Walking a Tightrope

by Rachel BenDavid (Peduel, Israel)

Those of us new to observant Judaism constantly balance following the laws as we learn them with being sensitive to the feelings of others–especially parents. In some ways it’s like walking a tightrope,  always trying to make sure that we walk that fine line.

I recall at some point in learning the various halachot, my brother and I realized the upcoming holiday of Pesach might be problematic. The laws of kashrut are very strict when it comes to Pesach, and we both knew that what we thought was acceptable to eat in past years in my parent’s house wasn’t going to be acceptable for us anymore. We also knew that refusing to come home for the Pesach seder wasn’t an option. It would hurt our parents too much.

My brother and I were relatively lucky. Our parents had their “sore spots,” as is natural with parents whose children choose a very different path in life, but they weren’t anti-religious. We knew that with some tact on both sides, we could work things out.

So, my brother and I brought the meat and the handmade Shmura matza from New York City. We had the local Lubavitch shaliach come in to kasher what was possible to kasher. We bought new dishes. (My mother actually enjoyed feeling like a young bride who picks out new things!) And we used paper and plastic where we could.

We thought long and hard about how to organize the seder. My family was using English Haggadot (remember the Maxwell House Coffee edition?)  and we decided that we would all take turns reading aloud, and here and there my brother and I would “casually” jump in with “Oh, I heard something interesting about this,” or “I learned about this just the other week….”

In order to not make too much of a production out of the amounts of matza and maror we had to eat, my brother measured the quantities out ahead of time. So I knew that I needed to eat the amount on the plate he would put right next to me. He decided that he would be official wine pourer, and while he was taking care of everyone else, I would pour for him. (These things relate to some of the finer details about the Pesach seder).

And since a Pesach seder wouldn’t be a Pesach seder without invited guests, we invited my aunt and uncle, who wouldn’t have had a seder to go to if it hadn’t been for ours.

Soon enough all of the preparations were done–the food cooked, the table set, and all of us dressed in our finest clothes. At the appropriate time we heard the knock at the door, and I went to answer it. My aunt and uncle came in, and my aunt gave me a big smile, handed me a foil-wrapped package, and said, “This is for you.”

A number of things happened in the next few seconds, although thinking back on it the seconds seem much longer. My brain processed the information coming from my nose and my hands, and I realized–much to my horror–that the gift warming the palm of my hand was a freshly baked loaf of bread. (Bringing a loaf of bread to the Passover seder–for those not familiar with the laws of chametz–is the equivalent of bringing an expensive bottle of whiskey to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.)

My first thought was “Oh, no, I really hope biur covers this.” (“Biur” is the spoken declaration said the morning before the Passover seder which states that all chametz found accidentally in one’s house is like the dust of the earth, meaning without value).

My next reaction was one hundred percent due to my upbringing.  Long before I became an observant Jew, my parents taught me Jewish values, one being that you treat other people, especially older people, with respect NO MATTER WHAT. (There is a saying–“Derech Eretz kadma l’Torah”–which loosely translated means that treating other people well is a pre-requisite to Torah learning.)

So, although part of me wanted to shriek and throw the bread out of the window, I smiled at my aunt and said thank you. Then, after “casually” putting the bread down on a coffee table, I explained that “there just isn’t an inch of room left on the dining table,” and we proceeded to sit down and start the seder.

The rest of the evening went smoothly, although I couldn’t help being tense. I don’t know what I thought … that the bread would suddenly sprout legs and jump onto my newly kosher dishes? This gift seemed like the elephant in the room, to me at least. My brother must have felt the same way because as soon as my aunt and uncle were out of sight–we checked by peeking through the curtains–he grabbed the foil package and slam-dunked that sucker into my neighbor’s garbage can with a satisfying clang.

That night I had a little chat with G-d. Well, a more accurate description would be to say that I  had a hissy-fit along the lines of “Okay, G-d, what exactly was THAT about?!? Here we were, walking that tightrope and doing just fine, and you send a gale force wind to knock us off!” Needless to say, G-d was silent.

After my initial anger wore off, the really dangerous emotions took over. I started to sing what I call the “Ba’al Teshuva Blues.” Every one of us who has decided to become an observant Jew has probably felt this way once or twice, and some experience this every day. It usually comes after an embarrassing incident, or when all of the details of a new law seem overwhelming, or after you are disillusioned by the behavior of another Orthodox Jew. (“But… but… they aren’t supposed to do that!”)

It goes something like this: “This is never going to work. I will never fit in. Who was I kidding anyway? Is it really worth all of this effort? G-d will love me if I am a good person, do I really have to go the whole nine yards…?”

A lot of these emotions come from feeling isolated, similar to the way a 16-year-old girl might feel after having her heart broken for the first time and who thinks there is no one else in the universe who knows exactly how she feels.

Until you meet others who do know how you feel.

The first time happens when you meet someone who is dressed in full Ultra-Orthodox regalia and looks like he can trace his religious ancestors all the way back to Moses. Then you get to know him and he tells you his story, and it turns out that in the Sixties he was a hippy who partook of every illegal substance known to man. That really blows your mind, until you meet someone else just like him. Then you start meeting others who may look like they’ve been religious for a long time, but they have shared a similar journey to yours.

Then, when you mature some more, you do meet people who have been Orthodox from birth and can trace their religious ancestors a long way back. But you realize that they too have had challenges to face, and that Hashem puts obstacles in their way, just different ones than the ones you’ve experienced.

And you realize, too, that G-d is always forcing us to grow in one way or another, and our own personal problems are as individually designed as our fingerprints.

So you keep going, and you put these feelings into perspective.

Because, all in all, the journey–even if it means walking a tightrope–is worth it.

Rachel BenDavid lives in a yishuv in the Shomron and posts regularly on her blog, West Bank Mama (westbankmama.wordpress.com). This post appeared in slightly different form as “Following the Letter of the Law” in West Bank Blog (an earlier version of West Bank Mama) Oct. 29. 2006, and it’s reprinted here with the author’s permission.

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Filed under American Jewry, Passover

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