Savasana, I often joke, is my favorite yoga pose. This is the restful pose that concludes our yoga practice. We are supposed to lie flat on our back and quiet our body and mind. During savasana, my mind is not so quiet. Usually I am planning what’s for lunch. So it was not surprising when last week my mind wandered to the idea of props. One of the things I like about yoga is that it’s more than o.k. to use props. The goal is to find the stretch, even if we need some help getting there.
So what is a prop? One of the meanings (see definitions below) is to be a support or sustain something. So in the positive sense, the prop supports me while doing a pose in yoga. In the theater, a prop supports what an actor is doing. The prop helps us to do whatever it is that we are trying to do. Conversely, we know that governments can be propped up by negative influences. A prop that becomes a negative can be seen as a crutch.
In Judaism and Jewish education we have plenty of props. We have Moses staff which turns into a snake, parts the sea, and brings forth water from a rock. We have a bush that burns, but is not consumed. We have tablets that are smashed, pieces scattering about. And this week’s Torah portion Sheclach L’cha notably contains at least one, the tzitzit, the fringes that we wear. Bamidbar 15 tells us that we should attach fringes to the four corners of our garments (our talit or talit katan), and in verse 39 says:
You’ll have a fringe, you’ll look at it, and you will remember all of God’s commandments and you’ll do them.
To paraphrase Spike Lee, the fringes are a prop to remind us “to do the right thing.” To this end, the Talmud (Menachot 44a) tells a story of a young Torah scholar who hears of a harlot in a faraway city and seeks her out. I guess, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” is not a new concept. He encounters the prostitute and proceeds to undress. He takes his shirt off and the tzitzit, the fringes on his talit that he wore under his shirt, rise up to slap him in the face. The tzitzit literally act as a prop to remind the young Torah scholar of the right thing to do. Sure he could proceed anyway, but he made the decision not to. An interesting and complicated story ensues. But we’ll leave that for now.
In Jewish education we are constant looking for props to help our students understand more and be motivated in their learning. This is nothing new. For generations, children learned the aleph bet by their teacher placing a dot of honey on the letters as they were taught. It seems to me that the important thing is to determine what is a crutch and what is a prop. Transliteration can be a crutch for kids who are learning how to read Hebrew, but as a prop for adults who need help praying, it’s most helpful. Cool iPads, phone apps, and laptops can be vehicles for learning or can be incredible time wasters. The internet can be a crutch for those who memorize Torah portions using online resources or use extreme websites to receive only one viewpoint. But there are also has some great resources for learning Hebrew such as Behrman House and the new DahBear site.
We are constantly coming up with new bells and whistles, new props that we hope don’t become crutches. Perhaps the real challenge of the coming years will be to examine each one carefully to determine what can sustain us, and what will simply hold us up for the moment.
In the commandment to look at the tzitzit we are not asked to simply look at the fringes for no reason. There is a purpose. The purpose is to remember to observe our obligations to God and the world. As we create new props for learning, let’s hold them to the same standard.
If you’re interested in the rest of the story of the young Torah scholar, simply use Google as a prop and enter “Talmud, Torah scholar, tzitzit.” You’ll enjoy it.
prop [prop] verb, propped, prop·ping,noun
verb (used with object)
1. to support, or prevent from falling, with or as if with a prop (often followed by up ): to prop an old fence; to prop up an unpopular government.
2. to rest (a thing) against a support: He propped his cane against the wall.
3. to support or sustain (often followed by up ).
4. a stick, rod, pole, beam, or other rigid support.
5. a person or thing serving as a support or stay: His father is his financial prop.
1400–50; late Middle English proppe (noun); cognate with MiddleDutch proppe bottle stopper
1. a staff or support to assist a lame or infirm person in walking, now usually with a crosspiece at one end to fit under the armpit.
2. any of various devices resembling this in shape or use.
3. anything that serves as a temporary and often inappropriate support, supplement, or substitute; prop: He uses liquor as a psychological crutch.
4. a forked support or part.
5. the crotch of the human body.
before 900; Middle English crucche, Old English cryce (oblique crycce ); cognate with Norwegian krykkja, Danish krykke, German Krücke, Dutch kruk. S