How to read the giving of the Torah like an experiential educator

In Short

Preparation is just as important as what comes next

On Shavuot, we read the story of Moses and the Jewish people receiving the Torah. It is one of the most iconic, memorable moments in our people’s history.

Moses and the newly freed Israelites reach the Sinai Desert in Exodus, chapter 19. They set up camp in front of Mount Sinai and ready themselves for what’s next: receiving God’s commandments and becoming a nation.

If you are an educator reading this story, you may notice that the opening verses are a model for how to begin a powerful experience: In fact, the instructions given by God and the preparations made by the Hebrews are the perfect educational warm-up. You will suddenly start to pay attention to all the different ways Moses and the Hebrews warm up for the momentous experience that awaits them.

Establishing Credibility and Creating Norms

First, God establishes trust and credibility with the Israelites, similar to the way an educator might introduce themselves and their background: “You have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and I brought you to me.”

The goal and value proposition is established, and the elders are gathered to share the lesson plan with everyone in attendance: God will appear before them “in the thickness of a cloud” to give the Hebrews the Torah, and they will become a new nation.

Physical boundaries are established in order to set the rules and norms for the experience to come: “Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.” Don’t go near Mount Sinai, don’t even let your animals graze nearby, until you hear the shofar sound. 

Then, the Hebrews begin three days of consecration. They physically prepare for the experience by washing their garments, and emotionally center themselves by abstaining from intimacy – just as any learner would be briefed on what to wear, what to bring, and how to prepare for an upcoming educational experience. 

Now, we recognize that the Giving of the Torah is a sui generis experience. And certainly, while the experiences we bring to our learners are important, they may not be quite as significant! However, how we design an educational experience does matter. How can we do it most effectively? Launching into a new – and challenging – topic without preparation is risky – and might even prevent our students from engaging deeply with what’s to come. 

Three Kinds of Pedagogical Warm-Ups

At M2: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education, we define three kinds of pedagogical warm-ups – all of which contribute to a rich educational experience, by taking into account the social, emotional, and cognitive needs of the learner.

The first kind of warm-up, warming up to the group, helps learners build new relationships or reconnect with one another. The second, warming up to the experience, helps them set intentions and practice mindfulness and results in being fully present. The third, warming up to the content, allows them to ease into what they are about to learn through background information, exposure to some of the ideas that will unfold, or a taste of what’s to come.

Each of these warm-ups are found in multiple ways in Exodus 19, implicitly or explicitly. For example, we notice that the Jewish People were united; they spoke in the language of “we” when they said the famous phrase, “We will do and we will listen.” There was also a great deal of active preparation, creating a physical and mental readiness for what was to come. And Moses framed the coming revelation by telling the people how it fit into their history and what to expect: “you shall be to me a treasure of all the peoples.”

Of course, the preparations for the Giving of the Torah spanned several days. And all these warm-ups may not be possible when teaching in a limited timeframe (a 45-minute session, for example), but in any situation an educator should think about which warm-ups are most important, and has to make choices about what the focus of the warm-up should be.

Warm-ups aren’t simply icebreakers or games, though they may feel that way to students. They are intentional. They draw students in, enticing them to further invest and explore. They provide a sense of purpose, and a clear understanding of what the experience will accomplish. They create a sense of belonging, and visibility so that the learner is comfortable and ready to participate.

Finding Meaning in the Preparation

In a relatively short passage, Moses and the Jewish people accomplish plenty – and they haven’t even received the Torah yet. But the rituals they perform build anticipation and help them achieve the right headspace for a life-changing experience. From an educator’s perspective, that preparation is just as important as what comes next.

Recognizing these elaborate behaviors for what they are brings new meaning to the story. The bustling preparations of our ancestors become less puzzling. We see them more clearly – as an emotional, intellectual, and physical warm-up to a majestic, deeply spiritual event.

Without them, we’re left to wonder how impactful the experience would have been had they been thrust directly into the heart of the experience – the revelation itself. Instead, at the foot of the mountain, we see how a proper warm-up sets the groundwork for the rest of our epic, beautiful history. 

Clare Goldwater is Vice President of Education at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. Clare can be reached at clare@ieje.org.

Kiva Rabinsky is the Chief Program Officer at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. Kiva can be reached at kiva@ieje.org.

About: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education

M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education helps educators and organizations design meaningful educational experiences. The organization’s mission is to promote a proud and inspired community of Jewish educators who possess the personal and professional capacities to help learners find meaning and relevance in Jewish life.

The ideas described here are part of M²’s Certificate Program in Virtual Experiential Education and Facilitation. To find out more about this course, visit here.