Growing up, I was under the illusion that I knew something about being Jewish. My parents were Holocaust survivors from Europe, and relatives and neighbors surrounded our life with thick accents and strange practices — salami sandwiches on rye bread; cholesterol-rich kishke and fruit compote; and cigarette smoke rising slowly from a table where Jews from Poland, Hungary, and Russia gathered to play cards, share a few memories, and win a few bucks. I felt authentic. I felt the proud member of a club to which my public school classmates had not been invited. Despite our traditional-though-not-yet-Orthodox practices at home (Friday night dinners, but television on Shabbat), I felt my Jewish credentials were intact.
I maintained this stance well into my 30s. Like some others of my generation, I relied on a diet of clichés to define my Judaism: bagels, lox, Chinese food on Christmas; a love of “Seinfeld” and an admiration for the plucky Jewish state. I lived on the Upper West Side. I dated only Jewish girls. I was obsessed with Woody Allen movies. And, most important, I was terribly angry about the Holocaust.
During this period, while standing in the New York apartment of my brother, a Modern Orthodox Jew, I came to the realization that I was a novice, or worse, when it came to religious practice. Though Allan was eight years my junior, he was already married, held a steady job, and conducted himself with an assurance and faith I knew not. It was the summer, and he mentioned that he would be learning Torah all night for Shavuot. Though I had heard of the holiday, I was surprised to hear my brother refer to it as a chag. “You mean like Sukkot and Pesach?” I asked. Yes, he explained, it is one of three pilgrimage holidays. I was embarrassed by my dismal knowledge of the Jewish calendar — but only slightly. At the time, I felt that Judaism had little to do with Jewish observance. In other words, my covenantal relationship with Judaism was foremost with its culture and history, not with its religion.
Not long after that encounter, I began to observe Shabbat and kashrut. Frankly, I turned to God out of fear, not love. I was 35, single, and unemployed; and I envied the stability and comfort I found in the Orthodox community. In the beginning, I had no sense of a “covenant” with God. Rather, I was more of the Reb Nachman school: I cried out to God in grief and God answered.
Over time, I came to understand that mitzvot were not simply “good deeds,” as I had earlier learned, but, rather, they were commandments given to us by God to help us draw close. In the beginning, I took some of these mitzvot more seriously than others: I agreed to avoid electricity on Shabbat, but continued to eat in restaurants without kosher certificates. Slowly, with the aid and partnership of my wife, a ba’alat teshuvah, as well as the inspiring and instructive teaching at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, I came to understand the mitzvot differently, and I developed a covenantal relationship with God.
A talmudic homily, quoted in the name of Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa, teaches that the Jewish people were not standing at the base of Mount Sinai when the Torah was given; they were literally underneath it (“tachtit hahar”):
The Holy One held the mountain over them like a bucket and warned them: If you accept the Torah, good. And if not, here you will be buried. (Shabbat 88a on Exodus 19:17)
Rav Avdimi is describing the nature of our covenant with God. Although Jews have free will to reject the Torah’s teachings, that refusal is tantamount to choosing death — for if the Torah were simply an enlightened set of ethical principles, we could choose to live with or without it. But, as Rav Avdimi explains, the Torah is much more than that: It is life itself.
My brit as a ba’al teshuvah, therefore, is to live in that uncomfortable space of rejoicing in some mitzvot and, while not fully comprehending others, observing them nonetheless. Our covenant with God is to be God’s holy nation, live in His land, and carry out His will. With God’s help, I will merit to fulfill that goal.email print