[I'm not going to clutter my writeup with lots of simultaneous translations; if a term isn't clear from context, feel free to ask in the comments section.]
Yesterday we read Parshat Va-Yera.
[Overall background on our program and how we treat the parsha activity:
Our program is aimed at children in grades 3 through 6, although we rarely get sixth-rgaders. (One sixth-grader suggested, quite seriously, that we should have announced it for grades 3 through 7, and then the sixth-graders would have come.) We get about fifteen to twenty kids each week.
By design, our program resembles a prayer service but is not one; it is a chinuch (educational) experience intended to teach the children the words and melodies of the Shabbat liturgy, to teach them about the parsha, and to prepare them for the flow of the service when they "graduate" in their bar/bat mitzvah year to attending services. This structure gives us more educational flexibility than a model service would; we feel that it lets us better prepare them for their future as Jewish adults.
We sing key tefillot from the Shabbat service, then we take out a Torah scroll and do a brief bit of Torah study from the scroll, with small groups of the children taking turns coming up and standing next to the person reading the verses from the scroll. We then complete our Torah study segment with an activity related to the parsha. Finally, we sing the "end-of-service" material, have announcements, and hand out a lollipop to each child on their way out of the room.
Our general format for the parsha activity is that it should start with some physical movement and a chance to move around the room; this is generally about 40 minutes into an hour-long program and the kids have been mostly standing and sitting at their seats, so we figure they need some time to get moving at this point. The parsha activity runs about 10-15 minutes.
We also try to get them to tell us some incident from the parsha, with our contribution being drawing a lesson from it. Almost all of the kids go to a Jewish day school and they've already learned something about the parsha in school; if we simply reiterated the content of the parsha we'd bore them.
In fact, another key principle is that we try really hard not to patronize the kids. These kids are smart, and so we try to use the parsha activity to discuss ethical or moral issues or
to raise thought-provoking difficulties with the text. These are small adults in formation, not large kindergartners.
With that background aside, here's what we did for Va-yera:]
Introduction: What is this week's parsha? Va-yera. Va-yera is usually translated "And He appeared" -- meaning God appeared to Abraham -- but you could also translate it as "And He was seen". We're going to talk about seeing.
Activity: When I'm done giving instructions, I want you all to get up and walk around the room for a minute or two, with your eyes open to notice some detail about the room that you haven't seen before. This isn't a scavenger hunt or a puzzle; I haven't hidden anything in the room; I just want you to notice any detail about the room that you've been taking for granted. Ready? Go.
[The kids wander, exclaiming in surprise. Two minutes elapse and they are recalled to their seats. They are each given a chance to share something they noticed. In our group, someone noticed a vent on the door in the back of the room that leads to the HVAC equipment, someone noticed that there were stickers on the spines of the books, etc.]
Question 1: Why didn't you notice these things before? We've been meeting in this room now for nine weeks! [Discussion about what people look at and focus on, and what they don't think to look for.]
Parsha Excerpt 1: Let's look at what happens to Hagar and Ishmael in our parsha. Sarah is worried about the influence of Hagar and Ishmael on Yitzchak, and so she tells Avraham to throw them out. Avraham doesn't want to do this -- Ishmael is his son -- but God tells Avraham to do as Sarah says. So he gives them food and a skin of water, and they set out. What happens then?
[With prompting, get the kids to tell the story.] They run out of water, and Hagar throws Ishmael under a bush and says "let me not see the death of the boy." And God opens Hagar's eyes, and she sees a well, and draws water for them to drink.
Question 2: Why didn't Hagar see the well? [Brief discussion] Rashi comments that, a few verses earlier, when the Torah says "Hagar lost her way", it doesn't mean she was literally disoriented, but that she lost her faith in God and returned to idolatry. She has just been kicked out of her home, she has lost her faith in God, and she thinks she knows how this is going to end, so she gives up, throws away her child, and doesn't look for alternatives. God has to open her eyes so that she can notice the well.
Parsha excerpt 2: Let's look a little further in our parsha, to the Akedah [the Binding of Isaac]. Avraham and Yitzchak are walking up to the mountain, and [again, prompt the kids to complete the story] Yitzchak says "Here is the wood and here is the fire, but where is the lamb?" and Avraham replies, with Rashi's added words, "God will provide the lamb, (and if not, the offering will be you) my son." So they get there, and Avraham binds Yitzchak, and only after the angel calls out "Stay your hand; do not harm the boy" does God open Avraham's eyes, and Avraham sees a ram already caught in the thicket. (The Torah doesn't say how long the ram had been there, but it's clear that Avraham doesn't see the ram get caught at that moment.)
Question 3: What if Avraham had opened his own eyes half an hour earlier? Would he have seen the animal ready to be offered, just as he had told Yitzchak to expect? Perhaps Avraham had too much faith in God, and thought he knew how this was supposed to end, and stopped looking for other alternatives. God had to open his eyes, too. [Discussion: How can a person have "too much" faith in God? Steer the conversation to: When a person stops doing for themself.]
Wrapup: So in our parsha, we have two incidents that are in parallel. The two sons of Avraham each face death because their parent has given up, has stopped looking for alternatives. Sometimes, we don't have enough faith in God, and sometimes we depend on our faith in God too much. Both are dangerous, because both close our eyes to the possibilities that God has already provided for us. Our job is to keep our eyes open, to see the details, to notice the choices that we have, so that God doesn't have to open our eyes for us.