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Extra Effort

Robert and his friend Kevin were so busy playing in the basement that they didn’t realize how hungry they were until Kevin’s mother called them upstairs for a snack. Kevin’s mom seemed really nice. “I heated up some pizza for you boys,” she called.

The boys raced up the stairs to the kitchen. The pizza was already on the table. A glass of milk had been placed beside each boy’s plate. Kevin grabbed the first piece of pizza. Robert, who loved pizza, followed right behind. Robert was suddenly so hungry he bit right in, not even noticing the dark topping on the pizza. The first bite tasted sort of salty but okay. He quickly took more bites. The boys gobbled up their first slices and reached for seconds. Only then did Robert ask, “What’s this brown stuff?”

“Pepperoni,” replied Kevin’s mom.

Robert thought she said peppers. He didn’t really like peppers, but on the pizza like this they seemed all right. He ate another slice and gulped down his milk. The pizza made him thirsty.

At home, Robert’s family kept strictly kosher. Keeping kosher means following the complicated rules about which foods Jews may eat and which foods may be eaten with other foods. When Robert’s family ate out, they only ate dairy. That way they were sure they didn’t eat any non-kosher meats and didn’t have to worry about mixing meat and milk, which was all part of the rules of keeping kosher. Kevin wasn’t Jewish. Robert and Kevin became friends when they played on the same soccer team. They both loved soccer. This was the first time Robert had been to Kevin’s home.

“What did you have for a snack at Kevin’s?” Robert’s mother asked back at home later that afternoon.

“Pizza and milk,” Robert answered. “Kevin’s mom put peppers on the pizza. It was pretty good. Why don’t we have peppers on our pizza?” he asked.

“You’ve never liked peppers,” his mother replied, suddenly curious. “What were they like?” she asked. Robert described it to her. “I think you were eating pepperoni. That’s a pork product,” she explained gently. Pork is a forbidden food for Jews. Robert suddenly felt sick and horrified. “It’s okay. We all make mistakes,” she reassured him. “I should have said something to Kevin’s mother when we arranged this. We’ll all be more careful in the future.”

Alone in bed that night, Robert thought about the pepperoni. There were so many rules and commandments. You had to think of them all the time. Now God was probably mad at him. Being Jewish, he decided, was so hard that nobody could get it right. And, if you did do it right, you missed so much good stuff. The pepperoni, he remembered, tasted a lot better than peppers. He fell asleep that night thinking if he had a choice, he wouldn’t choose to be Jewish. It was too much work. Kevin never worried about this kind of stuff.

Robert and his mom were more careful in the following weeks. He had more play dates with Kevin, but he was never offered anything but dairy snacks. Kevin came to his house and enjoyed the kosher foods Robert’s mom served. The pepperoni incident was forgotten.

When Passover came around, Robert’s mom and the whole family really got into it. His father gave prizes for all the hidden chometz–leavened bread–that Robert and his little sister, Jennifer, found after his mother declared the house ready for Passover. He and his sister took flashlights and explored the darkest corners of the house. They found bits of chometz in places nobody ever went into. It was a lot of fun.

But after the two Seders, Passover began to settle into a routine. Robert and his sister went back to school. They brought matzos and cheese and fruit and Passover cookies for lunch. Robert didn’t particularly like the cookies and usually didn’t eat them. One day another boy offered to trade a candy bar for Robert’s cookies. Robert jumped at the deal.

“You ate all your cookies today,” observed Robert’s mom as she washed out his lunch box that afternoon.

“I traded them for a candy bar,” Robert responded.

“Was it a Passover candy bar?” she asked

“I don’t know. It was just a regular candy bar,” he said, suddenly feeling guilty. The candy bar, his mom determined, clearly was not kosher for Passover. She wasn’t angry, but Robert sensed she was disappointed in him. For the rest of the day, Robert fretted over his mistake. This Jewish stuff is just too hard. He felt he couldn’t get it right. Sometimes he felt it wasn’t even worth trying.

At bedtime, Robert’s dad sat on the bed after the usual bedtime and story routine. “You’ve seemed bothered all day. What’s the problem?” asked his dad.

“It’s nothing,” Robert replied, not knowing what to say.

“Is it about the candy bar?” his dad asked.

“Sort of,” Robert agreed.

“God knows that Jews will make mistakes. It’s important to try to get it right, but God knows that even the most careful Jews will make mistakes. In fact, in the Torah God has Moses set up a whole procedure for when someone makes a mistake about any of God’s commandments,” his dad continued.

“Does God punish them?” asked Robert.

“No, not for innocent mistakes. God forgives them. You just have to do some mitzvot according to the commandments and you’re forgiven. Back then the mitzvot involved making sacrifices. Today, we pray for forgiveness and we try to do better and maybe we do a few extra mitzvot–good deeds,” his dad explained.

“That’s nice,” said Robert. “But what if you don’t really want to be Jewish at all. It’s no fun” he suddenly blurted out.

Robert’s dad didn’t have an answer right away. He sat silently thinking. Finally, he said: “You’re right. There is a lot of stuff we do as Jews that isn’t fun, at least not fun in the way that playing soccer is fun. As Jews we study Torah and pray to God and give to charity and do mitzvot. Sometimes those things are fun and sometimes they aren’t, but even when they aren’t fun, they are still valuable and worthwhile and make our lives better. Mom and I didn’t have fun cleaning the kitchen for Passover, but you and Jennifer had fun finding the hidden chometz, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but we miss doing a lot of things other kids do,” Robert complained.

“That’s true, but you also get to do things that other kids don’t do,” his dad continued. “You know, all that the Jews wanted from God was to be saved from Egypt and given the land God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They didn’t ask for the Torah. But God knew that having freedom and the Promised Land without the Torah would be a waste. In a short period of time, the Jews would be conquered or absorbed into other cultures and forgotten. Instead, by following the commandments of the Torah, we as Jews have continued as a people for thousands of years. I think of being Jewish as requiring a little extra effort. Following the Torah feels like a burden sometimes, but it makes our lives special, different from everyone else. We eat different foods and celebrate different holidays. Following the Torah can be hard, but it makes us strong in lots of ways.”

“Like what?” asked Robert, not really convinced.

“It teaches us discipline, for one thing, and how to be part of a community, a team. Isn’t that something your soccer coach always talks about?” his dad replied.

The soccer season was starting up again after the winter. Robert and Kevin were together on the same team. Robert was a solid player, not a star, but he could make a contribution to the team and had fun playing. His parents liked this team because most of the games were on Sunday, which didn’t conflict with Shabbat. Robert had to miss games on Shabbat.

Everyone was excited when a World Cup soccer star was scheduled to come one weekend. He would give a clinic for all the kids in the league on Saturday and then watch some games on Sunday. Robert pleaded with his parents to go to the soccer clinic on Saturday, but he knew it was impossible. Saturday is Shabbat.

The morning of the special soccer clinic, Robert sat at the back of the children’s service. Usually he liked participating. He clowned around with some of the other boys. They got to carry a real Torah. They led some prayers. They played games and contests. Sometimes they were even invited by the rabbi to lead easy prayers in the grownup service.

The service leader tried to coax Robert into joining in the service, but he refused. He just sat there, angry at his parents, angry at being Jewish, and even angry at God. During the prayers, instead of joining in, Robert mumbled his own prayer. He complained to God about making it so hard to be Jewish. He complained about missing fun things on Shabbat.

The soccer star was watching as Robert’s team played the next day. When Robert got into the game, he played his hardest. He made some of his best passes ever, feeding the ball to teammates with better scoring chances. It was a close game. At one point the other team charged his goal. Robert was the only player between the opponents and the goalie. He was tempted to immediately rush ahead to try to steal the ball, but instead he moved into position and played the perfect defense. He broke up the play.

In the end, his team lost the game. Robert felt sad until the soccer star pointed him out after the game. The World Cup champion shook Robert’s hand and announced to everybody that Robert’s play was a perfect example of the kind of discipline and teamwork and extra effort that he had emphasized in the clinic the day before.

Discipline, community, team play, extra effort–the words echoed in Robert’s head. He thought about what his dad had said. He didn’t believe his father then, but he did now. Everyone was patting him on the back. His mom and dad were hugging him. In his excitement, a little prayer flashed through his mind: thank you God for making me Jewish.