Tetzaveh: Learning Through the Senses

Each week we invite a different liberal rabbi or Jewish thought leader to write a “Taste of Torah” on the weekly portion. To receive LAASOK’s Taste of Torah by email each week, subscribe to our newsletter.

This week’s author is Rabbi Benjamin Altshuler.

Rabbi Benjamin Altshuler serves the Jewish communities of the Northwoods at Mt. Sinai Congregation in Wausau, Wisconsin. He also serves on the Rabbinic Council for AVODAH, of which he is an alumnus.

Tetzaveh: Learning Through the Senses

Our bodies absorb information in so many ways; each of our senses contributes to the comprehensive portrait of our experience in the world. The Theory of Multisensory Learning suggests that individuals can learn better when teaching engages more than one sense. Most traditional education environments draw on sight, hearing, doing, and touch, but we can also engage other senses like taste, smell, movement, or others. Not only does the research suggest it is pedagogically effective to engage with multiple modalities individually, but also concurrently for an immersive experience.

Maybe this is the draw of movie theatres that evoke three-dimensional pictures and surround sound speakers. Even more so, this immersive aesthetic is reflected in “4-D” theme park attractions that utilize smells, moisture, chair movement, and haptic feedback associated with the content. But these technologies for engaging collective attention are not modern inventions.

Parsahat Tetzaveh considers the modalities of instructing the Israelites through priestly rites. Much of this portion, like others, conveys the text to be recited and annually reiterated aloud – a verbal auditory teaching strategy. But other senses are also considered; the priests are commanded to kindle eternal olive oil lamps and the menorah at twilight – sources of light, heat, and certainly aroma. Additionally, this section details the incense the priests are to burn every morning and the fragrant burnt offerings they prepare. Much of the text describes the ritual objects and the fine materials used to distinguish their purpose. From the instructions, we can imagine the colors and patterns of the altar and its instruments as well as the priestly garb with ornamented robe, ephod, breastplate, headpiece, and sash. This elaborate choice of clothing, whether costume or uniform, served to further heighten the theatre of the priestly cult.

“The manner in which the priests engage with the people connotes our theory of Multisensory Learning.”

– Rabbi Benjamin Altshuler

The onus of leadership is placed on the priests (specifically Aaron – Moses is conspicuously absent from this portion). The manner in which the priests engage with the people connotes our theory of Multisensory Learning. All the elements described here are designed to command attention via multiple modalities, thus allowing all present to connect according to their own abilities and concurrently on more than one level. We may no longer worship through all the modalities described in Tetzaveh, but we can continue to learn how to model our religious spaces in this spirit of comprehensive and immersive engagement through all our senses.

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