I confessed last week that I used to consider myself to be an “educated but distant Jew.” Now I consider myself a “passionate Jew,” and I’d like to take some time this week to detail my Judaic path, how I got from “Point A” to “Point B.”
I started my Jewish schooling when I was three years old, at Temple Emanu-El’s preschool. My class was called the “Busy Bees,” and we truly were busy; made seder plates and menorahs and learned a fun hand-jive (that I’m fairly certain I could still perform today) to the prayer “David melech Yisrael chai, chai v’kayam.”
I was young, but all of these small activities were the beginnings of my Jewish education.
Then, when I graduated from the Busy Bees, I started as a kindergartener at the Davis Academy, a Jewish day school where I would spend the next nine years. I learned aleph, bet and gimel at the same time that I learned A, B and C. I explored Israeli and American history, and my teachers talked about elections in the United States, and also the ones in Israel.
I had an English name and a Hebrew name, an English birthday and a birthday according to the Jewish calendar, and I celebrated two New Years. Judaism was very much a part of my life.
But it was a part of my life that had been forced upon me. I had to sit on the floor every Friday for Kabbalat Shabbat, had to do my Hebrew homework every night and had to look up news articles from Israel for Ms. Levy. The choice to do these things was never mine, and thus I never fully engaged. My plan to get through those years was simple: I did what I had to, and nothing more.
In 2008, I graduated from Davis and started at the Westminster School, a top-ranked and prestigious Christian private school. I had been yearning for a change, so I greeted the transition with open arms.
I was overwhelmed by the number of tall, blond boys in my classes. They were attractive, no denying that. I loved it, all of it. I was proud to say I was Jewish, but at the same time I felt a strange glimmer of joy when the boys told me I didn’t “look Jewish.”
My new friends were regular church-goers, and they talked about fun Christian retreats and events. I assimilated to the point that I even told my Papa Jack at Passover one year that I couldn’t promise him that I would be Jewish for the rest of my life, that I wasn’t sure what I believed.
It wasn’t long, however, before I missed being surrounded by Judaism. It’s a difficult thing to explain, but each time I flipped through my planner to find I’d missed a minor Jewish holiday, it felt as though I’d gotten a little jab in the stomach.
I would remember how Rabbi Ballaban used to unravel the Torah around the whole gymnasium on Simchat Torah and how Morah Sigal used to take us out into the Sukkah to shake the lulav and etrog on Sukkot. It was an awful feeling to know that I had missed those holidays.
In my sophomore year of high school, I lost a friend to cancer. It was tragic and upsetting, and I was angry. I was also surprised, because I wasn’t angry with doctors or nurses, but with G-d.
That may sound like a bad thing, to be angry with G-d, but it was a reassuring feeling. Being angry with G-d meant that I still instinctively turned to G-d in times of loss. I began to pray for my friend, Merrill King, and pray that G-d would take care of her. I said the Mourner’s Kaddish in her honor, a prayer I had recited many times back when I was attending the Davis Academy.
Those prayers became a conduit for more conversation with G-d and more prayers. It became a daily ritual, talking to Him; and as I spoke with Him, I wanted to learn more. As I learned more, I became more confused about incorporating Judaic laws into my life, and that led to even more prayer and even more questions. From one angry with G-d, I quickly developed into a “passionate Jew.”
I realize that this is supposed to be a d’var Torah, so I suppose it’s time to stray from my story and go back to Abraham’s. This week’s parshah, Vayeira, starts with G-d visiting Abraham after his circumcision, and it’s in this portion that Abraham argues with G-d about destroying Sodom and Sarah gives birth to Isaac.
But neither of those are my topic of conversation this week. Instead, I would like to take note of one line: “Abraham built an inn in Beer-Sheba and called out in the name of the Lord, the G-d of the world” (Genesis 21:33).
The Midrash details more about Abraham’s inn: Abraham would provide extraordinary meals for his guests but would not charge them. At the end of the meal, he would ask them to thank G-d, and if a guest refused, he would serve him with a somewhat unfair bill and ask the guest to reconsider praising G-d. Most guests, obviously, would say the words and praise G-d.
I could go so far as to compare their forced gratitude to G-d to my forced education of the Jewish faith – neither is filled with a love for G-d. But why would G-d condone such behavior? Why would He allow Abraham to coerce men into prayer?
The Midrash says that G-d told Abraham, “My Name was not recognized by My creations. You caused my Name to be recognized by My creations, and I thus consider it as if you had been a partner with Me in the world’s creation.”
In other words, Abraham’s actions actually affected the men he came into contact with.
So, is it possible that the men from the inn reacted similarly to me in my childhood? At first, were the practices forced and monotonous, but later became embedded in their hearts?
I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that even though the men came to Abraham’s inn with no belief in G-d, that a moment came down the road when they needed someone to thank for a miraculous event in their lives, and they remembered thanking G-d at the inn, and so they thanked G-d again. Then, perhaps they continued to thank G-d, talk to G-d and question G-d for the rest of their lives.
I suppose this week’s message may be geared towards younger people, particularly
students: Do the forced work because, even if you graduate without a passionate love for G-d, you will probably come to a point in your life where you need Him for something.
BY RACHEL LaVICTOIRE / AJT COLUMNIST
Editor’s note: 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 of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.