A student and I were standing outside on one of the balconies of the school building on an overcast, autumn day. He was going through a tough time and we were talking about a number of things, school, his parents, his favorite video games. Then he said, “you know, you’re one of those teachers that actually respects students instead of just telling them to be respectful”. While I was glad the student felt the way they did, the truth is that I had been working for some years on being aware of how my own behavior reinforced or undermined the rules I believed in for my students. By that moment, I had made plenty of mistakes and issued my fair share of apologies. To this day, it remains an area of constant self-evaluation and re-evaluation, because there is no underestimating the importance of teachers living by the rules they teach.
The educational philosopher, Ruth Sidney Charney, writes that “as teachers we need to remember that we teach the rules by how we ourselves live the rules. We are always setting an example” (108). Of course, what we are talking about here is not the best methods to get students to follow rules, but rather, about why we have rules in communities to begin with. When teachers engage with students, Charney states, they “allow them to feel known and they must feel known to feel valued and have a sense of belonging” (pg. 4). In other words, living the rules we teach is about honoring our students as members of our community of inherent worth and value.
This is a posture that is vital not only for teachers, but for anyone in a position of influence or authority. Thus, it is perhaps unsurprising to read a fascinating commandment for kings found in this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Shoftim. The Torah instructs, “When he (the king) is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Torah written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests” (Deuteronomy 17:18). As a bit of context, it’s important to keep in mind that technically, every Jewish person has an obligation to have a Torah scroll written on their behalf. Many times this is done by donating for the writing of a word or even a letter in a communal Torah scroll. And so, what is being commanded to kings here, is the directive to have an additional Torah scroll written, beyond that which they are obligated to as an individual. Rabbi Benjamin Dias Brandon, who we’ve discussed in earlier posts (see “The Lessons of Sacrifice“), explains the reason for this commandment as follows. “it might arise in the king’s mind that since he has merited to rule…that he is not obligated to uphold rules of the Torah…Therefore the Holy Blessed One commanded that he should have one more scroll than others, so that he should place it upon his heart that it is the opposite. He is doubly obligated to uphold the Torah…” (Orot HaMitzvot, Parshat Shoftim). Rabbi Dias Brandon goes on to express that the king and the people are all obligated to revere God and any special relationship the king has with the Divine only amplifies that obligation. Simply put, the Torah tells us that no one is above the law.
Taking this into account, we appreciate a new layer as teachers, parents, leaders or any kind of influencer. Despite the temptation to think the greater our influence or authority, the greater our flexibility with standards and principles, the opposite is true. Teachers have the greatest obligation towards the rules in place that help shape students into the kinds of people our world needs. Kings have the greatest obligations towards the rules in place that help foster people’s relationship with the Author of life.
What are the spoken and unspoken rules we hold others to? And what are the deeply held beliefs we have that anchor them? Finally, how to we measure up in abiding by those rules and beliefs? After all, none of us are kings, only some of us are classroom teachers, but we are all “always setting an example”.
Charney, Ruth Sidney. Teaching Children to Care. Northeast Foundation for Children, 2002
Dias Brandon, Benjamin. Orot HaMitzvot, 1753