A lesson from Grandma: ‘Live life without fear’

Rachel LaVictoire, 18, is a recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University, where she is a freshman. She grew up in Atlanta, where she is an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center.  Rachel contributes weekly d’var Torah reflections, whichare posted on the Light’s website,  stljewishlight.com.

By Rachel LaVictoire

My grandma is sick. I say this with overwhelming blatancy because when someone close to you falls ill, your emotions can’t beat around the bush or be comforted by euphemisms.

Four months ago, she dressed herself in high heels and sequined tops to meet up with friends she had just seen on the tennis courts. Three months ago, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Today, we sit as a family and reminisce. She tells us favorite stories, and we try to help her finish them when her voice begins to weaken.

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As with everything else in life, our time together now is both a blessing and a curse. Each time she lets out a groan, her pain seems to pierce everyone in the room. Seeing the woman who used to crash into my bumper boat with her teeth shining through a smile in pain… well, it just doesn’t seem right. However, I can’t help but be thankful for this warning signal from G-d. He could have taken her whenever He pleased, but instead G-d is telling us, “Hey, I’ll be taking her soon to be with me. Time to say good-bye.”

Never did I think I’d be saying good-bye to her at 18 years old, but that is what G-d has planned. So that’s what we’ve all been doing—sitting close to her and touching her hands and listening to every word she has to say.

For the first time in my life, I’m speechless. There are no words. She says she knows I’ve gotten involved in religion and she asks me what will come after this life. I want to comfort her but the truth is, I don’t know. I muster a few words about peace and happiness and connecting with G-d, and then I go silent. I’m scared and she’s scared and we’re both trying to control our faces so they don’t show the fear that’s swallowing all the words, leaving us speechless.

Today, though, my grandma said something fantastic. It’s what you’d expect anyone in her position to say, but because the words came from her, I finally understand.

My brother mentioned renting a motorcycle during his upcoming trip to Ireland. “Absolutely not.” said my mother. “Why not?” my brother retorted.

Grandma quieted the room. She whispered, “No, I don’t necessarily want him on a motorcycle, but I want him to have adventure. When he gets to my age, I want him to know that he’s done it all. If that means riding a motorcycle, so be it.”

My mom nodded, trying to hide the fear behind her brown eyes. She understood, too. We can’t let fear control our lives.

This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, tells the famous story of the burning bush, of G-d calling to Moses to free the slaves of Egypt. What could bring more fear than a promise to G-d that you will free thousands of slaves from an unrelenting Pharaoh? And yet, Moses agreed to do so. However, one might argue that, “of course Moses could do this, G-d called on him to do so.” This is true. G-d said directly to Moses, “For I will be with you, and this is the sign for you that it was I Who sent you” (Exodus 3:12).

This begs the question: If I don’t know that G-d is with me and will protect me, why should I embark on any adventure that scares me? Basically, would Moses have tried to free the slaves had G-d not specifically called on him to do so?

This is why I find other stories in Shemot to be somewhat more powerful. In the very first chapter of Exodus, Pharaoh says to the two Hebrew midwives, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see on the birth stool, if it is a son, you shall put him to death, but if it is a daughter, she may live” (Exodus 1:16). However, the very next line reads, “The midwives, however, feared God; so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live” (Exodus 1:17). Later in the parsha the Hebrew women are instructed to throw all newborn sons into the Nile River. Again, Hebrew women rebelled. “A [Hebrew] woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw him that he was good, she hid him for three months. When she could no longer hide him, she took for him a reed basket, smeared it with clay and pitch, placed the child into it, and put it into the marsh at the Nile’s edge” (Exodus 2:2-3).

These incredibly courageous acts were done with no divine instruction, no burning bush, but just an inherent love for G-d and a belief that everything would eventually work out. Yes, it would be nice if G-d came to me, and told me just what Heaven was like so that I may comfort my grandma. And yes, my mom could benefit from a “your kids are going to be OK,” from G-d every now and then.

However, the absence of those divine interventions isn’t an excuse for living in fear. When those first two midwives, Shifrah and Puah, reached their old age, they’d have no regrets. Without direct instruction from G-d, they’d broken the law, done things that could have gotten them killed, and did what they felt was right.

Whether it’s saying introducing yourself to that cute barista, seeing a new country, standing up for what you believe, or riding a motorcycle, do it. G-d may not send instructions, but He’ll watch over you. Then, maybe, when you’re in the final stages of life, you’ll be able to say, “I’ve done it all.”