The Hardest Commandment
By Alan Radding
(copyright 1998, Alan Radding, all rights reserved)
"Címon! Letís go. Weíre late," shouted Natalie. It was 9:15 on Saturday morning and things were already crazy, as usual. David, her nine-year old, was supposed to be at baseball practice 15 minutes ago but couldnít find one of his sneakers. Sarah, the toddler, was making a mess of her breakfast all over the kitchen. Emily, the twelve-year old, needed to be driven to a friendís house for 9:30. And Aaron, her husband, had raced off early to the lumberyard to get supplies needed for fixing a problem with the roof.
"Mom, Iím gonna be late, and the girls will leave without me!" screamed Emily. Natalie grabbed Sarah, and pushed David out the door. Emily was waiting impatiently by the car.
Somehow everyone got where there supposed to go, a little late but there safely, thank God, thought Natalie. Aaron still wasnít home when Natalie returned with Sarah to face what had to be the messiest kitchen she had ever seen. She plunked Sarah down in front of a video and started to clean up.
This would never have happened in her grandfatherís house. Today was Saturday, and Zadie and Bubbie always observed Shabbat, the day of rest. They had more kids than she and Aaron had and things were surely hectic in their house, too sometimes--but never on Shabbat. "Shabbat is the hardest commandment to follow," Zadie once said. As a little girl back then Natalie didnít see why Shabbat was so hard--she thought not telling lies was the hardest commandment--but now she understood what Zadie meant. Still, Bubbie and Zadie somehow made Shabbat a true day of rest.
In her house, Saturday was no different than any other day of the week except maybe crazier. Sure, the kids didnít go to school and she and Aaron didn't go to work, but as a family they had a million other activities and projects: baseball practice, music lessons, gymnastics meets, play rehearsals, shopping, chores, home fix-up projects, everything, anything. It seemed to Natalie that she and Aaron and the kids never had a real day off. They never had a day of rest, certainly not once a week, not even once a month. This is a rat race of the worst sort, she thought.
"What a hassle!" exclaimed Aaron, as he burst in the door. He had to wait in line for one thing and wait again for something else and the guy who was supposed to give him advice was tied up with another customer, so he just left. Heíd figure out the directions for himself, Aaron decided. Meanwhile, he had a list a mile long of other things he had to do.
"Welcome to club," replied Natalie, who started to tick off her own list of things that needed to be done for the kids. She wanted to say something about Shabbat at Bubbie and Zadieís house, but she didnít know what to say and, anyway, Sarah started to cry.
All day long as Natalie ran her errands, picked up kids here, dropped them off there, she thought about Shabbat, about what her Bubbie and Zadie would think of the life her family lived. Somewhere along the way, her parents had forgotten about Shabbat. By the time she was a teenager, they even stopped lighting candles on Friday night. Aaronís family never celebrated Shabbat at all. So Aaron never learned how. Natalie only knew one person her age who observed Shabbat, a woman at work. Everybody else she knew had lives that were just as crazy as theirs.
But Natalie did remember spending Saturdays as a child at her Bubbie and Zadieís house. Sometimes they took her to the synagogue. She remembered how quiet and peaceful Shabbat at Zadieís home was, yet she was never bored. Bubbie and Zadie would each talk with her, read to her, go for walks, and play board games for hours on end. Who had that kind of time anymore, she wondered. Shabbat was time, time for yourself and for each other, she realized now. She was envious. She wanted Shabbat too, for herself and for her family. We need it, she thought. We deserve it.
Natalie also remembered a big argument her father had with Zadie. Her father owned a store and decided to open it on Saturday, Shabbat. He even worked in it on Shabbat. Zadie was furious. Her father shouted at Zadie: "Get with it! This is America, not some shtetl in Poland. People expect you to be open on Saturday. The store makes more money on Saturday than any other day of the week."
Zadie looked away for a moment. Then turned back and spoke very quietly: "Civilized people donít work on Shabbat." Her father stomped out of the house.
Natalie thought about Shabbat over the next few days, in between her job and running around with the kids. Were they civilized people? Aaron probably thought so, but she had her doubts. Emily thought the height of civilization was the shopping mall. David and Sarah would camp out in front of TV all day if she didnít rush them off to activities. If this was civilization, she didnít want it.
Natalie rummaged in the closet and found Shabbat candlesticks and a Kiddush cup she had once been given. She even turned up a Havdallah set, the beautiful twisted blue and white candle and a silver spice box. She put fresh cloves in the spice box. One whiff and she was transported again to Bubbie and Zadieís home. She could close her eyes and recall the flickering Havdallah candle that they lit at the end of Shabbat. She could almost feel the warmth of Zadieís hug as they swayed, hugged, and sang Eliahu Hanavi.
"Whatís this stuff?" asked Aaron, one evening after he finished putting the kids to bed.
"Shabbat things. A Kiddush cup, candlesticks, and a Havdallah set. I found them in the closet," Natalie said, off-handedly. She had begun to play with an idea about observing Shabbat, but she wasnít even sure how to bring it up.
"Boy, I havenít seen stuff like this since my Bar Mitzvah," said Aaron, picking up the Havdallah candle. Aaron's family wasn't observant at all. His bar mitzvah was a minimal affair from a religious standpoint. His parents, Natalie thought, viewed his bar mitzvah as some sort of inoculation--a ritual shot that would make you Jewish. It might hurt a bit, but when it was over you never had to think about being Jewish again. Natalie never had a bat mitzvah. Emily attended Sunday school at a nearby synagogue, but they hadn't decided if she would become a bat mitzvah. Natalie had recently begun to favor the idea of a bat mitzvah for Emily, but she wasn't sure Emily would go for it. It would require some serious Jewish study.
"At summer camp we used to do Shabbat," Aaron continued as he picked up the Havdallah candle. "My favorite part was lighting these things at the end. We stood around in a circle outside. It was like a campfire. We had songs and everything, except marshmallows that is."
Natalie left work early on Friday and pushed off her carpooling chores on Aaron by telling him she was planning something special. She then raced around to pull together a Friday night Shabbat dinner like she remembered.
Friday night for her family was the worst night of the week. Usually, they were so tired by Friday night, they ordered pizza takeout and then watched TV until bedtime. That is unless they had to run off to something at Davidís school or take Emily to some social activity. They even stopped inviting friends over. They were too tired, and the house was a mess. What a life, she thought.
Natalie wanted to have Shabbat, a real Shabbat, but she wasnít sure how her family would react. The early signs werenít good. Friday morning, Emily had announced that she and some friends planned to go to a movie that evening and needed a ride. Natalie informed her that they were having a special dinner as a family and Emily was required to be there.
"Whatís the special occasion?" Emily demanded.
"It is Friday night. The end of the work week. For one evening Iím not going to be a chauffeur. Instead, weíre going to eat a leisurely dinner together, like civilized people, you included. Thatís what is special," Natalie insisted. Emily shot her an angry look but didnít say any more.
When Aaron had collected the last of the kids and brought them home, the house was as ready for Shabbat as Natalie could make it. A cloth was spread over the table. Challah was on the table, wine and candles were ready, and chicken was warming in the oven.
"This really is special," marveled Aaron. He kissed Natalie and picked up a Shabbat candlestick. "Do you still know the blessings?"
"Hey, we expecting fancy company?" asked David.
"Yes, a queen," said Natalie, remembering how Bubbie would talk about preparing for the Shabbat Queen.
"Cool," David replied.
"A real queen?" cooed Sarah, who thought queens and fairy princesses were wonderful.
"Sure, a queen. Tell me about it," said Emily, who was very suspicious.
"The Shabbat Queen. Weíre going to celebrate Shabbat as a family," said Natalie. The family went along in shocked silence.
The Shabbat ritual that followed was awkward. Natalie lit the candles and stumbled through the blessing. Aaron remembered the blessing for the wine. Neither David nor Emily would say the motzi, the blessing over the challah, although both had learned it in a Jewish Sunday school they attended.
Still, the evening went pretty well, Natalie thought. After dinner, they all played a trivia game. Even Sarah knew the right answer to a question about a childrenís TV show she loved. They laughed and joked with each other. Nobody rushed out. All in all, they had pretty good time together. Natalie liked it and, it seemed to her, so did everybody else. Emily jumped up to answer phone calls from her friends a couple of times but shortly came back to the game each time. She didnít exactly say she liked it, but she played until the end of the game.
Aaron was doing the dishes when Natalie came down from putting the children to bed. "This was very nice, but what are you planning? Are you going to do this every Friday night?" he asked.
"I donít know. I havenít really thought it through. It really was nice, wasnít it? Iíd like to do it every week or even once a month to start. Didnít you feel it? Didnít you like it?" Natalie replied.
"Yes, it was nice. I really did like it, but I donít see how we can keep it up," said Aaron. "The schools are always planning things for Friday night, and Emily has more and more activities on Friday night. I think we got lucky tonight."
"If we make it special and we make it fun, the kids will like it. Maybe Emily can invite a friend to join us sometimes. There has to be a way. Other people do it," Natalie pleaded.
"What other people? Who do we know who does it?" asked Aaron.
Natalie only knew one person, the woman at work. She planned to talk with her about how she managed to keep Shabbat.
The woman at work was happy to talk about keeping Shabbat. Slowly a plan evolved in Natalieís mind. She would gradually introduce more of Shabbat; a Friday night now and then, then every Friday night, and then start including Saturday morning.
"You canít do it alone," the woman warned, and told Natalie about a small synagogue that attracted young families who wanted to reclaim Shabbat. The families would gather at synagogue on Saturday. After services, she explained, it would turn into a big play date for the children while the parents socialized. Natalie liked the idea.
Natalie had no chance to do Shabbat the next Friday night. David had a game and Emily had something at school. A couple of weeks went by before she could try Shabbat again. But at one point, they managed two Friday night Shabbat dinners in a row. By then Sarah and David started to look forward to it. Natalie always made sure she had a special dessert treat ready for each Shabbat.
Emily, however, insisted on making plans for Friday nights. Once a friend picked her up after Shabbat dinner to go to a football rally at school. But Emily did lead the motzi over the challah that night, which Natalie considered a small triumph. "Friday is the biggest night of the week. All the cool things happen on Friday night. When am I going to do when I start dating?" Emily protested.
"Maybe you'll date boys who will like celebrating Shabbat with you," Natalie suggested.
"Fat chance. They like going to dances and parties on Friday night, and so do I," Emily retorted derisively.
Natalie hadn't thought out all the implications and really wanted to avoid the dating discussion for now: "Youíre not even thirteen yet. Weíll cross that bridge when we come to it." Emily was looking forward to turning thirteen only because she wanted to go to middle school dances. Actual dating could be held off another couple of years.
Emily continued to be resist her mother's sudden interest in Shabbat. She worried about being popular with the other kids. "Invite a friend to join us for dinner," her mother suggested. Emily would have invited a friend for Shabbat but she was afraid her friends, even her Jewish friends, would think it was stupid or worse. And, she didn't want to subject them to games with her parents or younger brother and sister. They weren't too bad as family, but it would be totally uncool with her friends. Anyway, she didn't even know any kids who had any kind of Shabbat at all.
"We need to meet some families who observe Shabbat," Natalie told Aaron one Friday night after the children were in bed. "The kids especially," she added.
"What do you want to do, place an ad?" replied Aaron facetiously. He enjoyed their Friday night Shabbat observances and even began to recite the full Friday night Kiddush, something he remembered from camp. In fact, their Shabbat observance seemed a lot like camp, with a certain amount of fooling around but that was okay with Natalie. At least everybody was participating, even Emily sometimes.
"I want to go to a synagogue tomorrow. I was told they have a lot of young families that observe Shabbat, not like the one we joined," said Natalie. The synagogue where Emily and David went to Sunday school didn't even hold services on Saturday unless a bar or bat mitzvah was scheduled. Nobody there observed Shabbat the way Natalie remembered her Bubbie and Zadie observing it. Other than taking the kids to and from Sunday school, the family only went to that synagogue once a year on the High Holidays.
"You can go, but I have things I have to do tomorrow. Somebody has to get the kids where they have to be," Aaron said.
Natalie could hear something unpleasant and disapproving in Aaronís response. "If we observe Shabbat as a family, neither of us would have to chauffeur the kids around every Saturday. And we wouldnít mow the lawn or run errands for one lousy day each week. We might actually have a day of rest. Remember what rest is? Thatís what this is all about," she fired back, her frustration breaking through.
The next morning, Natalie put on a dress as she prepared to go to synagogue. "You look nice. Where are you going?" asked Emily.
"To a synagogue. Want to come, just you and me? You can wear that new dress you bought for Chrisí party," Natalie responded, hopefully.
Emily thought for a moment. The new dress was tempting. "No, I have a lot of stuff to do today. Whoís going to take me to practice later?" Emily finally decided.
Natalie sat alone toward the back of the synagogue. She had been welcomed warmly and had politely declined an offer for an honor. She hardly remembered the service from her childhood days when she went with her Zadie. But like then, the service was almost all in Hebrew. Many of the tunes seemed familiar, and, best of all, the place was filled with young families.
She sat back and let the Hebrew words and melodies wash over her. She sometimes followed along in English, but mainly she tried to recapture the feeling of Shabbat with Bubbie and Zadie. The congregation began chanting Víshamru, a beautiful melody Zadie had taught her. The Hebrew words rushed back to her. She quietly sang them as she searched out the English translation. The children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath and observe it throughout their generations, the words said, because on the seventh day God ceased work and rested. Yes, she thought, I want Shabbat too. Unaware, she had quietly begun to sob as memories of Shabbats with Bubbie and Zadie rushed back.
"Are you all right?" asked a woman sitting a few seats away. She offered Natalie a tissue. "Are you observing yahrzeit?" she asked, referring to the observance of the death of a loved one.
"Yahrzeit? Not really, but I guess it seems like it," said Natalie, taking the tissue and dabbing her eyes.
The service flowed along. Natalie rose when the Torah was removed from the Ark and paraded around. Only then did she notice that a small group of children had gathered in the back. She saw toddlers with their parents, elementary school children fooling around, and a small group of teenagers, both girls and boys. Natalie didnít recognize any of the children or their parents, but she thought her children could fit right in. At the end of the service the littlest children raced onto the bimah, the raised area in front of the congregation, to sing Adon Olam, the final prayer. They looked so cute and happy, waving to their parents. Natalie could picture Sarah and David up there with them.
In the weeks that followed, Natalie felt she alone was working to get her family out of the rat race in which they found themselves trapped. One night after a particularly hectic rush of carpooling and takeout food, she exploded at Aaron. "Do you like the way we live? Just because everybody elseís lives are crazy doesnít mean we have to be crazy too. Iíll put up with this six days a week, but I want a day off. Donít you?" she screamed.
"What about the kids? What about their lives?" Aaron shot back.
"We can find activities for them that donít require their participation every Saturday. We can find friends who will observe Shabbat with them. They are out there someplace. That synagogue had a bunch of kids. It will take creativity on our part and compromise on everybodyís part. But the alternative isÖ," she stopped abruptly. "There is no alternative, not one I want to think about anyway."
Natalie went to the synagogue the next Shabbat morning. Aaron took over with the kids. The week after that they all went. Emily had a fit. "Iím not going to some stupid old synagogue. I promised Lauren Iíd go to the mall with her," she insisted.
"You can go to the mall with Lauren in the afternoon. But first weíre all going to a new synagogue," Natalie insisted. Aaron backed her up.
Natalie had to drag the kids to the synagogue. But Sarah and David quickly got involved in the childrenís services and met a bunch of kids their age. Emily sulked beside her parents in the main service. The small group of girls and boys her age that hung around the back row slipped out sometime before the end of the service. Emily noticed them go and wished she could get out too. At Kiddush, the period of refreshments and socializing following the service, a couple of the girls came up and introduced themselves to Emily. For the first time all morning she cracked a small smile.
The next couple of Saturdays were busy, but the family returned to the synagogue a number of times over the next few months. Gradually they started going more and more frequently. The younger children made new friends fast. They were invited to share Shabbat at the homes of their newfound friends, and they, in turn, invited their new friends to their home. For Emily, the adjustment was harder. But she did meet a couple of kids she liked, and a few new dresses of her own choosing became the bribe that got her to go along.
All in all, Natalie was pleased with her family's observance of Shabbat. They even participated in the Purim celebration at the new synagogue. At first, it didn't look promising. While the two youngest children were thrilled with the idea of Purim costumes and treats--"It's a lot like Halloween but not scary," Natalie promised--Emily balked. Too babyish, she argued. But the synagogue held a Purim teen costume dance. Emily jumped at Natalie's suggestion that they find a fancy old gown at a rummage sale for her to wear. Emily happily went off to the dance as Queen Vashti, wearing a gown, long white gloves, and a seductive veil. She fit right in with her new friends.
By the time Passover rolled around, late in March, Natalie felt she had won the Shabbat battle. Very slowly, Shabbat was becoming a part of their lives. For one day, they stepped out of the rat race. Emily's new friends began their bar and bat mitzvah lessons. Emily even began to talk about having a bat mitzvah, mainly, Natalie suspected, because she wanted to have a big, fancy party with her friends. Natalie wasn't going to argue; she signed Emily up for bat mitzvah lessons and some extra tutoring.
Things were going so well, in fact, Natalie decided at the last minute to add more Passover observance. The family always brought matzah into the house on Passover. Matzah is the special unleavened bread like the bread the Israelites baked as they rushed out of Egypt. Her effort with the matzah was a token gesture, Natalie realized, and after the first two nights of Passover, when they were usually invited out to a Seder, the family immediately lost interest in matzah and Passover.
Natalie mentioned her Passover plans to Aaron and the family one evening, but either nobody fully understood or they didn't believe she was serious. Whatever the reason, Natalie's plans never really registered with the others. "If you want to do it, okay with me, but I'm too busy at work right now," Aaron had replied distractedly. Natalie was disappointed, but she went ahead anyway.
She cleared all the shelves of food their usual foods and substituted special Passover foods. Not just matzah but snack foods and desserts. Even the tuna fish was kosher for Passover. When Natalie was finished, David and Sarah joined her in a hunt for the last crumbs of leavened bread, a game she remembered playing at Bubbie and Zadie's house as a child. The kids loved the chumatz hunt, in which they could crawl through closets and cabinets with a flashlight looking for pieces of bread Natalie had hidden a little earlier.
Aaron discovered the change first. "Where the heck are the pretzels!" he shouted, rummaging through the kitchen.
"It's Passover. Pretzels are chumatz. They aren't kosher for Passover. Try these," Natalie offered as she rushed into the kitchen.
Aaron eyed the Passover snacks warily. Then he nibbled one. "These are like cardboard," he judged. He dropped the package on the kitchen table, and stomped out of the room. "Forget it. I wasn't really hungry," he muttered.
At least, the Passover cookies and cakes received a better reception, although all agreed that they weren't as good as the regular dessert treats. The real fight, however, came when the kids discovered they had to take Passover food to school to lunch. David demanded his usual peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
"I won't be caught dead with this stuff in school," Emily shouted. "Nobody I know brings matzah to school. It's gross." Aaron gave her money to buy lunches at school. Without Aaron's support and some flexibility and cooperation from the children, Natalie quickly gave up the Passover effort. She donated her unopened Passover foods to a shelter and returned the kitchen to normal. She feared that the Passover debacle as she thought of it would jeopardize all the progress the family had made with Shabbat.
Talking her fears over with the woman at work who first steered her to the synagogue, Natalie realized that she hadn't really prepared her family or herself for Passover. "Passover is a big change. Take it slowly," the woman advised. "Next year, you'll start way in advance by reading the children Passover stories and getting involved in pre-Passover programs. I even have some great recipes for you." Natalie prayed that they'd still be involved enough to try it the next year.
The family hadn't been back to the synagogue since before Passover, and Natalie continued to worry that the Passover experience would wreck the family's growing Shabbat observance. A few days later Emily came home from the mall with a new sweater. It was the latest style, not something Natalie approved of at all. "I thought we decided you werenít going to buy that. Where do think youíre going to wear it?" snapped Natalie, discouraged by the prospects of yet another battle.
"To synagogue on Shabbat for starters. The kidsíll love it," said Emily, with a subversive smile. So, the idea of Shabbat had stuck after all, despite the Passover fiasco. Natalie lost the sweater argument, but she had won something much greater.
There were still frequent conflicts with Shabbat. They made compromises and exceptions, but Natalie drew Aaron into her plans and they got better and better at finding creative solutions to Shabbat conflicts. Slowly Shabbat became more and more the rule in their home. As it did, they regained control of their lives, at least for one day every week.
As the family slowly embraced Shabbat, Natalie thought about Bubbie and Zadie, particularly on the day of Emily's becoming bat mitzah, a daughter of the commandments. They would have beamed with pride over Emily. She was rough in spots and she didn't do quite as much as the children who had more training, but the congregation showered her with enthusiastic praise. Even Natalie's father was there, the first time he had set foot in a synagogue in years. The modest bat mitzvah party that followed that night, carefully planned by Emily and Natalie, was a success. A popular DJ provided the entertainment for a mix of Emily's new synagogue friends and her old school friends. Emily's school friends thought she had been awesome. Emily was thrilled.
Natalie's thoughts kept coming back to the question Zadie once posed: Which of the Ten Commandments was the hardest to follow? Many scholars believed the hardest was to honor your parents, her Zadie said. Her own father, who argued so much with Zadie, might still agree with the scholars, but Zadie didnít. Natalie, who as a child thought the Commandment prohibiting lying was the hardest, now believed that the hardest commandment was to honor Shabbat. But she had managed to capture Shabbat, a precious gift, for herself and her family. It was so very hard, Natalie knew from experience, but not impossible. And worth every bit of the effort.
(Copyright 1998 Alan Radding, all rights reserved)