Over the past few weeks, our class has had an amazing time learning about one of the Rambam’s most famous works – Sefer HaMitzvot –the Book of Mitzvot. In this book, the Rambam details all 613 mitzvot listed in the Torah and provides descriptions of each. The students have now compiled their own Books of Mitzvot and are learning about each new mitzvah in an active, hands-on way that enables them to learn and have fun at the same time.
Each lesson begins with an exciting introduction to a specific mitzvah. For example, when we learned about the mitzvah of bikkur cholim (visiting the sick) Rav Sara Adler, a chaplain at the University of Michigan hospital, came to talk to us about the importance of the mitzvah. Another highlight was the day that we learned about tza’ar ba’alei chayyim (which calls for kindness toward animals) and went on a field trip to the Humane Society!
We end each lesson by applying our Hebrew language skills in the context of the topic at hand. We have a lively discussion in Hebrew about the mitzvah, and then the students either draw pictures showing someone performing the mitzvah, or write about the mitzvah – in Hebrew! In this way, these lessons provide a wonderful example of the richness of the educational experience at HDS, as language skills, the study of middot (Jewish values), and engagement with traditional teachings are all rolled into one.
Fun and engaging as the lessons themselves are, they turn out not to be the best part of studying mitzvot with the children. The best part — and in fact the best part of my day — comes when I walk into class each afternoon and, without fail, am greeted by the smiling faces of students eager to tell me all about some beautiful mitzvah they have performed. No matter how my day is going, or how dark the world may seem at that moment, the sight of my students running to greet me, and the sound of their voices as they say “Morah Shternie! Let me tell you about my mitzvah!!” is a powerful reminder that the world really is full of light – light that shines brightly through these children. With every lesson my students complete, I am inspired anew by just how much enthusiasm they have for doing good in the world.
I am not the only one who gets to see the good deeds my students perform. Parents see it too. The highlight of my week last week came when one parent approached me to say “Morah Shternie, I must tell you about the mitzvah my son did! He helped out with his younger sibling, and it was beautiful to see!” It is an incredible blessing to see the lessons we learn in the classroom affect our students, their siblings, their families, and their friends.
My students’ experience learning about and performing these mitzvot calls to mind a well-known story about a man who approached the great sage Hillel and asked the sage to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Instead of rebuking the man for his impudence, Hillel smiled and responded: “Be kind to your neighbor. That is the basis of the Torah; all the rest is commentary.” I take great joy in seeing this philosophy reflected in my students’ behavior every day, and it has quickly become the motto of our classroom: Be kind, be caring, and spread the love!