My journey from Reform to observance was a slow and leisurely one. It was nice being able to gradually pick up mitzvahs while rejecting the more difficult ones, saying, “I’m not ready to take that on yet.”
I don’t think there’s any credible Rabbi who would recommend anyone go from 0 to 613 in any short span of time. But I may have been going a little too leisurely. And when you do that, sooner or later, you’re gonna get a kick in the tuchas.
A couple of years into my journey, I was driving down to the Pico Robertson community of Los Angeles, having Shabbos dinner with any family who would have me, then walking to my Rabbi’s home and learning with him until 12 or 1 in the morning. At which point I’d drive back to my home in Burbank and enjoy the rest of my Saturday. That routine held steady for a while, but every so often, I’d grow just a little bit. Going to the Chabad of Burbank for kiddush. Spending the Saturday reading Torah instead of playing around on the internet. Eventually, I even started spending the night in Pico at a friend’s house and attending morning services. But I would always leave Shabbos early to go to work. I mean I was a waiter, I couldn’t give up the WHOLE weekend.
The restaurant I was working at understood that under no circumstances would I work a Friday night. At my previous restaurant, someone had guilted me into covering a Friday shift and I felt so bad, I didn’t clock in and gave away all my tips. So for this place, I made it clear I wouldn’t be making any concessions. The owner was an old Russian Jewish woman and she understood… for the most part.
However, being a Jewish owned restaurant in the valley, it was always open Christmas to cater to the Jews of Encino and Sherman Oaks. And EVERYONE worked Christmas Day. Period. Well, it turns out that in 2015, December 25th would fall on a Friday.
I really felt like I was in a bind. I knew that the owner wouldn’t make me work Friday night, but at the same time, what would the other servers think? I get my religious holiday off every week, but for their holiest holiday of the year, I couldn’t compromise? I felt like I would be doing a Chilul Hashem! Should I go in and work anyway, like I did before, and give away all my tips? Should I come and just sit in the office, neither working or celebrating Shabbos? It bothered me so much that I was losing sleep over it.
I had mentioned the dilemma to Jonah, the friend whose house I had been staying at. Of course I knew he was going to push in the direction of not working. But almost tangentially, he brought up the fact that me leaving Shabbos early in front of his kids may be starting to be a problem. At this point, I was staying in Shabbos mode until about 3 pm, then driving home in just enough time to shower, get ready, and start my shift. But after leaving one Shabbos, one of Jonah’s sons said, “I wish I could be a Jew like Ben. He gets to leave Shabbos whenever he wants.” Clearly my behavior was causing more disturbances than just at the restaurant.
Then, the Shabbos morning before Christmas, I was in shul. The dilemma was continuing to weigh on me, so I thought I’d turn to the Big Guy. I mean, what am I doing all this for if I can’t talk to God right? I was in the middle of the mussaf prayer when I felt myself start to get emotional. Soon tears started pouring from my eyes. The idea of having to break Shabbos on a Friday night was something I had grown far more emotionally attached to than I had realized. That’s when it hit me. If I was getting this upset about having to break Shabbos on Friday night, why didn’t it bother me that I was breaking Shabbos on Saturday day?
When you start growing spiritually, sometimes you just feel an impulse to do a mitzvah. Then once you do it, something clicks. I remember when I would get Buffalo Wild Wings and the one day the server asked me if I wanted ranch or blue cheese dipping sauce. I got the idea that maybe, I should say neither. From that point on I stopped mixing milk and meat. When I was in Jerusalem and my friend brought me a pair of tzitzis and I tried them on in the lobby of the Hurva Synagogue, I just knew I would be wearing tzitzis from then on. Well it was at this point, in the middle of mussaf before Christmas that I decided I’m not breaking Shabbos anymore.
Now just because you make a decision easily, doesn’t mean the execution of that decision is easy. My Jewish Russian boss was not happy to hear I wouldn’t be working Fridays or Saturdays. As retaliation she only put me on the schedule two times a week. Admitting to my family that I was inching closer to full on Orthodoxy was met with quite a bit of skepticism. And because I hadn’t started only going out with Shomer Shabbos women yet, making plans for a date became tricky.
But within the core idea of Shabbos is trusting in Hashem. As a testimony that God created and runs the world, we take our hands off the wheel of our work lives for one day. If we don’t really believe that Hashem has our back, what’s the point? Luckily enough, I was able to leave that waiter job (and thankfully never go back to restaurants), my family came around to supporting my decision, and I found a great woman to share all Shabbos with.
You don’t need me to tell you how easy it can become to take our blessings for granted. Just wait for a day when your landlord has to turn off the running water for an hour, but instead it turns into half the day. I just find it funny that Christmas, the day held so holy by a majority of the world, ultimately brought me to appreciate the holiest day of my tradition.