When heimishe people hear the word “smorgasbord,” in their mind’s eye they envision a lavish simcha, usually a wedding, with guests mulling around several buffet tables containing all kinds of delectable foods in several categories. There is the fish station, usually offering salmon, sushi and fish balls, or the Chinese station, with lo mein, General Tso’s or pineapple chicken. There will be salad and a fruit table along with one replete with tarts, cakes and pies. All these various foods are equally appealing and people freely pick what they want, taking larger portions of what they really like, while sampling smaller portions of what they like but aren’t “into” as much. They’ll heap their plate with, for example, barbecue chicken wings, but will only take a couple of fried wings.
I use this as a metaphor for what I see as “smorgasbord Orthodoxy.” There are so many mitzvot that we try so hard to obey and that we take upon ourselves to fulfill, but even in the same mitzvah category, people have their individual preferences. The “dishes” on the “mitzvah table” are equally appealing and have the same value, but somehow it seems that people are machmir on performing some to the full letter and spirit of the law, but for others they take a lenient approach towards – or take none at all.
Glaring examples of this unbalanced “tasting” of mitzvahs in the same “food” category came to play over Pesach in, of all places, a children’s playground. Most visiting bubbies and zaydies take their children’s young offspring to a park or playground – thus giving their tired kids a break. So, here I was, sitting on the bench happily off my feet after simultaneously pushing several toddlers and pre-schoolers on the swings – as they, to my relief, were able to navigate the smaller-scale slides on their own – when I noticed a young married woman enter the park trailed by several little boys with, as they say in Yiddish, lange payes. (Not sideburns, but long curled payos). She was wearing a pretty turban that completely covered her hair, the fashionable kind that has a hump on top to give it more height. Here was someone who appeared to be strict in dressing tznuah – no “country music star” wig cascading in waves down her back for her.
But then she came closer and I was bowled over by what looked like an oversized bowling ball protruding from her belly. She must have been about six or seven months pregnant and was wearing a very tight, form-fitting dress, likely made of spandex. Every contour of that pregnancy was outlined. It reminded me of a photo I saw online showing what I think was a python or another large snake that had swallowed a porcupine. The entire form of that hapless animal could be seen pushing out of the engorged snake’s body – including the quills.
The dichotomy between her very modest head covering, her kids with their seemingly charedi payes and her in-your-face pregnancy dress was surreal. I imagine maternity stores still sell the mumus and tent-like dresses that minimize one’s “baby bump” as it’s referred to in secular society, so why choose an outfit that draws the viewer’s fascinated eye to what looks like a swallowed watermelon?
It seemed this young woman had taken a big heaping portion from the tzniut smorgasbord – her hair completely covered with a cloth and not a custom-made human hair wig that to the untrained eye is indistinguishable from one’s own hair – but ignored another tzniut dish, that of not drawing inadvertent attention to her very pregnant self.
And then there is a section of the mitzvah table where the “eating” is often inconsistent. Daughters and daughters-in-law came to the playground to join their young children. I couldn’t but help but hear some of the conversations around me – they were on the loud side. Women were yelling at their mothers or mothers-in-law over some childcare transgression. Here is an example: “Why does Chani have a lollipop in her mouth?! I told you not to give her another one! She already had two at home. Why can’t you just listen?”
Now, I do understand that young mother’s frustration. I’m not disputing her right to be upset. But on the mitzvah smorgasbord is a highly touted dish called “honoring you father and mother.” Yes, parents can be very annoying and exasperating in the eyes of their adult children – especially if their childcare ideas don’t mesh (even though it’s a time-honored tradition amongst grandparents to bend the rules and spoil their einiklach. It’s part of the job description. ) Or if they are critical or controlling – forgetting their kids are responsible adults.
But you should get your “point” across respectfully and gently. No parent deserves to be yelled at or made to feel inadequate or incompetent. In fact, nobody, young or old, deserves to be verbally abused. One can express one’s ire, disappointment or disapproval in a mild, calm manner that does not make the person – especially a parent, in-law, or sibling – silently vow that he or she is not coming to visit the next time, which is a sentiment several of my friends shared with me after I asked them how their Pesach was.
No doubt on the kibud av v’aim table, these sons and daughters are very machmir in taking their parents to medical appointments and shopping, or helping them with their computer problems, but seem to barely glance at the dish of politeness and respect when addressing their parents.
At the park I also saw businessmen and professionals with sefarim on their laps as they happily learned and watched their children. No doubt they enjoy heaping their plates from the “give tzedakah” section of the mitzvah buffet, and are very approachable when donations are needed, but they have no appetite in the “deal honestly in business” platters.
Somehow there is a puzzling disconnect in which frum men and women are very strict and diligent regarding some aspects of mitzvah observance, but in that same category of mitzvah, are oblivious to how they are not performing it properly or, in fact, ignoring it completely.
The fact is, being shomer mitzvot is a life-long work in progress – a difficult and challenging one. With Shavuot on the horizon and with it the anniversary of Matan Torah, perhaps we can take a step back from our favorite “dishes” at the mitzvah smorgasbord, and take a second look at the ones we overlook!