Friday, May 2, 2014

אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וצונו On Teaching Commandedness

By: Ms. Lisa Schlaff, Assistant Principal

              My favorite pasuk in Tanakh to teach is Devarim 5,13:

Here’s why: In Sefer Devarim we are commanded to keep Shabbat in order to let our slaves rest. We are not going to let our slaves rest if we are not resting ourselves; the commandment that everyone must rest is only to ensure that the weak in society are looked after. Shabbat, often thought of as the ultimate mitzvah between man and God, is defined here as a means for fulfilling our mission to create a just society.

This is a powerful concept to teach. The notion that underlying many of the mitzvot we often categorize as between man and God is God’s call for us to better the world gives us a deeper sense of their purpose. Kashrut can be understood as a condemnation of cruelty; the laws of purity can be understood as testifying to the value of life, and even tzizit can be understood as a statement that in the eyes of God all members of society are equal. In fact, I find the categorization of mitzvot into those “between man and God” and those “between man and man,”  which we now take for granted, to be an unhelpful one. It obscures the powerful expressions of justice inherent in the mitzvot. It leaves us to understand certain mitzvot as arbitrary rituals of obedience when in truth they are really about our mission to better the world.

Students love learning this pasuk because it makes sense. They love learning it because it helps redefine something we do blindly as something that has societal value. And they love learning it because it is fascinating to engage in discussion about what it means to keep Shabbat nowadays in order that “our slaves may rest.”

And yet, as much as this approach to mitzvot speaks to all of us, it concerns me. My responsibility as an educator is to convey to students a sense of how mitzvot further our mission in the world, and that at their core, mitzvot are about being good. But it is also my responsibility to convey a sense of commandedness; that God instructs us not only to be good, but that God sets the parameters of what good is, that we are not left to determine for our individual selves what we think good should be. Our understanding must be grounded in the teachings of God’s laws. I am commanded to create a just society. While I may have my own ideas of what a just society would be and how to go about creating it, the society I am commanded to create is the one that embodies justice as defined by God. And I am part of a tradition that for thousands of years has been trying to define the contours of that path.

So I try not to draw a distinction between mitzvot that are God-focused and mitzvot that are more overtly ethical in nature. My starting point is helping students understand that mitzvot are about goodness, and my ending point is that we alone don’t define what goodness is. The beginning is easy and affirms our inherent sense of justice; the second is difficult and rails against our sense of individual autonomy. Especially if you are a teenager.

How do we teach commandedness in a world in which individual autonomy is paramount? I do not pretend to have the answer to this question, but I will offer two suggestions that have been percolating lately.

1. Increase our focus on halakha: We need to teach halakha not only so that students know how to properly observe shabbat or kashrut, but so that they see themselves as insiders to an intricate system the very basis of which is commandedness. The more discourse there is about halakha, the more natural it becomes to feel “commanded.”

2. Say “I don’t know” more often: We need to model the notion that we don’t have all of the answers. There are certain things we do simply out of a sense of obligation and it is important to make that explicit to students. Showing our students that we live our lives with a sense of commandedness resonates powerfully, because it is true.

And so when I teach Devarim 5,13 we discuss what it means to create a just society, but also how different and more powerful that meaning becomes when the creation of a just society is a commandment. We discuss the notion that mitzvot are so much greater than my individual needs, and yet protect my individual needs. And we discuss the fact that while we bless God for the commandments, being commanded is in itself, a blessing.


  1. Great piece!
    The problem for us with commandedness seems to me to be that ultimately we are all Jews by choice nowadays. In an environment where we attempt to foster thoughtfulness and critical choicemaking, concepts like heterogenous authority and a priori commands have very little inherent meaning. Once I recognize that I am choosing, I can choose to hear the call to commandedness.

  2. By the way Ms. Schlaff excellent post and I really liked your take on it. The suggestions you have for how to best teach 'commandedness' in a society that holds personal autonomy so dear are wonderful but I do feel that there can be more to add. I am not an educator nor do I have experience doing such a thing. My points are purely observational and inspired by my own experience and if I am wrong I am happy that I get to learn that from such great educators.

    The second suggestion, about saying 'I don't know' more often is something that should occur more.The question I feel that you have not addressed is how do we come to accepting that sense of commandedness while saying I don't know? That acceptance is an ideal, and takes years of contemplation, practice and thought to reach in a genuine and organic way.

    To me, the answer to that question is about the faith in the uncertainty. We, if I can say we, do not know all the answers but it should be in the emunah(belief) and bitachon(confidence, this is my own personal translation) that guide our actions. Once you have that proper confidence in Hashem's care over his creations(that goodness you wrote about), then you know His commandments guide you in the right direction. This of course is a difficult stage to reach but comes in the understanding of one's place in this world.
    The heart, brain and soul want the rest of the body to flourish and would do nothing purposely to prevent that, so too Hashem wants us to be the best we can be. This is achieved by following the guide book He gave our ancestors. But it is this precise understanding that is so difficult to give over, that Hashem wants nothing but the best for us.

    I think ultimately, through the confusion I have just put out there, teenagers and most students need to see the utter passion in the educator. As you say, it truly does resonate powerfully when we demonstrate to students our humanity. And our humanity only exists in this world controlled by Hashem. Once a human can truly grasp that, there is no distinction amongst commandments, it is what you truly know is best for you.


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