Values & Ethics - Through a Jewish Lens

Discussion Topics about Justice



Shemini2In the 1600’s, Sir Isaac Newton taught us that for every action in the physical world, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For example, if you press a button with your finger, your finger is also pressed by that button. (Try it!) Newton’s principle not only applies to the physical world; it applies to many areas of our own lives as well. Every action we take produces a reaction. Our actions have consequences.

Centuries before Newton discovered his laws of motion, Aaron’s sons learned this lesson the hard way in this week’s Torah portion. They acted poorly and strangely and were instantly very severely punished. The Torah portion is teaching us that our actions can have important and immediate consequences.

Life brings both good and bad consequences depending on our actions. Sometimes we can predict what the consequences may be. For example, if we hit our baby sister, she will probably cry. Buy our mother flowers, and she will probably give us a big hug and kiss. Do not study, and we will probably not do well on the test. Sometimes, though, we cannot tell what the consequences of our actions will be. We just have to trust that, if we make the right choices, good consequences will follow.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about understanding that their actions have consequences which they did not consider before they acted.


  • Has there been a time in your life when you have done something without first thinking about the consequences for yourself or for others?
  • Can you think of a time when your actions have had negative, or positive, consequences? How did it make you feel? What did you learn from the experience?
  • Have you ever predicted the consequences of your actions and been surprised by a different outcome?

By Yael Hammerman

Values & Ethics—Through a Jewish Lens is created by Fred and Joyce Claar to bring the wisdom of Judaism into family discussions.



VKH-P3Giving charity is for everyone. Tzedakah, the Hebrew word for charity, actually correctly translates as justice. Whether one has a lot or a little, giving is an integral part of a Jewish life. Even the poor are required to give a little charity. Money, food, our time, out-grown clothes, older toys, all can be useful to others in need. A community is only as strong as the willingness of its members to help each other.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, stresses that every member of the community must participate in contributing to the building of the Mishkan, or Tabernacle. All Jews are called upon to be ‘generous of spirit’ and donate to the Tabernacle construction. All can be generous of spirit even with a small contribution.

We should think of our money, time, and possessions as tools we can use, beyond our own needs, to benefit others. When we are willing to stand up and be counted for a charitable cause or for helping individuals in need, we become ‘generous of spirit’ and display gratitude for what we have.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about the importance of helping others and being a part of a strong community.


  • Why is charity important?
  • How does the giver benefit from giving charity?
  • How can small amounts make a big difference? (Think of a savings account after many years.)
  • Is it necessary to be recognized by others when giving?

By Rabbi Moshe Becker

Values & Ethics—Through a Jewish Lens is created by Fred and Joyce Claar to bring the wisdom of Judaism into family discussions.



shoftim1Children are perpetually concerned with fairness. “It’s not fair,” they cry when a sibling gets something they don’t. It’s a phrase they often use when there’s something not exactly to their liking. But “it’s not fair” can become something more mature as they grow older. It can become a concern for justice. It’s not fair, for example, can become it’s not right that a classmate is being teased on the playground, or can extend beyond their immediate environment to –it’s not right that a person has no place to sleep at night, or that a child has not enough to eat.

This week’s Torah parsha urges us repeatedly to pursue justice. It is concerned with fairness in the courts, not taking bribes, and the poor having as much of a right to achieve justice as the rich. The aim of setting up a court system is ultimately to have a just society with access to fairness for all.

We as parents can nurture our children’s more immature concern with “fairness” with a concern for justice. First of all, we can do the best we can to navigate fairly in all the situations at home when a concern for fairness is raised. That can be the small beginnings of coming to know what justice can mean out in the wider world. Next, when our children show curiosity about poverty, we can begin to educate them in ways appropriate for their age to such problems as homelessness, hunger, inadequate schools, and racism.

TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN about the concept of fairness and how it extends beyond their own worlds.


  • What does it mean to be fair? When is something unfair?
  • What do you think is the best way to deal with something when it is unfair?
  • Are there situations in which being fair does not mean being equal?

By Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses

Values & Ethics—Through a Jewish Lens is created by Fred and Joyce Claar to bring the wisdom of Judaism into family discussions.



MindingYourOwnBusinessSometimes we see things, whether at work or at school, and we know they are wrong.  But the question for us is to decide when to intervene.  We all make decisions regarding when it’s “just not our business” and when it would be wrong not to say something.  But knowing which is which is difficult.  If we see someone helpless being demeaned, it’s important to step in and help out.  Whether acting discreetly or out in the open is a decision we will have to make in each situation.

In our Torah parsha this week, Moses grows up and begins to feel compassion for his people who are suffering in slavery.  One day he sees two Hebrews fighting and confronts the one who started the conflict.  He simply says to him, “Why do you strike your fellow?”  Moses’ action tells us that simply asking the right question at the right moment can serve as a powerful intervention to protect someone from being hurt.

Talk to your children about the difference between minding your own business and knowing when to intervene.  It’s not an easy distinction to make.  But parents can become a model for their children in knowing the difference between when to intervene concerning their children’s behavior and when to just let things be.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about Moses intervening when he sees two of his brethren fighting.


  • Have you ever seen a situation where you felt as if you should have gotten involved and didn’t?
  • What happened? What do you think you could have done?
  • When are times not to get involved and when are times to get involved?
  • If a situation seems unsafe for you to intervene, what else might you do?

By Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses

Values & Ethics—Through a Jewish Lens is created by Fred and Joyce Claar to bring the wisdom of Judaism into family discussions.



WhenSiblingsFight2Sibling rivalry occurs in all families with more than one child.  It can, in many cases, be an insidious problem, and many parents are at a loss at how to deal with it.

In our Torah portion, sibling rivalry becomes a lethal drama, with parents who – instead of putting a stop to the dynamic — actually participate in the competition to advance their favorite child. Esau, as the eldest son of Isaac and Rebekah, stands to obtain the preferred blessing of the eldest.  However, Jacob, with his mother’s help, presents himself to his dim-eyed father pretending to be Esau. Isaac gives Jacob the blessing reserved for the eldest, believing he is Esau.  When Esau discovers this terrible deception, he cries a heart rending cry and says, “Do you have but one blessing, my father”?  Isaac at first refuses this request, saying that the blessing has already been spent on Jacob, but then relents and blesses Esau also.  Yet Esau seethes with resentment at his brother.  Jacob runs away from home to escape his brother’s wrath, never to see his parents alive again.

Most sibling problems do not reach these mythic proportions.  Yet even on a more limited scale, they can be pretty intense.  Maybe there is something we can learn from the rather extreme example the Torah offers us. The key is in Esau’s words, “Do you have but one blessing, my father?”  The answer, in fact, for parents is “no”.  Each of us, has many blessings to offer, and each child needs different kinds of blessing from his parents.  Focusing on what each child needs rather than on distributing our attentions fairly can sometimes take the edge off the competition between siblings.  We as parents might be better off starting from the realization that the love that we have to give is not a limited commodity which we divide equally, but rather an endless blessing that is received differently by each of our children.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about the problem of sibling rivalry.


  • Do you ever feel that things are unfair between you and your brother and sister?
  • Do you feel that your place in the family birth order (first, middle, last) put you at   a disadvantage?
  • Do you feel your gender has put you at a disadvantage?

By Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses

Values & Ethics—Through a Jewish Lens is created by Fred and Joyce Claar to bring the wisdom of Judaism into family discussions.