by Olya Elshansky

This article was originally published in Russian on Jeducation World.

Shavuot is a celebration of the giving of the Torah. More specifically, it is a holiday that commemorates the day when Moshe received the Tablet of the Covenant on Mount Sinai. As we know, the 10 Commandments were listed on the tablets, which would form the basis of the moral-religious code and set of laws for not only the Jewish people, but for all Abrahamic religions.

Translated from the Hebrew, “Shavuot” means “weeks.” The day when it is celebrated marks the end of seven weeks which are counted from the end of the Passover holiday. That is, is the fiftieth day after Passover, or, according to some sages, the eighth day of Passover. After all, a second name for Shavuot, is mentioned in the Talmud as “Atzeret,” which can be translated as the “final” holiday. As such, this holiday marks the Jewish People’s final stage of coming out of slavery, and the beginning of freedom.

On Shavuot the Jewish People received a set of laws, and the laws imply, among other things, a set of restrictions and a framework for living that must be adhered to. And yet, even with these restrictions, it is also the day that marks the end of Jewish slavery and the start of freedom. At first glance, these two concepts seem to oppose each other. In reality though, they are very closely intertwined not only in the festival of Shavuot, but also in life.

In addition to setting these laws and becoming free, two oaths are also associated with Shavuot: one given by the Jewish people before God, as “Naase ve nishma,” which translates to “we will do and we will study,” (according to Talmudic interpretations of the phrase) and the other, given by God to the Jewish people, to never replace the chosen people of Israel with another People. Translating these vows into a modern and understandable language for us, we can say that it is a sort of bilateral agreement between the Most High and the Jewish Nation: follow these prescribed rules, and be God’s chosen ones.

Reflecting on the relevance of this agreement, as well as on the very essence of the closely related notions of “freedom” and “restrictions,” this agreement between God and the Jewish People can be understood as a prototype of group contracts that are commonly formed between teachers and students when they embark on the educational process.

The importance of this group contract is significant, because by initially agreeing on what is acceptable and what is not, both parties can understand the “rules of the game” and, as a result, feel secure in observing them. This contract will not only regulate the relationship, but also be a document that can be returned to whenever there are issues or questions related to how to correctly live with this framework.

However, it is always important to remember that in order to comply with the rules, the rules need to be known and understood, and following the contract is a skill that is developed through observing the rules. To put it simply, in order to understand the rules to live by, one must engage with and live by the rules.

The contract, although an agreed “set of rules,” is not always interpreted equally by all participants and, depending on the circumstances, may be subject to change. The question arises then: where is the place of freedom in this contract?

Watching her young students, Maria Montessori (1870-1952, Italian doctor and teacher, author of the Montessori alternative educational system and many scientific papers), wrote about the concept of “active discipline.”

She writes: “Active discipline: when an individual is the master of himself and when he can control himself, when he needs to follow some life rule.” (Maria Montessori, “Absorbing the Mind of a Child,” chapter 25)

In other words, in order to control oneself and to master oneself, that is, to be a free person, it is necessary to follow certain rules. This is a discipline based on freedom.

A simple example, familiar to us all, will help us understand the principle of the concept of “active discipline.” There are rules of the road and road signs that signify how to follow those rules. We all move around the city every day, as a pedestrian or driver. In order to be safe and feel free to travel, we need to know the rules of the road. Otherwise, ignorance can lead to tragic consequences. This is often a trigger for the installation of new road signs: they appear at the place where traffic accidents occurred repeatedly, or where initial set of rules were violated.

How is “active discipline” achieved?

Maria Montessori reflects a lot on the fact that “self-ownership” is the ability to determine and find a balance between what is good for a person and what is good for those around him. This skill, as well as the skill of following the contract, cannot appear in idleness and immobility. Through gained experience, we are aware of our interests, learn to concentrate and get involved in the process.

In the book Method of Scientific Pedagogy, Montessori describes this process as follows:

“Restrictions on the freedom of the child should be in the interests of the group to which the child belongs…Therefore, we should not allow the child to do something that can offend or harm others or is impolite or inappropriate. But everything that can be somehow useful…the teacher must not only allow, but also observe. “

Let us return to Shavuot and the oaths that we discussed above.

It so happened that my professional activity as an educator develops in two directions: on the one hand, I have been working in the Jewish community for many years and have been studying Jewish education. On the other hand, I work as a Montessori teacher and try to follow the ideas of humanistic educators. I get particular pleasure when I see how these areas organically intersect.

Receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Jewish people promise “Naase ve nishma” to execute and study, not to blindly follow. And these words, in my opinion, are the very basis of active discipline. They also lead us to live our lives freely and openly, but within a framework that is best not only for the individual but for the community as a whole. This way of life has allowed the Jewish people to be both free and liberated from the chains of slavery while keeping their cohesion as a People. It is a framework that we can meditate on this Shavuot, as we appreciate both our freedom, and the active discipline that allows us to live lives that are good not just for us as individuals, but for the communities that we live in as well.

Olya Elshansky is Jeducation World’s Russian-speaking representative. Olya lives in the Ukraine and works with Moishe House as a Jewish educator.