Figuring Out Which Commandments to Keep

Figuring Out Which Commandments to Keep


I decided to stay in St. Louis this summer to take a class and get ahead in school. Since calculus only takes up a small portion of my day, I decided to find a job and eventually met a family looking for an afternoon nanny. Perfect.

torahIt turns out the family is from Israel – they’ve only been in the U.S. for a year – and still speak mostly Hebrew. The kids were amazed that I spoke Hebrew and could understand them.

They were also a bit miffed that they couldn’t use the language around me to share secrets.

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My life as a nanny began slowly. I only worked three hours or so a few times a week, playing games, reading books and making macaroni-and-cheese for the children. Still, we got to know one another, and only a month after beginning my nanny gig, I had a really interesting conversation with two of the kids.

I had just picked up six-year-old Liya and eight-year-old Uriel from their camp at the JCC, and we began talking about school: what grade the youngsters were going into, how they liked their classes and the way American and Israeli schools are different.

At some point during our back-and-forth conversation, Uriel grew curious and asked if I was shomer Shabbos – the term literally means “guardian of the Sabbath” and applies to people who keep all the laws of Shabbat.

I answered simply and truthfully that I wasn’t shomer Shabbos and, immediately, Liya asked:

“But why not?”

I felt like she had just asked me the awkward baby question – you know, where they come from – and I wasn’t at all sure how to answer. I certainly didn’t want to create any sort of conflict with her family.

Uriel chimed in and explained to his younger sister that not everyone is shomer Shabbos and that “it’s okay.” I was relieved, as I had no idea what I was going to say otherwise.

Would I explain I was too busy as a college student to cease work on Saturdays? Or that keeping Shabbat didn’t feel important to me?

Neither explanation seemed good enough. Fortunately, we moved on to other topics. It was a moment when I was especially grateful for the short attention spans of young children.

Meanwhile, I’ve yet to move on from the question. Why aren’t I shomer Shabbos? For that matter, why don’t I go to synagogue every Friday night and Saturday, or keep kosher? And why do I wear shorts, don’t cover my shoulders and, well, kiss boys?

In short, why don’t I follow all the commandments – both positive and negative – detailed in the Torah?

In this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, both G-d and Moses continue to prepare the Israelites for their entrance into the Promised Land. Three key points are made:

  1. The Israelites should not fear their enemies, nor should they fear infertility, illness or hardship – because G-d is with them.
  2. The Israelites should remember all that G-d has done for them both in liberating them from Egypt and protecting them in the desert.
  3. The Israelites should “beware that [they] do not forget the Lord, [their] G-d, by not keeping His commandments, His ordinances and His statues (Deuteronomy 8:11).”

You may have guessed that my concern is with the third point. I’m well aware that I don’t obey the 613 commandments given to Moses by G-d, but I don’t take that to mean that I have “forgotten the Lord, my G-d.” But how do I justify my choices?

Why am I allowed to choose which commandments to follow and which to disregard, even though Moses clearly says “you shall love the Lord, your G-d, keep His charge, His Statutes, His ordinances, and His commandments, all the days (Deuteronomy 11:1)”?

Not surprisingly, I really don’t have a good answer; I certainly don’t have any sort of “scholarly” or “factual” response. That said, if forced to respond, I’d reference the second part of the Shema, which also appears in this week’s parsha:

“You shall set these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes. And you shall teach them to your sons to speak with them, and when you sit in your house and when you walk on the way and when you lie down and when you rise (Deuteronomy 8:18-19).”

At this point, when Liya and Uriel ask me about other things like why I don’t keep kosher, I tell them, very simply, “I wasn’t raised that way.”

My parents followed G-d’s commandment to teach the commandments to their children, just as my parents’ parents had done for them. Today, I practice as I was taught.

And until I have a deeper understanding of how exactly I want to live as a Jew – which laws I’d like to keep and how strictly I’d like to keep them – this is the road I’ll continue following.

Rachel LaVictoire ( is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University in St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. She was recently named to the board of St. Louis Hillel.


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