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Maccabi Moments

Being the heroic torchbearer of Torah learning doesn’t always ignite a second grader’s soul

"Gamliel! Hurry, Abba is about to leave!” “I’m almost ready, Ima, but I can’t find my Chumash anywhere. Shmaya must have moved it again…. Maaaa, Yannai always finishes the dried figs before I get any!”

“So take some roasted wheat kernels, sheifele, but hurry.”

From outside, a thump and a wail. “Shmaya always gets to lead the mule!”

“My quill snapped!”

You scoop up the baby, who is trying to tip the water bucket again, and head to the empty doorway, newly bereft of its door.

“Have a great day and learn well!” you call, but they’re already disappearing among the trees.

I often wonder about the cheder children of ancient Judea who hid in caves to avoid the Greek patrols. Did they spring excitedly out of bed each morning, alight with the promise of a new day of learning Hashem’s holy Torah? Did they thrill to gather and study in defiance of the Hellenist decrees?

Or did they fight like little wildcats, show up to school late because their sandals were missing, and complain when their mother didn’t put enough olive oil on their noon pita?


Mine would have grumbled when their rebbi made them put away their tops and take their seforim out again. Did their parents sometimes wonder if it was worth the effort to get them out the door, when they’d spend half the morning playing dreidel?

If there’s one thing I know with certainty after months of this pandemic, it’s that being the heroic torchbearer of Torah learning doesn’t always ignite a second grader’s soul. Heroism is, well, hard.

In a favorite book from my childhood, the heroes pause while slogging through the mud during one of their darkest moments, to wonder if someday people will remember their story. Will it become the stuff of legends? One day, will people sit in cozy armchairs by the fire and marvel at their tenacity and grit?

These days, I think about that a lot. I wonder if future generations will talk about the stubborn children who called their conferences and showed up at their tents, who refused to capitulate even when batei medrash were locked and barred. I ask my kids if they thought that little Chashmonai boys kvetched about going to join their rebbi in the cave. I tell my kids that today is their day to be heroic Maccabi-children. More often than not, it falls spectacularly flat.

That’s the annoying thing about heroism. It usually involves doing a lot of what we’d rather not be doing, a quality that us humans, particularly the smaller-sized variety, don’t always excel at.

When the much-anticipated day finally came, and schools began to hold classes in backyard tents and other COVID-compliant locations, we’d get weekly, sometimes daily, robocalls from the menahel, who enthused about the idyllic learning sessions taking place. (The menahel could be forgiven for mistaking the perspiration on our sons’ faces for an otherworldly glow).

As I listened to his exultant messages, I wondered: Are these some other people’s kids he’s talking about, who are delighted to be back? Who are learning with a geshmak un a bren?

They sure aren’t mine, who need to be coaxed, cajoled, and threatened to get to class each day. But maybe my kids are the anomaly, and most kids really want nothing more than to sit in 90-degree weather teitching Chumash.

And then the carpools start. Hours of driving for minutes of learning, it often seems, with the baby alternately screaming in the backseat or falling asleep and spoiling her nap. We grumble and kvetch, because this was not what we had in mind when we said the kids need some structure!

It turns out, legends look a lot rosier in retrospect. When you are actually creating the saga, you feel mundane, stressed, maybe grouchy. You’re tired, your house is a mess, and you snapped at two kids this morning. And then you do what you have to do when really you’d rather not, because there’s an ideal out there that’s more important than your comfort, and there you are — a hero is born.

The hero in you pretends to be enthusiastic about helping your first grader with her kriah conference call, because you live in one of Brooklyn’s red zones.

The hero in you patiently encourages your son to sit still for the duration of his outdoor-parking-lot classes despite the heat of autumn in Yerushalayim.

Or maybe you live in a city like mine, where school continues as usual, and the boys aren’t so enthusiastic about waking up early on a Sunday, as usual.

And when it’s your turn to drive carpool for six hyperactive little boys for 45 minutes, you farm out your other children, you fortify the baby with snacks, and you turn on a genuine smile as you open the van’s power door for the first arrival.

It’s your Maccabi moment.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 717)

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