Values & Ethics - Through a Jewish Lens

Discussion Topics about Life Changes



va-yetze1We all plan self-improvement projects.  But one mistake we often make is that we think we can change ourselves all at once.  The truth is changing one’s self doesn’t happen easily.  It happens slowly and by increments.

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob leaves home and a difficult family situation, lays down to sleep, and has a spectacular dream.  He dreams of angels going up and down a ladder.  Given the slow evolution Jacob goes through on his journey, the dream can signify that Jacob can only progress in his journey step by step.  As a model for us, Jacob shows us, that we can progress on our journeys only step by step.

When trying to improve our character, we cannot leap quickly up.  Small ladder-like steps can lead to large accomplishments over time.  Quick leaps, on the other hand, can lead to falling down the ladder.  To be secure, a ladder needs to lean against something high up.   It is expected, of course, that we will slip back a rung, but we should not worry.  Catch hold of the next rung and start climbing again.  Lasting change is never achieved quickly or easily.  To reach our personal goals, we need to keep climbing, like Jacob, one step at a time.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about their strengths and weaknesses.


  • What would you would like to change about yourself?
  • How would you go about doing that?
  • What do you think would be easy to change?  What would be difficult to change?

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.



LechLecha1New beginnings are hard: a new school, a new job, the start of parenthood. Before one goes out on a journey, the journey is mysterious. We don’t know what to expect. It can be frightening to leave the familiar and go forward into the unknown.

Abraham, in our Torah portion, is told to leave everything he knows —his family, his birthplace and his home —and go “to a place he does not know”. Abraham had the courage to just go. There are no reports of angst or handwringing. It is instructive for us to think about what enabled Abraham to go forward and from where he got his courage.

Abraham understood the limitations of the old and the possibilities of the new. Rather than focus on the frightening and unknown, he was able to imagine the possibilities of a new situation. The positive power of his imagination gave him courage. Likewise, a child can imagine all the new friends he or she will make at a new school. An adult can envision the interesting challenges he or she will encounter at a new place of work. While what’s new can be frightening, it can also be invigorating.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about how Abraham had the courage to leave his home to start a new life in a strange place.


  • Has something new in your life been scary for you?
  • What helps you to have courage?
  • Can we see past the frightening unknown to imagine the possibilities of a new situation?

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.



Noah1Most families have to deal with difficult change at some point or another – whether it’s unemployment or illness or loss. When a family navigates these changes, they also have to help their children through the radical changes in their lives.

Noah, the hero of this week’s biblical portion, experienced radical change. He and his family were the sole survivors of a flood that destroyed everything.
They were forced to begin their lives all over again. But Noah, after all, wasn’t perfect. After the flood, one of the first things Noah did was to get drunk. By portraying Noah in this way, the Bible is acknowledging that it couldn’t have been easy for Noah. The world changed radically for him and he was forced to begin a new life. Beginning anew after loss can be arduous and lonely. Many turn to drink or food or drugs to help them through the rough spots, but surely abusing ourselves is not the answer.

Parents need other tools to help their families through change. The challenge is to offer alternatives to destructive behavior. Perhaps Noah didn’t have the resources we might turn to – the support of a friend, a group or a religious community. Acknowledging the difficulty of the moment and giving support can be a good beginning despite the shifting ground beneath one’s feet. Feeling like we are standing on solid ground ourselves is the only way we can begin to help our children deal with what we find so difficult.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about Noah and the flood and the changes people have to undergo at times in their lives.


  • What have been difficult changes in your life?
  • What has helped you deal with these changes?
  • Are we like Noah, who handles his reaction to radical change and feelings of stress by abusing others or ourselves?

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.



ki-taytzay“You can run, but you can’t hide”. We all have our demons, the parts of ourselves that we wish were better or wish didn’t exist within us. The best way to deal with them is to acknowledge their reality, confront them, and challenge them. Only then do we stand a chance of working them out of our system.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Taytzay, contains a wonderful mitzvah. We are instructed to return lost objects that we may find lying in the street. Though I may be appreciative of this when I am the owner who lost the wallet, it’s not always an easy mitzvah to fulfill when I’m the finder. The Torah therefore reminds us, “You shall not be able to ignore it”, a profound reminder of your obligation.

Addicts always lie about their addictions, even when it seems comical to the observer. Denying the reality of the addiction is an inherent part of the disease. When it comes to correcting mistakes or dealing with our issues of anger, bigotry, or even lesser things like a desire to get in shape, the first step is acknowledgment. The issue must be confronted directly. Don’t look for other people or situations to blame, and don’t make excuses for mistakes. Take ownership of the issue and tackle it. You can succeed at overcoming it.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about being not deceiving themselves.


  • Why does the Torah say that you won’t be able to ignore a lost object?
  • Who benefits from my action when I pick up the wallet and return it?
  • Give an example of something that you can choose to blame on a friend but could also take responsibility for.

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.



korachWhat happens when you find yourself in a disagreement with someone?  There are times when a distance grows between you that must be bridged in order to save the relationship.  When that moment arrives, who will be the person who reaches out and extends the olive branch?  Is reaching out to the other person first a sign of strength or a sign of weakness?  On one hand, it takes a lot of character to attempt to reconcile with someone when the relationship is not going well.   On the other hand, it might be seen as “giving in” or not holding strong to your point of view if you are the first to reach out.

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, we see Moses model the first approach.  Korach and some followers rebel against Moses when he appoints men from another family to positions of leadership.  As things get heated in the community, Moses decides to reach out to some of the rebels in order to open lines of communication and asks them to meet with him.

Does it matter whether they came or not?  In this case they did not.  However, that should have no effect on the initial decision to reach out.  For that step to reopen communication says much more about the one who asks than it does about the person who receives the request.  One could think of it as giving in.  However, it can also be seen as brave because if no one reaches out there is no chance to communicate, to work things out, or to move forward.  Reaching out is a risk that comes with a big potential reward, the renewing of a relationship.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about having the courage to reach out to reconcile.


  • Do you think that reaching out is a sign of strength or weakness?
  • When was a time that you reached out to someone?
  • When was a time that someone reached out to you?
  • What do you do when you reach out and the other person does not respond?

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