointed out by the teacher but is found organically through the word cloud.

In the past, I used Wordle, a web app, to generate my word clouds. 

I find using word clouds to be an especially effective classroom strategy when introducing a text since students can use it to see the protagonists and main themes in a story.

Below is an example from Kings II chapter 9.

Through the word cloud students clearly see who the story will be about, Yehu the rising king, Yehoram who Yehu is overthrowing in a coup, and strangely the word HaShalom, which means do you come in peace. In this chapter, an extended battle, HaShalom seems to be out of place, a mystery to solve when students delve into the verses in greater depth.

Below is another example from Amos chapter 1.

This word cloud clearly indicates the repeated phrasing in the first chapter of Amos, עַל-שְׁלֹשָׁה פִּשְׁעֵי... וְעַל-אַרְבָּעָה לֹא אֲשִׁיבֶנּוּ, for three sins [I shall forgive] but for the fourth I will not reverse... They also notice God as the theme in the chapter who is wreaking punishment against each of the peoples listed for their crimes against humanity.

Wordle has always been my go-to word cloud generator until now. Recently Wordle has stopped working. Perhaps the web site needs updating with some more modern code. Wordle, if your out there, I would love for you to read this post and update your site. Until then, I have been searching for a new word cloud generator.


Worditout is similar to Wordle. It is free, currently works beautifully with Hebrew and other languages, randomly generates word clouds sized based on frequency while allowing for many different color schemes and word sizings.  It is a wonderful word cloud app.

One important caveat is in order when using worditout and other word cloud apps. It is important that you use as clean a Tanakh text as possible. These apps are dumb computers running algorithms, even different Taamei Hamikra above he word will cause the computer to view the same word as different in the word cloud. Dashes after the word create similar confusion. My recommendation is that you use text from Mechon Mamre which has no cantillation notes. Then paste it into a Google doc and remove all of the dashes by the words and only then copy and paste the text into worditout. This will result in a much more accurate word cloud.

Below is an example I made yesterday using worditout that I will be teaching next week from the first chapter of Megillat Esther.

When I saw this word cloud randomly generated before my eyes, I got so excited I started screaming in delight. 

This word cloud illuminates the central tension in the first chapter of Esther and really the entire Megillah. Who is the מלך, the king, in the story? We know that famously God's name never appears in Megillat Esther yet Chazal says that המלך is a veiled reference to God. You see in this word cloud that the entire chapter revolves around the king. Besides המלך, we have מלכות, המלכה, המלכות and most notably אחשורוש. This is the overarching question of chapter 1. Who have the Jews chosen as their king? Instead of choosing God, the King of Kings, they have chosen Achashverosh, the King of Persia. The rest of Megillat Esther explores the ramifications of this choice.

I am SO excited to show this word cloud to my students and see what inferences they will make from the text about the story. I will keep you updated in future installments on this blog, להגדיל תורה ולהאדירה.

Cross-posted from my TechRav blog.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Lessons from Parshat Mishpatim: Seven times the righteous man falls and gets up

The end of Parshat Mishpatim continues the account of the events of the giving of the Torah that began in Parshat Yitro. In one enigmatic verse, the Torah describes a vision of God witnessed by Nadav, Avihu, and the seventy elders.
וַיִּרְא֕וּ אֵ֖ת אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְתַ֣חַת רַגְלָ֗יו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה֙ לִבְנַ֣ת הַסַּפִּ֔יר וּכְעֶ֥צֶם הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם לָטֹֽהַר׃
And they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Source: Sefaria
This verse parallels a similar vision in Ezekiel which describes a vision of the heavenly throne.
וּמִמַּ֗עַל לָרָקִ֙יעַ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עַל־רֹאשָׁ֔ם כְּמַרְאֵ֥ה אֶֽבֶן־סַפִּ֖יר דְּמ֣וּת כִּסֵּ֑א וְעַל֙ דְּמ֣וּת הַכִּסֵּ֔א דְּמ֞וּת כְּמַרְאֵ֥ה אָדָ֛ם עָלָ֖יו מִלְמָֽעְלָה׃
Above the expanse over their heads was the semblance of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and on top, upon this semblance of a throne, there was the semblance of a human form. Source: Sefaria
What lesson can we derive from these images?

Rashi explains the symbolism of the sapphire brick:
כמעשה לבנת הספיר. הִיא הָיְתָה לְפָנָיו בִּשְׁעַת הַשִּׁעְבּוּד, לִזְכּוֹר צָרָתָן שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁהָיוּ מְשֻׁעְבָּדִים בְּמַעֲשֵׂה לְבֵנִים (ויקרא רבה): כמעשה לבנת הספיר
AS IT WERE THE BRICKWORK OF SAPPHIRE — This had been before Him during the period of Egyptian slavery as a symbol of Israel’s woes — for they were subjected to do brick-work (cf. Jerusalem Talmud Succah 6:3; Leviticus Rabbah 23:8). Source: Sefaria
And the clear blue sky:
כעצם השמים לטהר. מִשֶּׁנִּגְאֲלוּ הָיָה אוֹר וְחֶדְוָה לְפָנָיו:
וכעצם השמים לטהר AND AS IT WERE AS THE BODY OF HEAVEN FOR PURITY — This implies that as soon as they (the Israelites) were delivered there was radiance and rejoicing before Him. Source: Sefaria
The “sapphire brick” represents that God was with us during our time of enslavement when the Israelites were forced to make bricks. The “clear blue sky” represents that God will also be with us in our time of redemption when there will be light and joy.

The Torah is conveying the message that just like God is with us during our time of joy, he is with us in our time of suffering as well. According to the Midrash, this is why God first appeared to Moshe in the form of a burning bush, to represent that when the Children of Israel are in a state of pain and suffering, God as well shares in their pain.

The Rambam in Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah explains that this sapphire brick was transparent. Perhaps the message God is communicating is that even during a time of oppression, when the Jews are forced to create bricks, and God is not apparent, he is still there with us. God is in the bricks guiding us in our time of need.

Looking back to story of the Hebrew slaves fashioning bricks earlier in Shemot, one can derive an even more profound lesson. After Moshe confronts Pharaoh for the first time, the situation for the Hebrew actually got worse. Pharaoh decreed that the Israelites will no longer have straw to make their bricks while their daily quota would remain the same.

וַיְצַ֥ו פַּרְעֹ֖ה בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא אֶת־הַנֹּגְשִׂ֣ים בָּעָ֔ם וְאֶת־שֹׁטְרָ֖יו לֵאמֹֽר׃
That same day Pharaoh charged the taskmasters and foremen of the people, saying,
לֹ֣א תֹאסִפ֞וּן לָתֵ֨ת תֶּ֧בֶן לָעָ֛ם לִלְבֹּ֥ן הַלְּבֵנִ֖ים כִּתְמ֣וֹל שִׁלְשֹׁ֑ם הֵ֚ם יֵֽלְכ֔וּ וְקֹשְׁשׁ֥וּ לָהֶ֖ם תֶּֽבֶן׃
“You shall no longer provide the people with straw for making bricks as heretofore; let them go and gather straw for themselves.
וְאֶת־מַתְכֹּ֨נֶת הַלְּבֵנִ֜ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֵם֩ עֹשִׂ֨ים תְּמ֤וֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם֙ תָּשִׂ֣ימוּ עֲלֵיהֶ֔ם לֹ֥א תִגְרְע֖וּ מִמֶּ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־נִרְפִּ֣ים הֵ֔ם עַל־כֵּ֗ן הֵ֤ם צֹֽעֲקִים֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר נֵלְכָ֖ה נִזְבְּחָ֥ה לֵאלֹהֵֽינוּ׃
But impose upon them the same quota of bricks as they have been making heretofore; do not reduce it, for they are shirkers; that is why they cry, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God!’ Source: Sefaria

Moshe cried out, feeling that God had abandoned him:

וַיָּ֧שָׁב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶל־יְהוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י לָמָ֤ה הֲרֵעֹ֙תָה֙ לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה שְׁלַחְתָּֽנִי׃
Then Moses returned to the LORD and said, “O Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me?
וּמֵאָ֞ז בָּ֤אתִי אֶל־פַּרְעֹה֙ לְדַבֵּ֣ר בִּשְׁמֶ֔ךָ הֵרַ֖ע לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֑ה וְהַצֵּ֥ל לֹא־הִצַּ֖לְתָּ אֶת־עַמֶּֽךָ׃
Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.” Source: Sefaria

The Ramban explains that at this point the redemption process appeared to cease. Moshe left, taking his wife and children back to Midian, and for long six months the Jews lived in even greater bondage and misery.

This can provide a profound lesson for us. In the process of a great redemption there are often setbacks, sometimes serious ones where God disappears from the scene. But God is still there. He is in the bricks.

Rav Tzadok Hakohen calls this a ירידה שהוא צורך עליה, a descent for the sake of an ascent.

ספר פרי צדיק פרשת נצבים - אות א 
אבל ישראל נופלין ועומדין וכן הוא אומר (מיכה ז:ח) אל תשמחי אויבתי לי כי נפלתי קמתי והוא שעל ידי הנפילה זה עצמו יהיה סיבה לקימה 
על דרך לשון חכמינו ז"ל (מכות ז' ע"ב) ירידה שהוא צורך עליה שעל ידי הירידה יכול להיות העליה יותר 
וכן הוא אומר כי שבע יפול צדיק וקם שעל ידי הנפילה דייקא יהיה הקימה
But Israel falls and stands as it says, "Do not rejoice over me, Oh my enemy! Though I have fallen, I rise again." This is that through the act of falling this is the reason that one rises. 
This is the language of Chazal, "Downward motion for the sake of upward motion." That through the descent one can reach an even greater ascent. 
Likewise it says, "Seven times the righteous man falls and gets up." That specifically through falling, he is able to get up. (Translation my own.)

Rav Yizhok Hutner Zatzal, the Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin, elaborates on this in a famous letter he wrote to a student who was struggling spiritually. He writes:

החכם מכל אדם אמר "שבע יפול צדיק וקם". והטפשים חושבים כי כונתו בדרך רבותא. אף על פי ששבע יפול צדיק מכל מקום הוא קם. אבל החכמים יודעים היטב שהכונה היא שמהות הקימה של הצדיק היא דרך ה"שבע נפילות" שלו. 
וירא את כל אשר עשה והנה טוב מאד. טוב זה יצר טוב. מאד זה יצר הרע. 
אהובי, הנני לוחץ אותך אל לבבי, ולוחש באזניך, כי אילו היה מכתבך מספר לי אודות המצוות ומעשים טובים שלך הייתי אומר כי זהו מכתב טוב. עכשו שמכתבך מספר על דבר ירידות ונפילות ומכשולים, הנני אומר שקבלתי מכתב טוב מאד.
The wisest of all men said, "Seven times the righteous man falls and gets up." The fools think this is a novelty, even though the righteous man falls seven times, nevertheless he still gets up. But our sages know well the true intent of this statement is that the essence of the getting up of the righteous man is through the seven times he has fallen. 
As it says, "[God] saw all that he created and it was very good." Good refers to the good inclination, while VERY good refers to the evil inclination. 
My beloved [student], take this to heart and hearken with your ears. If your letter had told me about your mitzvot and good deeds, I would have said that this is a good letter. Now that your letter tells me about your descents, fallings, and stumblings, I say that I have received a very good letter. (Translation my own.)
I have been thinking a great deal about this idea. I recently blogged about some recent disappointments and the lessons that I learned from them about being systems oriented instead of focusing on specific goals. We all fail many more times than we succeed. The question is do we learn from these failures and use them to consistently improve our personal system for success or do we let these descents get us in a rut piling on failure upon failure and losing the drive to aspire for greatness?

This I believe is an especially important lesson for us as educators and parents. We too often expect nothing less than total success from our students and children. Our hyper-competitive, college-driven society has trained us that every student must fight for every point on her GPA as the ticket to a good college which is then the ticket to a good job which will lead to a good family, and good social standing in their community. (Obviously I am speaking facetiously.) Students engrained with this worldview, lose the joy of learning while being averse to taking any risks which could possibly lead to failure. But such an approach guarantees that they will never experience meaningful success either.

It is interesting to note that our rabbis teach us that four people in the history of humanity died without sin, Binyamin the son of Yaakov, Amram the father of Moshe, Yishai the father of David, and Kilab the son of David. Yet these 4 individuals are not considered to be the greatest people in history. Yosef, clearly eclipsed his brother Binyamin. Amram is eclipsed by his son Moshe. And David is clearly greater than both his father Yishai and his son Kilab.

What made Yosef, Moshe, and David such great figures in our history is not that they never sinned. It is that they did great things. And in order to do great things, they took risks and at times experienced failure, and then utilized these mistakes as a vehicle to reach even greater heights.

It is because the righteous man falls seven times that he gets up. This is a lesson that every one of us leading our normal mistake-filled lives can aspire to.