I attended an elementary school that was ultra orthodox. The environment was far from warm and accepting. I always felt I was being watched, from my wardrobe to my activities, both in and out of school. As far as I can remember all references to G-d were fear oriented. It was made quite clear if I were to sin the agonizing fires burning in “gehenom” would await my arrival.
One day I made the fatal sin of bringing a teen magazine to school. I tried to hide it, knowing full well this was more than frowned upon by the school’s administration. Somehow it was discovered by my teacher and before I knew it all hell broke loose.
Later that day a special assembly was called for the entire school in the auditorium. It was explained that these magazines were avodah zarah. Avodah zarah. One of the three worst sins a Jew could commit. I sat in my seat frozen. I started to sweat. My heart beat so hard and fast it almost burst out of my chest. It was on account of ME that classes came to a screeching halt. It was ME who was the one who brought this avodah zarah into the school. It was ME who stood to burn in hell. I was not a bad kid; really I wasn’t . I should not have brought the magazine to school and I knew that. I felt a powerful self loathing at that moment, but I knew something was wrong. Could this be the sealing of my fate? Was I now doomed to hell? It simply did not seem to resonate as true or just to me. I did not accept it in my heart. I believed G-d, who knows everything, must know I’m not bad. He must know I’m not interested in serving other G-ds. He probably understands I’m of flesh and blood, a child whose interest was solely based on the small thrill of being part of the outer world while I suffocated in a narrow minded school that wasn’t letting me breathe. I managed somehow to make it through the nine painstaking years in that school.
As I continued to grow I kept my eyes and ears open. I listened carefully to the words of the Torah that I learned. I started to understand that Torah was beautiful. Just because people looked like they were Torah followers did not mean they represented true Torah values. I understood that Torah was not just a book of words; it was a way of life. I understood וחי בהם means we should live by it and it should, in turn, give us life. Those who practiced and taught by means of debilitating fear trampled the very purpose of the Torah. Torah expands life to unlimited bounds. It does not suffocate its followers.
People veer, stumble,and fall in the journey of life. It is part of growth. It made Yehuda, for whom Jews are named for, reach great heights. If we are honest we will admit we all stumble and it is only shameful if we do not grow from it. No human can judge that. That is between man and G-d. It is our job to embrace our fellow and to accompany the lost, lonely and needy, on that journey. We all, at times, question and veer from the path and can use support.
It is wonderful how we support baalei teshuva, but it is shameful how we deny those already “in” the same privilege. We need to understand that just because one is born “in” does not mean that he understands it all. Let questions flow. Be patient, as you and others learn and grow. Understand that Torah is not always so easy to grasp, yet we can appreciate it all the same. If we show the loving, caring, warm, giving side of Torah and minimize the unnecessary judgement, fear, and stagnation, then we can continue to flourish in a healthy productive way. When this becomes the prevalent practice children of all ages can blossom in the light and warmth of Torah as we are meant to.