As a day school rabbi I work with kids pretty much every day. Having been at it for the last decade, I’m now able to say, somewhat conclusively, that there are certain perennial topics that kids are curious about. One of them is the relationship between science and religion. Because kids seem to linger in the “either/or” stage of things until at least about grade 6, they mostly want to know how science and religion can both be “true” when they say such different things. The most common example they raise is that of the opening chapters of the book of Genesis and evolution. None of this should be surprising!
The best part about kids’ big questions is that they’re really conversation starters. For that reason, there are lots of ways to engage kids in discussions that stem from their natural interests. One potential thread of conversation involves helping kids see how science and religion both seek to understand the way the world works. Another potential thread is to point them towards religious ideas that seem to be expressing ideas more commonly associated with science.
Genesis 1:6-7 is an interesting passage in this respect. These verses describe how God “divided the waters” during the early stages of creation. Some of the water was placed below and some placed above, with a firmament in between. This passage seems to suggest that the Torah has some understanding of the water cycle. It’s not immediately obvious that the sea and the sky are so intimately connected, and yet the Torah clearly understands this.
Giving kids a chance to reflect on whether Genesis 1:6-7 reflects an understanding of the water cycle is a cool idea. As part of such a lesson we could also point out that the Hebrew word for water, mayim, is closely related to the Hebrew word for sky/heavens: shamayim. After exploring that for a bit we also explore the fact that the difference between the two words: mayim and shamayim is the presence of the letter shin. The letter shin is significant because it’s a letter that is closely associated with God. For example, it appears on the outside of most mezuzot representing the name Shaddai. All of a sudden we’re engaged in a conversation that organically explores both science and religion, natural law and theology. And all at a level that a Judaically literate 5th grader can not only understand but really contribute to.
As we read the opening chapters of Genesis this Shabbat, let’s not miss opportunities to really engage with these fascinating words and the world that they envision and in which we live.