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Is Obedience Obsolete?

Is Obedience Obsolete?

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Is Obedience Obsolete?


 

“Sweetheart, can you please bring Mommy a glass of water? I’m helping your brother with his homework and I don’t want to interrupt. You’re standing so close to the kitchen.”

If you could explain the logic behind your every request, would there be any need for obedience? If all rules began with discussions, would there be any room left for “because Mommy said so”?

And if obedience became obsolete, would children be missing out or better off? Should children be taught to do things that they don’t agree with?

Should children be taught to do things that they don’t agree with?

Demanding obedience is a card parents often pull as leverage in a power struggle. I’ve done it many times, and I always regret it: “If you don’t apologize for hitting your brother, you’re not going to camp this summer!” “Get to your room now, or I’ll take away your iPad for five weeks.” “Apologize for speaking disrespectfully, or you can forget about coming to the birthday party!” Parents can usually back kids (especially little ones) into a corner and demand obedience, but have the children learned anything meaningful? What they’ve probably learned is that sometimes you have to let yourself be controlled, or else bad things might happen.

But isn’t there another kind of obedience, one that’s taught pre-emptively, as part of family values? “It’s important to listen to your parents, even when you don’t agree with them. When I ask you for something, I would like you to listen, without asking ‘why’ right away.” Respect and humility are life-long values that can begin to develop with the simple act of deference to a parent. It is realizing that there are some things that we will only understand when we mature, while our parents have been entrusted with educating us.

If we look to the Torah as a template for parenting, we’ll see that G‑d has a lot of requests for us, and for the most part He explains His reasoning for them. The vast majority of the mitzvahs are civil laws (mishpatim) or testimonials (edot), laws that commemorate an event or represent an idea. “Remember the Shabbat and make it holy . . . because for six days, G‑d made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and on the seventh day, He rested; therefore, G‑d blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it.”1 The Torah is generous in its explanation of Shabbat, almost compelling us to observe it. G‑d rested today! He blessed Shabbat!

But some of the mitzvahs leave us completely bewildered. G‑d says that only animals that chew their cud and have split hooves are kosher,2 but He doesn’t mention why the cud-chewing, split-hooved animals are better for us. And that’s not the only one; there are a few other mitzvahs for which the Torah offers no explanation at all. These type of mitzvahs are categorized as chukim, suprarational laws. Suprarational is different than irrational. Irrational laws have no logic behind them; they are random and capricious. Suprarational laws have profound logic. But we don’t get it. We weren’t privy to G‑d’s infinite logic on these ones. So keeping kosher is pretty much a matter of obedience: “G‑d wants this, so I’m in.”

But let’s be honest—to be a decent person, you also need obedience. Obedience to an objective moral code that may not feel right at times. Sometimes, it feels right to hurt another person; it even makes sense: “If they hurt me, they deserve it.” Sometimes, being honest doesn’t make sense, or being faithful doesn’t seem worth it. It’s then that we have to fall back on obedience in order to maintain our decency: “G‑d doesn’t let, so I can’t do it. But if it were up to me, I’d choose to be immoral right now.”

What’s interesting is the way that G‑d introduces us to his chukim. You’d think He’d lay down the law with even more dogma than the laws that make sense. But quite the contrary; G‑d introduces the chukim with sensitivity, even vulnerability. In Parshat Bechukotai, G‑d says, “If you will go in my chukim (suprarational laws) and observe my commandments and perform them, I will give your rains in their time, the land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit.”3 The Talmud says, “Don’t read ‘If you follow my chukim,’ but ‘Please, I’m begging you to follow my chukim.’”4 Perhaps the implication is that G‑d knows how hard it is to act contrary to our logic, and so He begs us to perform his chukim.

But on a deeper level, G‑d’s pleading with us to keep the chukim also empowers us. G‑d is giving us that extra strength for the leap from human reasoning to working on G‑d’s terms. G‑d is making it easier for us to buy into the mitzvahs that don’t make sense by saying, “Please follow my chukim.”

I’ve done it many times, and I always regret it

When G‑d speaks about the civil laws and the testimonial laws, He doesn’t plead, but for His suprarational requests, He does. Maybe it’s because we need that extra push. Or perhaps it is because He knows that living in accordance with the chukim is really best for us even if we ourselves do not realize it. But chassidic teaching says that G‑d begs because He feels deep pleasure when we do a mitzvah that we don’t understand.

It’s touching when someone is willing to meet your needs even when they don’t understand your needs. In my husband’s home, birthdays were no big deal. I mean, they were acknowledged, but there was no hoopla. So when we got married and my birthdays rolled around, I would always be insulted: “You didn’t plan anything for my birthday?!” Eventually, my husband got that it was important to show me that my birthday was on his radar. I’m still not sure he’s convinced that a birthday is that big of a deal, and that’s why when he does go out of his way for me, I really appreciate it. I’m touched.

So for the most part, G‑d explains why He wants the things He asks of us. But then there are a few things that G‑d asks us to do out of obedience. We can either disregard them because they don’t make sense, we can do them with some resistance, or we can be gracious and do them with a full heart, out of love, knowing that G‑d only wants what’s best for us. G‑d is “touched” by our irrational commitment to Him, and that’s good to know.

Parents aren’t G‑d. We make demands of our children that may not be coming from a healthy place. But we can learn from G‑d. G‑d usually appeals to our good sense and logic. His civil laws teach us how to be sensitive, and the testimonials keep us connected to our history. But then there are some requests that He asks—He begs—us to do, without giving us a reason. Likewise, we usually appeal to our children’s sense of reason: “Brush your teeth or plaque will build up around them.” “Put your toys where they belong, and then you’ll know where to find them.” But sometimes we teach them the value of obedience: There doesn’t have to be an understood reason to follow instructions. This lesson is best taught pre-emptively, so that it won’t be confused with a power struggle between parents and children. It can be taught with joy and pleasure too: “I noticed that you picked up your toys as soon as we asked you. It makes us so happy when you listen the first time.”

G‑d says, “If you will (please) go in my chukim.” Why does He say “go” and not “If you will (please) follow my chukim”? The Rebbe explains that “going” implies focused and fluid movement. Buying into the chukim will help you move, spiritually speaking. It will add a new dynamic to your relationship with G‑d. It’s kind of ironic; the mitzvah that seems to be all about personal sacrifice is the one that propels us in our spiritual growth.5

When children areSometimes, it feels right to hurt another person expected to be obedient and stifle their own feelings and opinions, they suffer. But when children are taught that by listening to their parents they are doing something important and beneficial, they begin to realize that there is a greater truth than their own. And there is something very liberating about surrendering to a higher truth.

In 1980, the Rebbe founded a youth organization called Tzivos Hashem, the Army of G‑d. Today, Tzivos Hashem is the largest Jewish children’s club in the world. But in the early days, many people were uncomfortable with the name of this new club, the Army of G‑d. Armies are about fighting and destruction, they argued. Why not just call it a club? The Rebbe in turn shared with his critics that he’d thought long and hard about the name for this group and had considered the negative connotations of war. Nonetheless, he said, what children need to know as they begin to pursue their relationship with G‑d is that every person is a soldier. G‑d is depending on them to accomplish something big down here on earth. And even when a soldier isn’t privy to the whole military strategy, he still follows orders. In the Army of G‑d, there is no destruction, only a strong commitment to our Supernal Commander in Chief.

 

FOOTNOTES 1. Exodus 20:7-10. 2. Leviticus 11:3-4.
3. Leviticus 26:3. 4. Avodah Zara 5a. 5. Likutei Sichot, vol. 1, pg. 281.

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