I teach Religious School every other Sunday morning at my synagogue to a class of five-year-olds. They are incredibly smart, hyperactive children who are mainly concerned with when snack is coming and how much time they're going to get to spend on the playground after I'm done with my lesson. This week's lesson was the story of Noah's Ark.
As I was reading a very condensed version of the story of the flood to my class, one of my students, Ben, said he couldn't hear me. "One of my ears doesn't work," he informed me. Based on his tendency to tell outrageous lies and the expression on his face, I wasn't sure if this was true, but I told him he could sit closer to me and that I'd speak more loudly. The little girl sitting next to him, Anna, said, "Do you want to trade ears? Mine work pretty good." She said this in all seriousness, and Ben declined her offer, which I later learned from his mother was because he has two fully-functioning ears. Still, despite the fact that trading ears would have been a little more complicated than a bit of zipping or snapping, Anna's offer was pure and sweet. That's what I love about children. In general, they just want to help in whatever small ways they can.
What Anna offered to do was a mitzvah. A mitzvah (plural: mitzvot) is literally translated as "commandment," but has come to mean "good deed," as in, "God commands His people to do good deeds." Helping those less fortunate is a form of mitzvot called tzedakah, charity. Even though she's only five years old, Anna is the embodiment of what it means to be a good Jew; she tries to help others and do the right thing.
The vocabulary word that went along with the story of Noah's Ark was "righteous." My lesson book defines righteous as, "doing the right thing." I told my students that Noah was a righteous man because he listened to God and took care of the animals on the ark, even though he was probably very tired from herding them onto it and building it. I was so proud of Ben for being able to define "righteous" after being told the definition a couple of times because he usually claims not to know answers despite being a very smart child. The kids were so excited to find out that they can be righteous just like Noah by being kind and doing what they think God would want them to do. I talked about how one of the Ten Commandments is "Honor thy mother and father," and that the kids can be righteous like Noah by being nice to their parents and doing what they're told because that's what God wants us to do.
It's never too late to form a relationship with God. I consider myself blessed to have been given the opportunity to share my faith with such young children. But even if you've been disconnected from God for years, even your whole life, it's never too late to allow Divine love into your heart.
I used to consider myself an atheist. I hated the idea of God, and thought anyone who had religion was stupid. It was not a comfortable way to live. I am so grateful that God came to me at the right time and works in small ways in my life to keep me "happy, joyous, and free." Working with children reminds me that there is goodness, kindness, and love in the world. Prayer reminds me to be grateful for these things. It's hard not to be overwhelmed with how amazing God can be. The love between God and man is more pure than any earthly love. It is devoid of selfish motives, of lust, of greed. It is a singular connection based on faith, compassion, and kindness. I am so grateful that I have opened my heart in order to receive this kind of love. It has made me a softer, gentler, more forgiving person. It's made me like myself more, and made me feel like I have purpose in life. I don't know what brought me back to God after so much time spent distancing myself from Him, but I am grateful that these days, I walk in love and have the Torah in my heart.