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Flashback: All or nothing

It’s 1988, Debbie and I are newlyweds in a small apartment in Astoria, Queens (New York City). Not to sound too much like “A Tale of Two Cities”, but it was both a wonderful time (our first year of married bliss) and a very hard time (New York life didn’t agree with us).

Neither of us knew the area very well, we didn’t have a lot of money, and I was finishing up my last year of college so we didn’t have a lot of free time. The pace of New York life, coupled with the pace of a young couple finishing college, holding down jobs, trying to make money to pay rent and looming educational loans took a toll on us.

The one thing we started doing, to try to make space for “us” was Shabbat. We both came from Reform households so it wasn’t a habit we had grown up with, but we had youthgroup weekend retreat experiences that left us with positive feelings about it. While we didn’t have the insight at the time, Heschel’s “cathedral in time” concept describes perfectly what we were seeking.

And it worked. Sitting  at the two-person kitchen table, bottle of grape juice in hand along with two slices of white bread, we would light the candles and feel the world outside our Queens apartment recede. It didn’t last long, maybe a few minutes, but in those moments we found enough peace to keep us on track as individuals and as a couple.

Fast forward about a year and a half. We’re now living back in our home town, in a more financially and emotionally stable situation. Shabbat has become less necessary but is a frequent visitor in our home – less the loving parent who steps in to make everything all better and more like a best friend who has their own key to let themselves in and just hang out.

One Saturday, Debbie suggested we give Havdalah a try. Again drawing on youthgroup memories – sitting around a campfire with the candle, the grape juice and the ubiquitous orange well-skewared by cloves – she was looking for ways to make our weekend time special. My response was, I recall, pretty harsh. “We can’t do that,” I said. “We don’t even know the prayers. At least I don’t. Do you?”

Debbie persisted, “We could just light the candle and pass the stuff around.”

I was uncomfortable with the whole idea. I didn’t want to do it wrong. I didn’t want to do it at all unless I knew I was doing it the right way.

And THAT feeling stands at the heart of what I’m trying to explain today – getting over the fear of doing it wrong. Or incompletely. Because that’s what I needed to do – get over my fear. To recognize that when it comes to Jewish observance, doing SOMETHING is always better than doing NOTHING, waiting for some future someday when you know IT ALL. I’m here to tell you, it ain’t gonna happen. You’re never going to know it all. Years after you start lighting Shabbat candles – or saying the Shema before bedtime, or wrapping tefillin, or whatever you are holding off doing – years later you are still going to find more information, another layer, a different tradition. Jews have been at this, by conservative estimates, for over 3,000 years. There’s always going to be more to learn.

And of course, the entire thing is funnier in retrospect, when I see how little I knew then about welcoming the Shabbat. And yet that practice was somehow, in my own mind “complete”. As is what I do today, which I’m sure will seem unsatisfying, if not exactly “less” when I look back on it in a few years.

And that’s all OK.

As a frum (orthodox) friend of mine reminds me: “If you light Shabbat candles, and then drive to a movie and a cheese steak dinner, then ‘YAY FOR YOU! You lit candles’. And if the following week you light the candles, say kiddush, and then go out dancing, then ‘YAY FOR YOU! You lit candles and said kiddush’. As Jews, we look at the things you didn’t do as missed opportunities, not as sins that we have to make atonement for. As long as you are trying to improve, whether that means trying out new observances or getting better at what you already do, you are on the right track.”

He described the mitzvot (the positive ones, at least) like the job a Walmart greeter has. You try to say “hi” to everyone coming in the door (those are the mitzvot). If you miss one, you don’t try to “make it up” by saying hello to the next person twice. You just missed that particular opportunity and you hope to be more on-the-ball the next time.

Of course, I’m over simplifying a lot. But as a Jew on a Journey, it doesn’t do you any good emotionally, psychologically or spiritually to feel like an entire mitzvah is wasted if you made a mistake, or can’t master every aspect of it the first time out.

Maybe that’s why many of us still say we practice Judaism.

One Response to “Flashback: All or nothing”

  1. Karen Kugelman says:

    Great post, Leon! The fear of doing it wrong can be paralyzing, and your prescription (“just do it”) can provide the cure that can put people on a very rewarding path.

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