The Wisdom of the Commandments

by Chana Klein

A head full of Torah ...  and a belly full of pork .... is just about the most ripping feeling.


While I was not eating pork, the feeling of having one foot in the secular world and the other in the world of Torah was equally uncomfortable. My journey as a baalet teshuva was a journey from not even knowing what a Jew does to becoming observant of the Torah commandments.


As I was learning more and more, it seemed as if I was hearing deep truth of life. That is what the Torah has been for me. And the more I learned, the more compelled I felt to live in a Torah way.


But, this kind of transformation cannot be rushed.

Did you ever hear about a commandment that you thought it didn't make any sense at all? Or did you say to yourself, this one's not for me?

Along the way, there were times when I heard about a specific commandment and might have thought it was either silly or even outrageous.


Then I had some experiences that helped to erase all those doubts for me.


My parents had been Jewish, but were not observant.

They did not want me with them and so left me when I was in grade school.

My mother kept my brother Michael with her, and I had not seen him for many years. He was told not to communicate with me... And he obeyed.


By the time I was 30 years old, I was married with children. I got a call from Michael telling me that he wanted to meet me. At that point in time, unless he told me who he was, I would not have recognized him if he had sat down next to me.


He flew in from Los Angeles and we met at the JFK airport. (My children were excited because they pictured their uncle actually flying.)


Michael approached me as he was walking from his flight. I was more easily recognizable than he because he had had a nose job. I already missed his big shnoz.


Saying hello, our eyes met and each of us took a long, hard look at the other. Then we drove to my home for an overnight stay. After the initial excitement calmed, the kids and my husband went to sleep, leaving Michael and me in the living room to talk ... and talk.


Despite all of the words that passed between us, I still did not feel connected to him and doubt that he felt connected with me. After all, there was lots of hurt history behind us and each of us worked and thought in such different ways.


I wanted to do the right thing though, especially in light of all the Torah I was learning. So, after Michael returned to his apartment in Los Angeles, I kept in touch with him long distance.


One morning he called me before I had left for work and it was like a bomb dropped. He told me that his doctor told him he has AIDS. He was feeling really sick after that, especially from the medications.


The Torah writings tell us to visit the sick. Because of that commandment, I called Michael every day. And because of that commandment, I also flew out to Los Angeles to care for him on some of my vacations from my teaching job.


Because of that commandment, my communication with my brother continued. As it turned out, after a few years, our keeping in touch began to give me, for the first time in my life, someone from my family of birth who loved me. Our relationship was as healing for me as I imagine it was for him. Michael lived for another five years and he became a close friend, besides being my loving brother... All because I was following a commandment.


Knowing my brother was dying, I began to study the laws of death and mourning as a Jew. I read that during Shiva, mourners remain at home and the Jewish community comes to comfort them.


I read also that as a mourner I would not be allowed to leave the house for a whole week.

I thought that was outrageous. I would definitely not be able to just stay home for a whole week.


And then it said that as a mourner, I would not be allowed to study Torah. Well, that was taking it too far. It also said that one may get special permission to study Torah as a mourner, if needed. So, I asked two different rabbis, one orthodox and the other conservative, for that permission. 

They both granted me permission. So that would not be a problem, I figured.


Then, in 1992, the day came. It was Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day.) I was in a dress shop in NJ during the hour break I had between my Public School and Hebrew School teaching jobs. I was looking at a dress rack when suddenly, I felt my brother’s presence next to me. I knew it was him. There was no doubt. But if he is here, I asked myself, how can he be there? I ran to a phone booth and called his hospice room in Los Angeles. His friend who was sitting at his bedside answered. He told me Michael is fine, just asleep.


I went to Hebrew School where my class was performing for the rest of the school to commemorate the sad day in which we remember the victims of the Holocaust.


During the performance, the school secretary entered the room where we were performing. She came directly to where I was sitting to tell me that I had a phone call in the office. It was highly unusual for a teacher to be told to leave her class to take a phone call.


I felt my knees buckling as I walked down the stairs to the office phone. I put the receiver to my ear. The voice on the other end told me that my brother was deceased. My brother had passed on.


I don’t remember if I then returned to my class or if I went home. I felt such a loss. The only one in my whole family who ever loved me has now passed on.


During this difficult time, it was as if the whole Jewish community was there for me. My friends were like a soft fluffy pillow cushioning me from the pain of my great loss.

They were there when I had to lay my beloved brother to rest. They brought me back to my house where they gave me a hard-boiled egg to eat, as that is the Jewish custom symbolizing the continuity of life.


Several of my friends took turns staying with me. I found out later that they arranged with each other that I would not be alone at all during the entire Shiva period. I still cry when I remember the kindness. I remember my house being filled with visitors during the Shiva.


I remember that I did not even consider studying any Torah. That is all I wanted to study at the time was what the Torah writings said about death, mourning, and the afterlife. That is what I studied. And that is what a Jew is allowed to study while in mourning. I understood, only by being in that situation, why it is that Torah study in not what a mourner does.


At the end of the Shiva period I was told I had to take a walk outside. As I walked around the block, I marveled at how I had not even thought of leaving the house at any time during the Shiva. Remaining home was just right for me when I was in the situation.


When I had read the laws of mourning before being Michael died, they seemed archaic and unnecessarily restrictive. The thought of not leaving the house for seven days seemed ludicrous and to refrain from Torah study for seven days was for me a hardship. Or so I thought. But when I was actually a mourner, those laws were exactly what I needed to get through that tough time.


In other words, looking at the commandments from the outside, from a place where I was not doing them, seemed so restrictive.


But being on the inside, doing the commandments, and living in a Torah way, the commandments became a perfect way of living as a human being.


It is as if God knows what we need and commands us to do exactly that.



Copyright 2009 Chana Klein

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