A Revelation for Sister Schwartz (and another one for Tzipa)
Tales of the Chelm First Ward
Mirele Schwartz felt it was a duty she owed to God and herself to get her calling right. When she thought about it, she supposed it might also be a duty she owed to the young women she served, though she was not entirely convinced that they cared when she slipped up. She was not sure, for that matter, if they even noticed her failures at all. Not even Bishop Levy seemed aware of her mistakes. It was frustrating. She had to do double the labor: in addition to the work of not being good enough, she had to do all the work of being disappointed in herself. At times, she felt that God alone paid close enough attention to appreciate her anxiety.
She supposed that being understood by God alone wasn’t the worst thing. Even if no one else truly saw her mortifying failures, she could resolve in secret prayer to make it up to the God who sees in secret by being completely perfect next time. Next time, of course, was not literally next time, so much as an endless upward spiral of growing expectations and tension in one eternal round. The Lord had promised to raise her up—why not start with her blood pressure?
At any given time, of course, Mirele’s perfectionism needed something to hold onto. And so it was that Mirele Schwartz welcomed the spring not only by marking the bitterness of slavery in Egypt, but also by worrying more than ever before—if such a thing was still physically possible—about what to do for girls camp in the summer. As families across the ward marked the Exodus, she inventoried equipment. She read advice from American websites in a mix of her best English and Google’s inelegant yet functional translations. She looked at photos of forested campsites and hikes with inspiring summits all across Poland and into the neighboring countries. This would be, she vowed, a girls camp to remember. One to impress God himself. It might reach beyond even his standards to meet Instagram’s.
There was only one problem, really. Mirele could not, to save her life, think of a proper theme.
That was the same year Tzipa Leicht had been called to help with girls camp. Like Mirele Schwartz, Tzipa was committed to her calling. Like Mirele Schwartz, she thought about the ward’s young women even when they were not in her immediate presence. Like Mirele Schwartz, she wanted to do her best.
Sometimes the word like bears unintended witness to the vast diversity of God’s creation, because each similarity contains a thousand differences. And a word such as best shows just how true the Bible is, because the Bible warns us that language is confounded. Words can be short and look simple and seem to be shared. And yet, the same clipped syllable can have wildly different meanings in two people’s minds.
Mirele Schwartz wanted to do her best in the way that a person might dream of walking on the moon. Tzipa wanted to do her best in the way a person might happen to sleepwalk without bumping into things. To put it scripturally, Mirele wanted to do her best in the way a silversmith’s ore is refined seven times. Tzipa wanted to do her best in the way of the hewer’s ax, which has done its job if the tree comes down.
Tzipa started her preparation for girls camp by brushing up on first aid, because it seemed to her that the worst would be if someone died. It followed logically that the best, being the opposite of the worst, would be if no one died.
Tzipa did not think about a theme one way or the other because it never occurred to her that a theme might kill anyone. This may well have reflected a lack of imagination on her part, but it was what it was. Water was worth thinking about. For a camp of a few days, food wasn’t strictly essential, but planning something to eat did seem like a reasonable precaution. And, although there was no particular risk if she failed, Tzipa also thought it might be nice if, before camp, she managed to learn the girls’ names.
After all, she wanted to do her best.
To find a theme, Mirele Schwartz began at the beginning, reading her scriptures from Genesis on. The Flood sounded too soggy. Sodom and Gomorrah was in no way appropriate for the young, and its sequel on the mountain was awful. Mirele didn’t understand what those passages were doing in Genesis, almost at the beginning of scripture, instead of in a separate place for terrible stories. Like somewhere in the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon, or in the Bible’s Book of Judges. She moved on.
Rebekkah preparing venison for Isaac sounded appetizing, until she thought about how some of the girls cooked. The other Matriarchs fleeing from their father was good—that was the whole point of Church for some girls—but there was a part where Rachael stole an idol and Mirele didn’t want to encourage theft. Bondage in Egypt was out, unfortunately, because the ward’s end of Passover party had already claimed it. Right after that, though, the children of Israel went into the wilderness.
Well! Wasn’t that exactly what girls camp was already about?
The Doctrine and Covenants said the spirit of revelation was the power by which Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt. And that same spirit told Mirele Schwartz, as she pored over Exodus, that “Forty Years in the Wilderness” was the perfect girls camp theme. Certainty burned in her bosom like a bush.
This was her truth and she could not deny it.
Tzipa tried to be supportive when Mirele Schwartz presented her revelation literally. But it was hard. “Forty years in the wilderness?” she asked. “Isn’t that a long time?”
Mirele nodded. “That must be why the children of Israel learned so much,” she observed.
Not wanting to sound like a murmurer, Tzipa bit back practical questions like: what would we eat? what about my work? or: have you lost your mind? She searched for a proper objection instead and was relieved to quickly find one. “It is an idea,” she conceded supportively, “but during the forty years, they would cease to be young women. So we couldn’t make it only a young women’s activity. We would need to make it a ward activity. And for that, we would need permission from the bishop.”
Mirele bit her lip. She believed strongly in permission, but this plan bothered her. “It would have to be a partial ward activity,” she said, “because we don’t want everyone to come.”
“That’s true,” Tzipa said. “And I’ve never known the bishop to announce a partial ward activity. God invites all to come to him and all that. Besides,” she added, “after a few years, the girls’ parents might miss them.”
“Well,” said Mirele. “It wouldn’t be girls camp if the whole ward came. So maybe we can’t do the whole forty years—”
“Of course you’re right,” Tzipa cut in, before Mirele could waffle over her maybe. “We’ll have to make do with just a few days.”
Mirele sighed. “This could still work, but it won’t be easy,” she said. But then she took out a notebook to make a list.
Lists made Tzipa nervous. When it came to church activities, her motto was: if you can’t keep something in your head, don’t do anything at all.
After scrawling for a few minutes, even Mirele sighed. “We’ll have to pack ten years’ worth of activities into each day for four days,” she said.
“I think that’s a terrible idea,” Tzipa replied diplomatically.
But Mirele only looked back at her with pious determination. “He never said it would be easy,” she recited. “Only that we would do it.”
The very next day Tzipa, entirely by coincidence, read in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus had in fact said, “My yoke is easy.” He’d even been explicit about packing lists: “My burden is light.”
She wondered suddenly which he Sister Schwartz was always talking about.
She thought about calling Sister Schwartz right then to explain that God wants us to keep things simple. But then again, God had also created Mirele Schwartz. His living word spoke more strongly than dead letters on a page: if simplicity was all the Holy One, blessed be he, cared about, he was clearly getting sloppy.
And if he was, what of it? Sloppy or not, God got the job done. No lost pages, or even whole lost tribes, could get in the way of his work, because God knew how to improvise. And something whispered in Tzipa that she could too. After all, there are some things in life you cannot change—and one of them is Mirele Schwartz’s mind. But no overzealous hand would stop the work from progressing. Somehow, she would find a way to temper her president without needing to directly convince her of how wrong she was.
The moment Tzipa committed herself to that task, insight began to distill on her like the dew. The biggest differences of faith, Tzipa realized, are not between the world’s various religions—but within each one. It didn’t matter whether you were a Christian or a Buddhist, a Mormon or an animist, whether you worshiped God or your party’s politics, there were some beliefs that cropped up in every group of humans on earth. Some people believed in being carefully decent; some people threw themselves on love and grace. Some people thought the most important thing was to believe exactly the right things, while others assumed the most important thing was to point it out if someone else said anything wrong. Some people believed in stillness and worried about being a nuisance. Other people worried that if they stopped moving, their souls would collapse from sudden atrophy.
To get through an activity without anyone dying was one thing. But religion was more than that. Religion was the task of somehow keeping a thousand competing personalities all in the orbit of one faith.
Tzipa sighed. She would do her best.
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James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Artwork by David Habben.