Growing up, I viewed religious observance as irrelevant at best. More so, I saw it as undesirable and sort of silly. Why would people burden themselves with rituals, customs and vague laws from some ancient book? Really, I carried a bit of hostility towards the whole thing. My world, full of few rules, allowed for all the fun…Friday night basketball games, parties, music, this was life. I am grateful for those great times, friends and memories. Those poor people who stayed home with family on a Friday night!
I’ve since discovered the world is bigger and far more dimensional than I thought. I certainly didn’t expect to find color and joy in those very same things I had viewed as “other”. But spending Friday night Shabbat dinners with my Rabbi’s family and a very special Passover with my cousins in Israel turned my world upside down. Singing, passion, fun, laughter…this was happening in these homes that I had pitied as drab and oppressively sheltered. I now see these same children, adults and communities “crackling with life”.
I am talking about Jewish observance, a “Torah life”. What I mean by a “Torah life” in this context are the Jewish laws, the observances, the mitzvahs. Many of us are familiar with some of the more well known laws: being kosher, observing the Sabbath, feeding the poor, acting kindly to the stranger, and then there are 600* or so more such as dressing modestly and observing the Jewish holidays. The Sabbath commandment, often referred to as being Shomer Shabbos, is profoundly important in the Torah and is also compelling.
These discoveries have been tapping me lightly on the shoulder. I am thoroughly immersed in my world where I drive, shop, use electronics on Friday nights and Saturdays. It is a little scary to be drawn to something different.
That said, I respect my friends who live by the commandments. I admire their boundaries, modesty and awe of the Divine. I envy a little their complete surrender to the laws and especially their Shomer Shabbos observance. Every Friday at sundown until the first star in the sky on Saturday evening, they move into Divine space. Not just in thought but in action. In terms of 21st century progress, everything stops.
Life becomes simple. No driving, spending money, working, using electronics. They walk, pray, study Torah, spend time with family and friends, sing, dance, eat big meals prepared before the Sabbath, relax, nap, focus on G-d, and for the married couples, “sexual relations are considered a dimension of Sabbath pleasure.”
That is a quick hasty summary of the Torah life. There is so much more. I find it exotic and appealing and I am unclear about my own trajectory.
I have slowly added, bit by bit, a few observances to my life. I try to keep them going, and still slowly, add more. The first observance I took on was when my dear Rabbi Levi passed away. He was young and charismatic and full of love and life, but he became sick and he is no longer with us. Laya, my Rabbi’s wife, helped me form my first mitzvah. I decided to stop eating pork and shellfish in memory of Rabbi Levi for thirty days. Laya suggested thirty days to help it feel do-able as I was entirely secular and had never followed a single observance. When I took on this one mitzvah, I knew deep down I would never go back on it. Barbequed pork ribs and authentic Italian subs were to become a thing of the past. It felt important, right and peaceful to extend the thirty days into a life commitment. I sorely miss ribs and a good Italian sub, but I am looking forward to visiting Texas. My son Zack says the barbeque BEEF ribs there are amazing and nothing compares!*
On her birthday celebration several years back, Laya asked each of us to perform a mitzvah in merit of her birthday. I took on lighting the candles before sundown. I have kept it going ever since, basically about 50 weeks every year. On a few occasions, I completely forgot or messed up. On those days, I called my sister in Washington state, a three hour earlier time zone, and asked her to light candles for me as we said the prayers together on the phone. Though I’ve missed my mitzvah those nights, I feel we are doing another. My sister, at this time, does not light Shabbat candles. Through my error, she and I bring in the light together, and she takes part in the mitzvah where otherwise she might not.
Lighting the candles on Friday nights and not eating pork and shellfish just feel right. Alive and peaceful.
I have also added a few other observances. Whether I’ll hang steady or continue to ramp up is yet to be determined. We can walk together as the curtains on my (and your) futures open.
Either way, I’ll still enjoy Zac Brown Band’s song “TOES”. As he says, “I’ve got my toes in the water…not a worry in the world….life is good today, life is good today”. ©
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