By Mindy Rubenstein
Last night I watched a movie about Mother Teresa with my children. They liked seeing a human being with such passion and persistence, someone who was so determined to help and love others, no matter how unlovable they seemed.
That we watched such a movie wouldn’t seem unusual, except for the fact that we are classified as Orthodox Jews. Our family tries to observe the Torah in all aspects of our lives, including its 613 commandments. Many Orthodox Jewish families don’t watch television or movies, let alone a movie about a woman honored by the Catholic church as a saint. But I’m probably not like many other Orthodox Jewish mothers, and I’m not into labels.
I love being a Jew, now that I know what it means. Growing up, being Jewish meant we weren’t Christian; it was more about what we didn’t do. Pretty much every Jewish person I knew intermarried.
As an adult, I started digging more deeply into my faith, its history, as well as its privileges and responsibilities. I fell in love with Judaism and the way it was presented by the young, passionate Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis and rebbetzins we encountered in the spiritual desert in which we had been raised.
My husband and I chose, against all odds, to start keeping Shabbat and kosher and the many other details that go along with living Jewishly. We sent our kids to schools that teach the text of Torah, its rules and obligations. And they learned to read Hebrew.
But there was always something missing. Always a nagging within my soul as I tried, along with my husband and growing family, to integrate into the fold of “frum” Judaism. The people we met on our journey throughout Florida, Atlanta, Maryland and Virginia, as well as frequent visits to New York and New Jersey, seemed to follow many of the “rules” dictated by Torah.
They picked up a bencher after eating and said the Hebrew words, they were part of Kollels where the expectation is to study Torah part of the day and reach out to the community the other part. They wore head coverings and tzitzit. They had big families, separate dishes and walked to synagogue on Shabbat. We tried to emulate these aspects of life.
Yet as my older children entered their teen years and began to think more for themselves, they started to pull away. At first, I panicked. I wanted to control them, to push them back towards Torah and the life I envisioned for our family. But then I tried to watch the Orthodox Jewish community through their eyes. And I tried to watch myself through their eyes.
And that’s when I started to understand what had been weighing on my own heart and soul the past 13 years, since I first discovered Torah Judaism.
How do we really connect with G-d and with others? How do we show love and warmth and acceptance? Isn’t that the core of what Torah teaches? Yes, the details are essential. Studying Torah and Gemara and Chassidus are part of who we are. And that’s beautiful. But are we smiling at people? Are we truly welcoming newcomers?
Do we feel inspired and on fire? Kids and teens have an amazing sense of when people are genuine. And when they are being loved and accepted for who they are. They recognize when someone has such a deep connection with G-d that it allows them to truly connect with and love others.
In my personal journey to find truth and goodness in Torah, I expected my family to feel it, too. My husband was blessed (or cursed?) with a job that has allowed us to pursue this journey throughout various communities. It hasn’t been easy, to say the least. With any life decisions, there are pros and cons. But I do take some solace in knowing that our motives were to seek G-d. And, as it turns out, to share His message.
In this week’s Torah portion, called Beshalach, which means, “sent forth,” we read about Pharaoh chasing Jews as they fled Egypt. Under this threat, they cried out to G-d. Indeed, it is often opposition that awakens our deepest reserves of energy, that gets our adrenaline going.
Here in our little corner of the world, there are no perceived threats. Comfort and contentment can cause us to lose sight of our priorities, weakening our sense of urgency in our Divine mission. Physical or spiritual adversity, however, can shock us out of indifference.
How do we awaken from our slumber and complacency, so we will demand a world the way that it was meant to be? That we should want with all our hearts to break out of this spiritual prison. How do we observe Torah and serve G-d with a passion and enthusiasm that brings people closer?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, in his last public address, said, “The only thing I can do (now) is to hand the matter over to you. Do everything you can– even if it demands the unconventional, maverick but down-to-earth– do everything you can that people will truly yearn… from their own hearts and own understanding– and demand, How much longer?”
The torch that had been passed from leader to leader, from prophet to sage since Abraham. That torch has now been passed to each of us. Let’s open our eyes and grab it!
Mother Teresa, the Lubavitcher Rebbe… it’s no longer up to people like them. It’s a different world now, and the power lies within each of us.
Do something, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. Smile at someone. Make a phone call to check on a friend. Send a nice text message. Give your spouse a hug. Ask what this world needs from you.
We must strive to bring even the most distant people back, showing them that they are truly loved. When we remain true to this objective, we are assured that in the end, no one will be left behind.
Sources: Daily Wisdom, translated and adapted by Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky, pp. 126-127; Bringing Heaven Down to Earth, compiled by Tzvi Freeman, pp. 200-201.
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