By: Chani Miller
On my bookshelves, I have a large collection of memoirs written by authors with a vast array of life stories and experiences. Central to most of them is the uniting theme of a specific event that led to an epiphany, which then led to the author becoming new and improved. I love these books, particularly the ones written by Baalei Teshuva who share their inspiring stories of how they found G-d. I wish I had a cool “how I discovered G-d” backstory, but I don’t. I was born this way. I am what we call an FFB (Frum from Birth), a label that is used both disparagingly and approvingly, depending on who is doing the labeling. One of the challenges of being an FFB (a challenge that I did not know was a challenge until it challenged me) is the danger of going through religious life on autopilot. Autopilot is not bad per se, as it certainly gets you where you need to go, but if you hit a speed bump and swerve, you better have the driving skills needed to get back on the road.
This is my story. It lacks drama, and the ending is predictable, but I know it will resonate with anyone who wakes up one morning and realizes that her internal compass has stopped working, and that she needs to figure out—on her own—how to get to her destination.
Naaseh V’nishma. We will do, and we will understand. A seminal phrase that is the cornerstone of our commitment to Hashem and to Torah. A phrase that promises that we will adhere to the rules—whether we understand them or not.
As a teenager, I was never rebellious, questioning, or confused. I never had a crisis of faith or stopped believing in G-d. I had always been a little bit of a lone wolf—happy to get together with friends, but even happier to stay inside all afternoon and read. I was not afraid to be different. I chose to go to a local seminary, so as not to lose a full college scholarship that could not be deferred, and the year my friends were in Israel, I met my future husband in a history class. We got married a few years later and moved into an apartment ten blocks away from our parents, where we lived for the first few years of our marriage.
I don’t even remember precisely how we decided we wanted to move out of Brooklyn. It was a combination of not being able to afford a house in New York, idealistically wanting our future children to grow up in a less homogeneous community, and a large portion of youthful stupidity. We picked a small frum community in New Jersey suburbia, based solely on its proximity to Brooklyn, where my husband still worked. We moved into the third house we looked at without spending a Shabbos in the town and without having any friends in the community at all.
I had trouble making friends in my new neighborhood because I was subconsciously looking for like-minded women who were carbon copies of myself, naively thinking that a group of eclectic Bais Yaakov girls from Brooklyn who had also decided to pursue a degree that took eight years to complete and then moved out to the boonies would be waiting for me with their arms wide open. The community at that time did not have a lot of young families, and the young women in my age group from Brooklyn lived a more yeshivish lifestyle, and although they were kind and accepting, we didn’t click.
Most of the women were ten years older than me with established families, careers and friendships. They were predominantly out-of-towners who had relocated to New Jersey to be in the Tri-state area. I had never met frum women like this—women who were educated and intelligent and passionate about learning, but who didn’t “look” like me. Although I was never narrow-minded or judgemental, I was also unexposed and unaware that it was possible for someone to not cover their elbows/knees and hair, and yet still be shomer Torah U’mitzvos in every other way. This was not what they had taught me in Bais Yaakov. This was not what I had seen growing up, where every mommy wore a sheitel and every daddy wore a black velvet yarmulke. As ridiculous and superficial as this seems to me now, I struggled with this apparent disconnect and started to question. Why did I wear a sheitel? I hated wearing a sheitel—a thought that came to me unbidden one day when I looked in the mirror and realized that it had never even been a choice for me, just something that I did because everyone did it. If I was a good person inside, what did it matter what I looked like on the outside?
Naaseh V’nishma. On the surface, there are certain aspects of this concept that are troubling—does this phrase imply mindless obedience and subjugation to Hashem? Wouldn’t it be far better to first get an understanding of the rules and then play the game? Doesn’t that make me a hypocrite if I blindly do things without a reason? Worse yet, am I only religious because that is how I was raised, and if given the choice, is this the life which I would have chosen?
My sister had a friend from high school who lived on the other side of town. We started to hang out, and I discovered that she too had been questioning certain aspects of frumkeit, although I later learned that her issues were deeper and scarier than mine. She convinced me that it was okay to wear a hat with your hair out in the back, and she taught me how to wrap my ponytail in a scrunchy so that the least amount of hair was showing. She wore short sleeves, and the earth did not open and swallow her up, so I followed suit. I have a picture of myself at my daughter’s first birthday party with my mother and grandmother in the background. To their credit, neither one of them called me out on my outfit. I now wonder what they were thinking, if they realized what I was going through, and what made them hold their tongues? Years later, my mother admitted to me that she too had flirted with sleeves and hems and questions at the same age, and I wished she would have shared this with me at some earlier point.
I was blessed with two little girls. After they started school, I developed friendships with the moms of the kids in their classes based solely on our shared experiences as parents. I switched to a shul that was so incredibly diverse that if you came to shul in a lampshade, no one would even blink. I started learning on my own, delving into Rav Hirsch, Rabbi Dessler, Rabbi Lord Sacks. Slowly, I worked my way through the doubts and questions, and I came out on the other side believing that my life was a choice I made each and every day, and not just a social construct which I was born into. I also realized that my personal issues with tznius and hair covering were merely symptoms of a greater existential illness, and the cure was changing my relationship with Hashem—something I work on every day.
Naaseh V’nishma. Rav Kook has an amazing insight into why the order of these two phrases is so important. We stood at the foot of Har Sinai and promised to keep the Torah, even before we knew what it was and what it entailed. Here, of course, is the ultimate question, the question that threw me for a loop and seemed so logical—wouldn’t it make more sense to totally understand what you are doing and why before you blindly go in and do things that are superficially correct but spiritually bereft? Why did we agree to keep the Torah without knowing what was inside? Rav Kook talks about a concept called “intuitive knowledge” which he differentiates from general wisdom. Wisdom, he explains, is acquired by studying something for a long time and becoming an expert after many years. Intuitive knowledge does not have to be taught or learned. It is built into your DNA; you are born with it. He gives an example of a honeybee making an intricate honeycomb without ever having to go to honeybee school. This intuition also exists for humans in regard to our spirituality. Our DNA is genetically coded with the desire to love Torah and serve Hashem. It is that essence which intuitively cried out at Har Sinai “Naaseh V’nishma!”—We will do, because this is our innate selves, and then we will understand, then we will figure the rest of it out. To say Nishma V’naaseh would have been the intellectual choice, the choice of reason and rationale, but Naaseh V’nishma was our collective heart intuitively responding to the siren song of Torah.
Every day, I stand at the base of the mountain and look up. Sometimes the view is so clear that I can see on forever, while other times the haze obscures the entire landscape and I am lost. Either way, I am bound, committed for life by the dual promise of two words inexorably entwined for eternity.
Dr. Chani Miller
is married with two daughters. She has been an optometrist for twenty five years and owns a private practice, Park Eye Center, in Highland Park, NJ. In her spare time, she is a serious knitter/crocheter and a writer. Her website/blog is www.parkeyecenter.com.