This winter break, one of the greatest joys has been watching my kids learn to ice skate. My husband grew up in Israel where there were no winter sports. He tried to learn to skate once or twice as an adult without success. In contrast, I grew up skating each winter in Washington DC. As a result, I knew that if I wanted my kids to ice skate, it was up to me to teach them.
Earlier this winter, I took my five-year-old daughter Hannah to an ice skating birthday. She went from holding both of my hands during skating to only one. Over winter break, I took her skating again. As a few weeks had elapsed, Hannah felt uneasy at first but soon remembered how to skate while holding only one of my hands. Towards the end of the session, she succeeded in skating around on her own.
By happenstance, my folks invited us to ice skating the very next day. Hannah then really got the hang of it. Since it had only been one day later, Hannah didn’t have time to forget what she had learned the day before. Skating came smoothly and easily to her, and she skated on her own the whole time. Hannah was so proud of herself, and I was thrilled to watch her skate with confidence. Even the rink staff member noticed, and said, “Look at you go!”
This week’s Torah portion recounts the beginning of a major change for the Jewish people, as they begin to move from slavery to freedom. Moses conveys God’s request that Pharaoh, “Let My people go, that they may worship Me.” Following God’s instructions, Moses explains to Pharaoh that they need to travel for three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to God.
God’s plan here is curious. Why three days? God wants the people to leave slavery permanently – not just for a weekend! Like a good negotiator, did God encourage Moses to ask for three days because that is the most time Pharaoh might accept?
Or perhaps, like a good educator, God understood that the people need to enjoy three consecutive days of freedom to get the hang of it. Once they had a sustained experience of freedom, then they would never be able to go back to slavery. Perhaps, God knew that three consecutive times is the charm.
I recently read an article in The Los Angeles Times by a woman named Corinna Nicolaou, who called herself a “none.” She used this descriptor because, “that’s what pollsters call Americans who respond on national surveys to the question, ‘What is your religious affiliation?’ with a single word: “None.” Corrinna was raised without religious affiliation, but this year, she wants to make a change. She looked in the “Worship Directory” of her local paper, and for her New Year’s resolution, she decided to visit each congregation.
When I read the article, I was impressed by Corinna’s openness to try new experiences and embark on a spiritual search. How brave of her to seek as an adult something she missed as a child! Yet, I wondered whether her approach would work. In the column, she didn’t specify whether she would visit each congregation once, or more often. As with ice skating and freedom, one day is not enough to learn the sport of worship. Following God’s advice in this week’s parasha, she may want to consider attending each congregation for three consecutive visits to get past the initial awkwardness of a new setting and become familiar with the melodies and the people.
I saw this phenomenon at work in my congregation. One day a young woman (named Jalzalla) came to visit the synagogue. At first, she sat alone, not knowing anyone. She seemed a little out of place, as she was about sixty years younger than most of the congregants who regularly attended. She came again the following week, and a lady came to sit next to her and showed her how to follow along in the prayer book. As she came to services week after week, Jalzalla became closer to the ladies. When Jalzalla eventually decided to convert to Judaism, the ladies bought her a necklace with the Hebrew name she chose and cheered her on as she was called to the Torah for the first time. By coming week after week, she got into the groove of the community.
The experience of ice skating reminded me that while we can learn new tricks at any age, some skills are more easily acquired as children. I wondered: what activities do I want to be in my children’s repertoire before they leave home? (Maybe next year, we should try skiing!) When it comes to winter sports, sacred community, or freedom, I’m grateful that we won’t be “none”s.