by Sean Herstein, Jewish studies teacher

Which idea from the Torah is most important?
·     V’ahavta – Loving God with all your heart
·     Tzedek – Pursuing justice
·     Kedusha – Striving for holiness
·     B’tzelem Elohim – Understanding that all people were created in God’s image
·     Chayim – Choosing a life of meaning and mitzvot over death
·     V’ahavta l’rayecha – Treating others the way you would want to be treated yourself

Each summer, the Yahadut (Jewish studies) team engages campers in meaningful and personally relevant Torah learning that either exposes them to new texts or pushes them to reconsider familiar texts through a new lens. For almost 10 summers, I have offered an elective class to the older aidot called “The Passuk Bracket Challenge” that takes a fresh look at many of the most well-known verses in the Torah and asks the campers to choose which of verses is ultimately most important to them.   

The campers receive an NCAA tournament style bracket with either 32 or 64 paired verses.  In class, we study each verse in its context to better understand its significance.  Then, after some time to debate in hevruta (study pairs), the class votes and the verse receiving the most support moves on to the next round where it is paired with another winning verse. As the class progresses through the rounds of study and debate, the discussions become more philosophical and many big questions arise.  For example:

·     Are mitzvot we do for other people more important that mitzvot we do for God?z
·     Is the Torah primarily a text for the Jewish people or for all people?
·     Should we emphasize the values that impact the world today over those that look to the future and ensure Jewish continuity and survival tomorrow?
·     What rituals do we find the most meaningful?
·     How important is life if that life is potentially devoid of meaning?

This year’s students narrowed 32 verses down to their two most important – uvacharta b’chayim (choose life) and v’ahavta l’rayecha kamocha (love your neighbor as yourself).  Judaism’s emphasis on life, as demonstrated by the commandment to break Shabbat in order to save a life, was enthusiastically supported in class.  However, the many ways one can apply the concept of “love your neighbor” to all people, Jewish and non-Jewish, pushed v’ahavta l’rayecha kamocha to the top… for this year.