27: Na’aseh V’Nishma

27: Na’aseh V’Nishma

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas Magic

Na’aseh V’Nishma

I can understand people simply fleeing the mountainous effort Christmas has become... but there are always saving graces and finally they make up for all the bother and distress.

~May Sarton

Dark clouds churned low over the freeway, dropping torrents of rain. My wipers ticked steadily, but uselessly, just like my harried mind.

December 1st, I thought. How will I get it all done? The ninth-grade essays, the paper for my degree, Sean’s basketball game and Cristin’s history paper. Not to mention the vet, the refrigerator repairman, Mark’s office party... and Christmas.

Christmas. The last thing I needed was that empty set of chores—not that I did much anymore. Every year I dropped something else. Gone were lights on the house and the banister greens. The crèche remained in storage; if only we could skip the tree. And Christmas Eve Mass: standing for two hours in an overcrowded church, listening to children sing off-key; wishing peace to total strangers on cue, greeting a wooden Holy Family. Pointless—at least to me.

I exited the freeway. The rain was letting up a bit, but the wind was wild; fir branches skated over the street. With luck, I’d reach my classroom before my students.

My students. Talk about pointless chores! As Orthodox Jews, their lives were crammed with them. Every morning they prayed and studied the Old Testament—Torah to them—for four hours before the standard high school curriculum began. They had nine classes per day, raced from classroom to classroom, every boy with a yarmulke on his head, every girl in a long skirt, each time kissing their fingers and tapping the mezuzah, a cylinder encasing a tiny prayer scroll affixed to every doorframe in the school. Kiss-tap. Kiss-tap. Kiss-tap. All day long. And Jewish holidays! There were so many: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hanukah, each requiring toilsome preparations, all between Labor Day and Christmas! How did they manage—and why?

Truth was, I envied them. How wonderful to believe so deeply in God that all those acts seemed meaningful, worth the time. When I was a teenager, I too had believed in God. I prayed every night on my knees, celebrated the holidays in awe. No more. Earthquakes, bombings, poverty, disease. I simply couldn’t understand God—but my students obviously could. It never seemed to occur to them that their acts of faith were futile, a waste of time. Like Christmas.

I pulled into the school parking lot. Oh well, I thought. They’re chosen. I’m not.

“Okay,” I said to my freshmen later that day, “please open to chapter five. At this point in the memoir, Eliezer is in the concentration camp and has just witnessed the hanging of an innocent Jewish boy, only slightly younger than he is. How did the hanging affect him?” A hand darted up. “Amira?”

“He stopped believing in God.”

“That’s right,” added Nitza, “because later in the chapter Eliezer refused to pray on Yom Kippur. He’d always prayed before.”

“And how did he feel about that?” I asked.

“Oh, he says right here,” called Riva, pointing at a page: “I was alone—terribly alone in a world without God.... I stood amid that praying congregation, observing it like a stranger.” Riva looked up, her blue eyes piercing me: “Eliezer felt empty, cut off from God.”

“He should have prayed anyway,” suggested Avraham.

That confused me: “If he didn’t believe in God,” I said, “wouldn’t praying have been hypocritical?”

“No,” replied Suri. “The Torah tells you to follow God’s rituals even when they make no sense. It’s called Na’aseh V’Nishma—We will act and we will understand. First you do the acts, then you’ll understand God. If Eliezer had observed the holiday, he might have recovered some faith.”

I stared at her... and wondered: “Just like that?”

“Well, you also have to read the Torah to understand the symbolism of the acts, and think about it.”

I pondered Suri’s words on the drive home from school: Na’aseh V’Nishma.—First do the acts, then you’ll understand God. Had I had everything backwards? I’d assumed that faith came first and brought meaning to the acts—but maybe meaningful acts came first and brought faith. I glanced through the windshield at the fir trees at the roadside, their branches now at rest, and an emerging ray of sunlight made me squint.

That evening I pulled out the battered cardboard crate marked “Xmas.” I opened it, plunged my hand in among the wires and rummaged through the multicolored lights. I untangled a string of tiny white lights, then marched into the family room, ignoring the books and papers stacked beside my chair. Slowly, methodically, I strung the lights on the ficus tree that always stood in the corner of the room—my first Christmas act. Then I plugged in the cord, and the lights winked at me.

I searched through the adjacent bookshelves. There it was: The Family Bible—abridged, annotated and illustrated—perfect for a novice like me. I pulled the Bible out and ran my finger along its edge, dislodging a layer of dust. The spine creaked as I opened it, and for the first time in my life, I sat down to read the Old Testament: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth....”

December days slipped by. Somehow, I completed my tasks, decorated a Christmas tree, set out the crèche, and came to know Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon and Esther. They were nothing like I’d expected—not pious or perfect saints. Instead, they were flawed and floundered in their faith—just like me, yet chosen.

On Christmas Eve, I sat down in my chair to read God’s final promise to the Jewish people: “See I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple: the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire will come.”

And he did come—that night at Christmas Eve Mass. As the children sang like angels and the people prayed for peace, the Holy Family entered the cathedral. Living and breathing—at least to me.

My family was silent as we drove home from church. The streets were vacant, still. I gazed through the window at the dark cloudless night, the countless winking stars. Na’aseh V’Nishma. I had acted and understood.

~Jan Vallone

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