Wednesday, April 9, 2014
While learning the laws of Shabbat with one of my classes, I encountered the following challenge: As important as it is to discuss the values behind and purposes of certain mitzvot, what happens when many details of a mitzvah don’t support its purpose (or at least not in an obvious manner)? I didn’t want my students to get the impression that halacha is disconnected from and ignorant of the purpose of each mitzvah.
For example, we learned in class that an essential part of Shabbat is shifting our focus from what we create to focusing on simply being. This accounts for the definition of melacha (literally: “work” - the word used by the Torah for the actions prohibited on Shabbat) as being creative activity, and not simply hard work. However, refraining from ripping toilet paper doesn’t exactly scream “existential awareness,” and sorting a pile of socks does not exactly come across as creative. To many students, this might mean that Hilchot Shabbat are as “out of touch,” and “outdated” as the Rabbis who initiated them. Although we might intuit that this critique is unfair and untrue, how do we properly defend the detail-oriented practice of Halacha?
I presented two solutions to my students. I would like to share one of the answers here, as it is intimately connected with the chag of Pesach.
An intriguing aspect of the Pesach Seder is the encouraging of kushyot. As opposed to presenting questions asked out of curiosity, the required reading of the night challenges the practices of the seder. When we ask why this night is different, we are actually asking “Why would we act this way if it’s out of the norm and seemingly senseless?” The four questions challenge us to defend the mitzvot of the night and explain the purpose of our aberrant behavior. Is this really a prudent approach to promote among our youth?
The solution to this problem provides us with an critical aspect of chinuch. Namely, if we teach by example, we need not fear challenges to faith; if such is the case, we can actually encourage kushyot.
If we teach our students and children by showing them the beauty of a life of Torah and Mitzvot, the positive effects should be numerous. We will not only demonstrate how to act, but we engender positive feelings. A deep sense of respect and appreciation for Judaism is essential to remaining a committed Jew. Additionally, a cycle of positive outcomes is at play here; when we set the right example, it strengthens our own commitment and creates an even more powerful example. This is exactly why the knowledge of the participants is irrelevant at the Seder. The Haggadah is about strengthening our own appreciation for becoming God’s faithful people; the goal is not to simply learn what happened.
Now we can solve our original problem. How do we expect our children and students to appreciate intricate halachot with such a wide gap between each detail and the overall mitzvah? One solution is to help them develop a general sense of appreciation. Understanding the meaning behind each detail should then become irrelevant, or at least less essential. When you know that something works, you don’t need to concern yourself with asking “why”. Or, if you do feel the need to ask, not finding the answer shouldn’t derail your faith.
So, before discussing Hilchot Shabbat, I asked my students to raise their hands if they were happy to have Shabbat in their lives. Every single student in the class concurred and provided reasons other than not having school. If their appreciation for Shabbat is a given, they should have a resulting respect for all the laws that make Shabbat what it is. Moreover, whether or not someone living in a halacha-oriented community keeps all the laws of Shabbat is not essential to appreciate these laws. The conscious and unconscious impact the laws of Shabbat have on each individual and the community as a whole is immeasurable. We may not understand how it all works, but we can still trust that a certain seder exists.
At this point, the lesson is clear. For our children and students to appreciate the rituals and beliefs of a Torah lifestyle, we must first demonstrate to them the beauty of such a life. Understanding this principle can help us turn contentious discussions into edifying experiences. A life full of faith-challenges can become a nuanced and meaningful existence. As success in this endeavor is crucial, we all - parent and teacher alike - should feel responsible to set the right example.