As the day of my Bar Mitzvah drew near, my father impressed three things upon me:
1. Never to fool myself.
2. Never to fool somebody else.
3. Never to allow myself to be fooled.
~ Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson
He ostensibly came around to the yeshiva to visit old friends but actually, I think, to make sure the place was safely receding into the distance like a police car in the rearview mirror. My room would be his last stop and we’d shoot the breeze about everything except why he left and why he still hadn’t left, why he was still coming around, still paying attention. Our conversation danced around landmines like Israeli politics and his shaved face and the latest frum contretemps, and he’d return home with another brick in our friendship layed slipshod so the cold wind of the world came through the chinks in its walls.
It got better when I started buying books. I had a big windowsill back then, broad enough to be a shelf. From its left side extended my holy books in Hebrew and Yiddish. So it was for five years. Then, one week, with no great fanfare and no mouth of hell splitting my floor tiles, the English books began to sprout from the right side. Gödel, Escher, Bach. The Elements of Style. A History of the Jews. How to Teach Physics to Your Dog. Yom Kippur a Go Go. A Canticle for Leibowitz. Code. A History of Western Philosophy. Fear and Trembling.
He’d pick them up and leaf through them and we’d talk about what I’d read and how I felt about it. I always felt he respected my intelligence, and in secular interests we found common ground. (My mini-collection on atheism drew a spontaneous “Are you going to a convention or something?”)
I felt uncomfortable.
I felt uncomfortable because one week, with no great fanfare, I made a decision to revisit the pursuit of worldly intellect that enriched my youth, and I no longer knew what separated me from the beardless man who stood next to me, a well-dressed and well-coiffed law school applicant so far from my brother whose first day of Yeshiva was my first day of Yeshiva all those years ago in Jerusalem.
We came to Yeshiva with more or less the same goal: To find The Truth and pursue it the way only teenagers could. We learned together, we attended the same classes and farbrengens and trips. We swung chickens over our heads and wrapped tefillin on strangers and talked about G-d and His designs late into the night. I went home for Passover and let my parents know I wouldn’t be attending Georgia Tech in the fall. I had tasted life and had no use for computer science.
Our studies continued. Together, we left Jerusalem for New Jersey, to learn in a “regular” (that is, frum-from-birth) Yeshiva. Exposed was the face of the beast: teachers who could barely speak English, hordes of jaded students compelled by their parents to continue their religious studies, a cheder full of feral kids, every conversation pervaded with gossip and scandal, sons speaking of their fathers with detached analysis, a culture of frugality bordering on the deceptive and the larcenous, rabbis who either convinced themselves the majority of their students were interested in spiritual pursuits or who otherwise gave in to despair and avenged their idealism by confiscating phones, books, laptops.
I devoted myself to finding the silver lining, and I did, for a while. I know too well that love of someone who doesn’t love you can only go so far. My appreciation for this life began to crumble. So did his, I found out later.
It only got worse. After a disillusioned summer in upstate New York, I went away as a student emissary/teacher to Tel Aviv. I had the toughest year of my life trying to relate to unrelatable people and to stay motivated. He remained in Jersey. He watched the faculty of his Yeshiva (including one of his heroes) spin out of control with fatwa after fatwa meant to bring the students in line.
I came back to the States and he was gone.
I pressed forward – another year of Yeshiva, this time for my rabbinical ordination, my smicha. It was the natural next step after shlichus, and I’d convinced myself all the problems I saw were Israeli problems (many of them were, but not most of them, not exclusively). It was another tough year. The learning was beyond me and the rest of my life loomed on the horizon, begging the constant question, was it all a mistake? Where will you be going next year? What are you going to do with yourself? Do you even like anyone in the community you’re a part of? Do you relate to them in any way?
In a measured voice and with a slight but insistent angling of the head I learned from my Talmud teacher in Jerusalem, I would insist to myself, “I do relate to them in some way. G-d is real. Chassidus is real. It’s all true. This was not a mistake. I will not give up.”
I gradually read the books on the left side of the shelf for pleasure less and less, and the right side sat empty.
The crisis came halfway through that year. The long night when I got off the phone with my rabbi and lay weeping in bed, trying to figure out if my investment had been for nothing, if I had made a terrible mistake that only led me away from normalcy and happiness.
Almost two years later, I’m still here. I’m also back in Jerusalem spending a lot of my day trying to help others taking this same path.
What conclusion did I come to that night? Why did I remain? How can I encourage others toward disillusionment and heartbreak?
The first thing I realized: everybody is looking for something. We have vacuums we must fill one way or another, and we find that there are things in Judaism that satisfy us, be it the peace and warmth of its Shabbos, the elegance of its theology, its salvation from the nihilistic void of existence. We become attached to these things; they become to us like a lover’s face, a memory of the first walk we took in the rain together, huddled under the umbrella, one.
Then times become tough; there is always more than we bargained for; the parts we love cannot be cut out from the undesirable whole that does nothing for us, and that we begin to resent. The things we once loved become the lies we tell to convince ourselves our love continues.
(Even now I still have these moments. I was in Beitar last Shabbos, walking to shul at ten in the morning, the sun warming my face, the sweet breeze blowing off the patchwork farms of the valley, apartment buildings thrust into the blue sky like white sails, so bright you almost had to look away, and a little boy ran in front of me, crossing the calm road with a bottle of wine for kiddush to his father who stood erect like a prince, wrapped in his pure tallis and waiting for his son and the sanctification of the day, their world held gyroscopically still in reality’s storm, and I felt a pang of longing in my heart that carried me to Shacharis and beyond. It shook me. And then it faded into pale memory, and I became once again unconvinced about my choices, and the question ate at me more: Was it all a mistake?)
But it was not for nothing we walked this road. We have merely outgrown our initial impressions, and what we initially loved has been left behind. True, it does not feel like growth. It feels like pain. The little problems with Judaism accrue and become big problems; what you used to overlook is now all you can see. But the problem here is not Judaism changing. It is the way it no longer fits in the box we initially imposed.
And then comes the pivotal moment with its cleaving question: Were you merely blind before? Were you a fool? Is it true that only fools fall in love?
If you think you were only a fool, then you must cut your losses and move on. This was never meant to be, and the entire endeavor was merely an expression of your own frailty.
If you were not a fool, then you can come to love it as you loved it before. You were willing to ignore the faults of your beloved because her face was so beautiful. It is now time to do it again, to find the beauty. But it will not happen on its own; that is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, a child’s thing, the serendipitous interlocking of need and fulfillment. The difference between adults and children is that adults cannot rely on serendipity. We must work to find congruence.
We start by shedding our preconceptions. What we used to love about her was a projection of our own needs, and we can’t pretend it’s who she is any longer. We must take her on her own terms, pimples and all.
It’s all in the words. When we start out we say “Shabbos” and feel a rush of joy. But the word wears out, for what is a word but dead letters, sounds forced into an uneasy partnership and bound with imposed meaning. After enough time, it starts to sound like nothing at all, and after more time we start resenting it – “I have a soul; stop mouthing at me! I need to comprehend; the word means nothing to me.” Shabbos has become a parroted cliché. It has become death. Not death by terrorist, 7 o’ clock news; death deep in the Amazon where no one’s around to film it, death as a force of nature, a mute wall, a brute fact.
We have two options. We can either get rid of the word and go searching for some other sounds we hope will not eventually rot in our mouths, or we must find some way to reinvigorate this one. We must find a new definition of “Shabbos.” And what, I thought on my bed that night, is Chassidus, if not a long series of redefinitions, an insistent angling of the head that says, “No, it means this.” And those definitions by nature of their divine origin are of infinite depth.
The upswing: What we hate about it is not it, it’s what we had to call it when we were small. It is not foolish; we were foolish when we met it. Shabbos does not mean what we thought it did. It means something deeper, something G-dly, and in that G-dly reality there is room, say, to not feel bad about your hasty prayers and do feel great about the wonderful food you look forward to all week. From a deeper perspective, that too is Shabbos.
Romance lives, to the extent that the child is the father of the man. As long as there is still some room to expand the definition of our terms, there will always be a reason to stay.
So I teach Baalei Teshuva. I’m not selling a flawed product; I’m selling a deeper and truer place within themselves. I am selling them true love. The job is not to protect them from disillusionment and heartbreak. The job is to give them the intellectual and theological tools to deal with it when it comes. The bumps in the road are part of the journey, the feeling of their own skin too tight on their bodies. We cannot split the sea for them, but we will give them a staff.
When I asked my friend if he was okay with my writing a piece about us, he asked if he had anything to worry about. I told him no. I think we see things from similar perspectives, now. Though in some external ways we come down on opposite sides of the table, we are at least both sitting at it. We have each, in our own way, shucked our childish pursuits, and taken steps to becoming men in this world, men who aren’t fools, men who live according to their convictions. Are we really so different, after all?
My definitions have stretched so I no longer feel distant from my friend in law school. Every day, we seem ever more two sides of the same coin; in fact, every day, everything seems like a side of it. When your definitions are robust, all of a sudden G-d can get in everywhere. On both sides of the shelf, in both friends, and in that mysterious interstitial space that separates all matter and unites it.
Originally posted on Hevria.