I was seven years old and playing at my friend Timmy’s house. His mother served us some popcorn, and I forgot that Timmy didn’t keep kosher. I ate the popcorn. When I realized what I had done, I ran home and told my mother. I was very upset by the mistake I made. It didn't seem to me like a small mistake. I had broken a rule I took very seriously. I was distraught. I think my mother was surprised at how upset I was, and uncertain of how to calm me down.
As I child, I was very aware of rules and very concerned about breaking them. But what exactly was the source of my tears after I chowed down on not-necessarily-kosher popcorn? I was concerned on three levels:
1. I had broken a rule I took seriously and believed in (keeping kosher)
2. I was angry at myself for doing so
3. I was angry at -- who? what? -- for establishing rules that were so easily broken, because I had trespassed in a brief moment of carelessness, without any intention to do wrong.
So I felt that I had done something wrong and that it was unfair that doing wrong was so easy, that it happened with no evil intent, simply from carelessness and a lack of attention. I guess I thought there should be a magic angel hand holding my hand back from the bowl of suspect popcorn.
(The question of whether or not popcorn can actually be unkosher is beside the point. I knew that Timmy's family did not keep a kosher kitchen, so therefore I knew not to eat anything there. I was a kid and no one expected me to make detailed kashrut decisions; it was a broad approach.)
Since there are no angel hands, at least not around me, the substitute for such guardians is that moment of reflection with which human beings are blessed. It's called conscience or moral sense. It is supposed to make us hesitate before taking action. It's also known as reflection -- the image we see in our mind, ourselves reflected, paused, frozen in time for second to allow us a second thought, a change of course.
Judaism strengthens this sense of reflection in many ways. The act of saying a bracha (blessing) before eating would have provided enough time for me to think twice about Timmy's popcorn, but my family's custom did not include brachas for snacks. I can see now how brachas and keeping kosher go well together -- the moment taken to ponder, "What is the bracha for popcorn?" is enough time for a child to also think, "Oh wait a second, Timmy's family doesn't keep kosher, maybe I should just say no thanks."
I realize I'm treading into dangerous ground here, but -- and again these are just my personal reflections -- (ducking for cover) -- perhaps this is an example where the middle road of Modern Orthodoxy is a particularly difficult one. Would a child from Crown Heights have been in the same predicament? And as trivial as it seems -- the fearsome kernel of corn -- it was a bit of a crisis for a seven-year-old. Shouldn't a child have the benefit of being safe in his world, of knowing the little decisions he makes during his day will not cause him to sin inadvertently? "I ate treif" is a tough confession for a little kosher kid!
The temptations life presents become so much more perilous as we get older. It is good to teach our children how to use that moment of reflection -- the pause for a bracha, or for thought, or prayer. Maybe the angel's hand will make it here in time, sometimes, and stop us before we reach for something that will only bring us regrets later on.
(This essay combines elements of two posts from my Mirty's Place site. Thanks for reading. Thanks for commenting. Shavua Tov.)