Category Archives: Archives 5759

Archives

Iyar 5759 – Sensitivity to Each and Every Person

15 Iyar 5759

From the Desk of: Rabbi Chaim Flom

I heard an amazing sicha from my Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Henoch Leibowitz shlita on Parshas Emor. In the story of the man who was mekalel, cursed Hashem with the Divine name (Vayikra 24:10 – 24:23), Moshe wasn’t sure what his punishment should be. Obviously it was a very serious crime, it was even a violation of the Sheva Mitzvos Bnai Noach, one of the seven Noahide laws. They put him in jail until Moshe would find out what to do with him. Rashi explains that this incident took place at the same time as the person who publicly desecrated Shabos. He too was in jail because Moshe didn’t know what his punishment was. They were not kept together however, because the Shabbos violator was definitely getting a death sentence, but they weren’t sure which one (there were four types). The blasphemer however, could get death or maybe he would be subject to a heavenly punisment. Rav Leibowitz asked that the question of why they weren’t placed together still wasn’t answered: so what if one gets death but we don’t know which one, and the other person’s punishment is altogether unknown, let them sit together in jail? The Rosh HaYeshiva said since it was possible the blasphemer would get no punishment from court, it was unfair that he should be with a man getting death. He would imagine the agonizing thoughts that he too would be killed, when in reality it might not be so. You can’t unnecessarily cause agony, anguish or frustration to someone else!! But wait, who are we dealing with – Jack Armstrong the all American boy (I am a little older than all of you – Rabbi Flom) or an evil-doer?! Nevertheless, the Torah is concerned about his feelings too!! If Hashem is so demanding in our consideration to a nefarious criminal, imagine what the expectation is for our friends!! (I assume most of us don’t hang out with a criminal element.) We always have opportunites to compliment people or insult them, be courteous or rude – the instructions are clear, the decision is ours.

Archives

Iyar 5759 – Letter to a Student, Part 4 of 4

1 Iyar 5759

From the Desk of: Rabbi Leib Keleman

(This is the fourth in a series of actual letters written by Rabbi Keleman to a student. Names have been changed.)

Dear Rachel,

Thanks for staying in touch. Your letters mean more to us than you can imagine. I’m also glad you appreciated our last note. Most people are only interested in convenient religion, rules that don’t get in the way of all the pleasures and vanities that Madison Avenue tries so hard to persuade are essential to our happiness. There are very few Americans who still have a sense of purpose, who appreciate heroism and altruism, and we knew that you would be able to relate to this concept. The fact that you understood that letter means that you are doing spiritually great in spiritually-sick America. Despite all the years people have spent trying to persuade you that you are “modern,” you are still an idealist who just wants to be involved in a relationship with Hashem and do the right thing. You are a great woman.

In this note you wrote:
Upon re-reading you letter I came across a phrase that troubled me. You said, “Life is about doing what Hashem asks.” You can’t imagine how much I want to feel Hashem in my life… How am I supposed to do what is expected of me (what Hashem asks) if I myself very often feel that He has deserted me?
My rebbe’s rebbe wrote about this problem about a hundred years ago. He explained that emunah is a midah, just like kindness or patience, and emunah expresses itself in ne’emanus — reliability. Just as we reveal our midah of kindness when we act kindly, and we reveal our midah of patience when we act patiently, so too we reveal our midah of emunah when we act ne’eman, reliably.

Moreover, midos don’t split. That is, if I have internalized the trait of kindess, then I will act kindly towards all. Once I am kind, it doesn’t matter if I am dealing with a white person or a black person, a child or an adult. If I am kind, then I love to give and love, and I will do so with all I come in contact with. If I am truly kind, that kindness will express itself equally towards all, including towards Hashem.

Now let’s apply the concept that midos don’t split to the midah of emunah. If I am truly a reliable person, then I will be reliable when my wife asks me to take out the trash or when a student asks me for a favor or when my son or parent expects something of me. I will also be reliable when Hashem makes a request. Emunah — reliability — just means that I come through for those who I’m involved with. They can count on me. Emunah flows from love. When you are so full of love that it overflows, then you want to be there for others; you want to be someone that can help out, that others can count on.

Now, imagine that I get a message from the Neve secretary one day that Chana called and asked me to pick up some flour and sugar on the way home. I love Chana, and my greatest pleasure is to do things that make her happy. So what should I do? Should I be suspicious that she didn’t really call? Is her request so odd that suspicion is justified? What if I call her to confirm her request and no one answers the phone? Should I then refuse to fulfill the request? How would you describe our relationship if I felt that she couldn’t expect me to bring home groceries if she won’t call me directly or even answer the phone when I call? You and I agree, however: What I really should do is pick up flour, sugar, a carob-bar (which I know she loves) and a dozen roses. That’s what I should do, because I love her, and loving relationships are about giving as much as we can whenever we can, without demandig in return. Who knows why she didn’t answer the phone! Who cares! She’s my Chana and I love her!

Many Americans think that a good relationship is a 50-50 deal — you do for me, and I’ll do for you; fair is fair. Many Americans get married so that someone will love them and take care of them. The Jewish perspective is a little different. A good Jewish relationship is a 100-100 deal. My whole goal in a relationship is to give. That’s why I married Chana, because I was so full of love that I needed someone else to take care of too. I needed someone to give to. Why do Jews have children? Because they are so full of love that it is no longer sufficient to just take care of one partner; they want to take care of more people too. Maturity, from a Jewsih perspective, is defined by how much love I have and how many people I need to be there for.

When I am full of love, and I am therefore reliable, then I don’t ask, “How can he expect me to fulfill his requests when he doesn’t fulfill my requests?” I fulfill his requests because of who I am; because of my love; because of my reliability. I fulfill requests because, as far as I am concerned, I am involved in a 100-100 relationship.

Now let’s analyze the metaphor. Chana asked for flour and sugar, and that’s not such an odd request that suspicion is justified. Hashem asks for a “please” and “thank you” — brachos. Hashem asks us to enjoy Shabbos and acknowledge on that day His sovereignty. Hashem asks us to eat foods that aren’t spiritually poisonous. Hashem asks us to dress like the children of royalty, to love each other, and to speak nicely about each other. And everything He asks of us, He only asks because these things are good for us. He only wants to give to us — to help us in This World and the Next World. He’s involved in a 100-100 relationship, and He wants us to join Him in that.

Ay, but Chana didn’t answer the phone when I called!? Should I therefore assume that she doesn’t love me? Should I assume that she’s abandoned me? Perhaps there’s a good reason she’s not answering. Perhaps there’s an excellent reason she’s not answering, even though I can’t think of what that reason is. You see, if I react by questioning whether I should fulfill her request, or by not fulfilling it at all, the real problem is not that Chana didn’t answer the phone. The problem is that I’m stuck in 50-50 mode. The problem is that I need to work on my love and my reliability — my emunah.

My rebbe’s rebbe reveals one more point about our relationship with Hashem. Why doesn’t Hashem answer the phone? Why doesn’t He make Himself more felt in our lives? Imagine an elderly couple. Imagine that we ask the woman about her relationship with her husband, and she says that he’s been spectacularly loyal to her for 60 years. Imagine we probe further and find that she never let him out of her sight since they were married. She accompanies him everywheree, she boasts, and he has never lied to her or been involved with another woman. Now, how terrific is this relationship? How really reliable is the husband? He never had a chance to lie or commit adultery, since his wife was constantly with him. Their relationship has no emunah in it whatsoever. She doesn’t have a speck of faith in him. She couldn’t have faith in him, because she never had an opportunity to have faith in him. She never exercised her faith muscle.

Now compare that relationship to the relationship of Anatoli and Avital Scharansky. As you probably recall, they were Soviet Jews. the day after they were married, the KGB arrested Anatoli, put him in a maximum security prison, and then deported Avital. They were together one night before they began a separation that lasted more than a decade. For years, while Anatoli was suffering through Soviet tortures, Avital spent every waking moment trying to get her husband released. She lived eery moment of those years for the man she loved, until finally, just a few years ago, the two were reunited here in Jerusalem. Do you see the exaltedness and splendor of the Scharansky marriage? Do you see the emunah — the total faithfulness and the sublime qualities it infused ito their relationship?

This is what Hashem wants us to have too. If our beloved Father in Heaven appeared constantly, we would obey out of awe and fear. We would feel compelled to fulfill His requests. Yes, we would gain certainty, but we would lose too — Our relationship would be empty of emunah. Our relationship would lack the essential, most sublime ingredient. There would be no place for faithfulness. Why doesn’t Hashem answer? Because He wants to leave room for emunah — for faithfulness and all the love, passion, and commitment that faithfulness cultivates.

Hashem stands in the background. He sends us food, clothing, warmth friends and teachers. He gives us His Torah and protects us with mitzvos. He quietly interferes to provide our needs and shield us from harm, leaving barely detectable footprints in the sand around us. And He leaves us free to develop our love for Him, and to infuse our relationship with faithfulness; reliability; emunah.

It’s late, so I’ll conclude with a story. When we first were informed that our youngest son Yosef Yishai had dozens of holes in his heart, a blocked aorta, and probably wouldn’t live, Chana and I struggled to arrange as quickly as possible for the special surgery that was his only hope. We succeeded at overcoming all the obstacles but one: The FAA wouldn’t allow us to fly into the U.S.A. airspace with an oxygen tank onboard, and Yosef Yishai couldn’t fly without oxygen. Chana and I remember, in the middle of that frantic 24 hours of preflight preparation, when I stepped up to a wall outside the Pediatric ICU to plead for my son’s life. I remember davening and, for the first time since I became a BT, feeling that no one was listening. I cried and cried to my Father in Heaven, and I felt nothing. I felt abandoned. Chana and I remember when I stepped out of that long, urgent attempt to awaken Divine mercy, feeling alone. We walked towards the PICU and saw a crowd of doctors, all the doctors in the PICU crowded in a circle around something. As I approached, one of the doctors, recognizing that I was the father, stepped back to make room for me in the circle. I looked down and saw a woman sitting on a chair, with a telephone in her lap. She was saying, “Okay, okay I’ll get off the line. You’ve got it? Okay, I’m getting off the line!” The woman hung up the phone and looked at me as if she had seen the Red Sea split. “What’s going on?” I asked, not really wanting to know. “That was the FAA representative responsible for oxygen,” she told me, “She’s going to issue permission for your son to fly with a tank — it’s all going to be okay… you can fly.” That moment was the climax of the entire episode, and maybe of my life. In that moment Hashem taught me that He never abandons us. He is always involved and arranging kindnesses for us. And he only stands at such a distance to allow us to have emunah. That most depressing tefillah of my life was transformed into the most significant; and although I’ve never felt (with my 5 senses) Hashem’s presence, I have never since doubted it. Chana and I love Him more than words can describe, and we are more han happy to pick up flour and sugar for Him whenever He would like, even if He chooses not to answer the phone.

Again, we didn’t respond to all the issues in your note. It takes so long to explain thngs in writing. Plesase do come this summer. Then we can really talk. We can shmooze over all the different issues. What about staying for four or five months? You might be very close to “solving” this difficulty you’ve had, and time is all you need. If you could stay for just a little longer than a summer, you might be able to soar beyond this issue. Please think about it. Besides the fact that it miht be good for you, we would love to have you around for a little more time this time. Please stay in touch.

Warmly,
Leib & Chana

Archives

Adar 5759 – Letter to a Student, Part 3 of 4

15 Adar 5759

From the Desk of: Rabbi Leib Keleman

(This is the third in a series of actual letters written by Rabbi Keleman to a student. Names have been changed.)

Dear Rachel,

Once again, your letter stimulated hours of conversation between me and Chana, and it would take many dozens of pages to share all of our thoughts. Before offering any detail, though, I should just tell you that the two major points we kept returning to were: (a) how much we care about you; and (b) how much we wish you were here so that we could just shmooze about all the important issues you raised. Writing limits us, though, and so we decided to address just one of the issues in your note. If time allows, we’ll write more another time about the other questions you raised.

You wrote that you consider yourself “a more modern religious person.” It sounds like you perceive that there are at least two groups of Jews in the world: modern, and non-modern. This was confusing at first for me and Chana. Who is who? Are non-modern Jews “ancient” in some way? Do you mean to distinguish yourself from a group who (a) purposely refuses to confront modern halachic issues (maizid), (b) from a group who is just less competent than modern Jews to apply the principles of the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch to modern questions (shoggeg), or (c) from some group that expresses loyalty to “ancient-ness” in some other way? Precisely what is the difference between the two groups? How could we tell which group we fall into? As we read your note, we wondered what “modern” has to do with “covering hair.” We wondered if you are really “modern” at all.

I don’t remember if I ever told you this story, but it will help clarify our vague impression of what “modern” means. I first met Chana at a summer camp for college students, and there I also met another fellow — a wonderful man by the name of Alex Singer. Chana, Alex, and I became close friends, and we explored Judaism together. Chana and I found our path in Torah study, and Alex found his path in Zionism. Chana and I went to yeshiva, and Alex made aliyah.

Alex was very idealistic. Alex felt it was good to fight for Jewish lives, he was driven to do the right thing, and so he asked to be drafted the day he arrived in Israel. The army authorities ignored his requests at first, but eventually he prevailed and fought his way into the IDF months before he would normally have been drafted. Next Alex requested to be placed with the paratroops — Israel’s most elite division. Alex had flat feet and asthma, so they just laughted at his request. But Alex felt that fighting for Jewish lives was the right thing to do, and so he heroically pursue his goal until he somehow got into the paratroops, too. Then Alex workied his way into tone of the elite units, the crack-troops that do the secret misions like entebbe. Then Alex worked his way up to second-in-command of his crack troop.

Alex kept a diary, filled with gorgeous sketches and poetry. I have copies of many of those drawings and prose. On August 17, 1986, as he was completing a training course to take complete command o his crack troop, Alex wrote this poem in his diary:


Once in a while
As I progress towards the course’s end
I feel a pang of fear…
If the war comes
When the war comes
I will have to lead men to die…
And I will have to have the calm power
To yell to them
Or to whisper
Kadima [go forward].
And,
I will have to have the calm power
To step forward myself.

Alex only wanted to do the right thing. That’s the only thing that drove him. He often worried that he might someday have an opportunity to do the right thing and would fail.

About a year later, on September 15, 1987 — on Alex’s 25th birthday — his special unit was sent up to Lebanon to track down terrorists that had been murdering Israelis in the northern towns. Alex’s unit was ambushed, and Alex’s commander was badly wounded and trapped alone under enemy fire. In that moment, Alex was automatically promoted to commander. My best friend, my idealist, my hero, was faced with the choice of retreating and leaving his dying companion until reinforcements could arrive, or running in to save a human life. Alex “stepped forward” to aid his commander and fell to a terrrorist’s bullet on a rocky hillside in Southern Lebanon.

I don’t know if Alex did the right thing or not. I don’t know if any person could ever know. But I know that Alex was driven by the right motivation. My bet friend only wanted to do the right thing. He didn’t mind sacrificing. He sacrificed to come to Israel; he sacrificed to join the army early; he sacrificed to join the paratroops, and again he sacrificed when he joined his special crack unit. Alex’s life was about sacrifice for some higher ideal. Alex’s life was about heroism, about grabbing moments and using them to do the right thing, and that gave his short life awesome value.

We have so little time here on earth. Why would anyone want to waste life? Why would anyone want to avoid heroism, when heroism is all that really lends life meaning? The world is so flawed in so many ways. Why would anyone want to take the easy way out and waste the precious moments that could be used to make this world a better place? Why would anyone want to miss out on doing the right thing? Why compromise on goodness? For what?

And yet, we were brought up in a culture that despises heroism and sacrifice. We were taught about “our inviolable rights” — we were taught that nothing should be allowed to threaten our life, our liberty, and our pursuit of happiness. These are our culture’s highest values. Not empathy. Not kindness. Not integrity. Just selfish life, liberty, and the prusuit of happiness.

As Americans, we were taught to live to protect “our rights,” but for 4,000 years our ancestors lived for a different goal, to fix the world — “l’saken ola b’malchus Shakai” — to jump into the breach, to be a hero, to sacrifice when goodness so dictated.

Alex was unusual. He acted like a Jew. That made him a great man, even though he was barely 25 years old.

And what about us? What are our lives about? I’m beginning to think that there are only two answers to that question: Either we live for life, for liberty, and for the pursuit of our happiness; or we live to do the right thing. Either we live selfish lives, or we live heroic lives. Of course there are degrees on both sides, but I don’t know if there are any options besides these two. We either step forward, or we don’t.

Now back to that word, “modern.” Sometimes I wonder if people use that word to separate the world into these very two camps: people who want to pursue life, liberty, and happiness; and people who want to do the right thing, even when it costs them — people who are afraid to step forward, and people who aren’t.

I’ve never been asked to give up my life for Hashem and Torah. I don’t know which camp I would find myself in. I hope from some place deep, deep in my heart that I would have the strength and integrity to do the right thing even if it meant dying.

Almost every day I get little test, though. Almost every day, Hashem does ask me — through his Torah — to sacrifice a little here and there. When I’m in the middle of the test, I usually feel that I’m really facing a painfuly extreme Divine request; and every now and then, I remember Alex, and I realize how tiny Hashem’s requests have been.

I think I understand and empathize with “modern-ness.” “Modern-ness” doesn’t ask women to cover their hair. Modern-ness provides an easy way out. With one word — “modern” — we can do away with the Gemara (Kesubos 72a), Rambam (Issurei Biah 21:17), and Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 21:1-2 & 115:4). There! Now we have life, liberty, and happines.

But modern-ness isn’t righteous or heroic. Modern-ness is not a “new” way of sacrificing for Hashem and for Torah. Modern-ness is “a more normal life,” “a practical life,” “something we can live with.” Modern-ness is what happnes when one wrings every last drop of idealism out of existence. “Modern” is a nice way of classifying those people who really aren’t very interested in stepping forward, those people who don’t understand the awesome potential packed into every moment of our short, precious lives.

A month ago I made Aliyah. I used to pay my American Express credit card bill in dollars, but now that I’m an Israeli I can’t get dollars anymore. So I called AMEX and asked if I could pay in shkalim. No problem, they explained. They said I just have to call the AMEX offices in the U.S.A. before paying my bill so that they can tell me, based on that day’s conversion rate, how many shkalim to send in. And so the bill came. $378. I called. Thye told me to send in 1,200 shekel. And so I did. And what do you think I did when this month’s statement came and indicated that I had paid 1,200 DOLLARS?! Yes, they had mistaken my Israeli shekel-check for an American dollar check and credited me for three times the amount I had sent in. Of course, there’s a “normal,” “practical,” “livable” solution to this problem. And even the Shulchan Aruch says explicitly that a Jew doesn’t have to return money that a goy lost if the loss will never be detected. There, I have a “clear heter!” I was in an even better situation halachically than all those women who don’t cover their hair. If God doesn’t expect women to cover their hair — despite explicit orders to do so in the Gemara, Rishonim, and Shulchan Aruch — then He certainly doesn’t expect me to return money that even these very sources say I can keep!

But what am I alive for?! What am I wasting my time breathing for, if not to fix mistakes and difficulties? If I am not here to sanctify Hashem’s name, then why do I bother getting up everyday? Where is the greatness in my life? Where is the light? Where is the inspiration? Where is the goodness? Where is my relationship with our Father in Heaven?

Of course! Of course, I sent the President of AMEX a note: “You made a mistake in my favor, and as an Orthodox Jew, who learned the ways of justice and honesty from our Torah, it is my privilege and pleasure to return to you the money you mistakenly credited to my account.” Can you imagine how happy that makes “ABBA?” Can you imagine how happy I was? Isn’t this what life is all about? Yes, I could have found some way of spending the extra $800, but is our time on earth just about life, liberty and happiness? Is life just about convenience and pleasure? Isn’t our time here about heroism?

What’s the difference between returning a gentile’s lost money and a woman covering her hair? As far as the letter-of-the law goes, we have less of an obligation to inform AMEX than we do to cover hair; and as far as the spirit-of-the-law, the two mitzvos are identical — we are supposed to be courageous, step forward, and do the right thing. If we view these mitzvos differently — if we view hair covering as less significant — we must realize that we are thinking like non-Jews; we have lived among them for so long that we can’t read our own Torah anymore. But from the Jewish perspective, mitzvos are mitzvos, and life is life, and heroism is heroism.

What’s the difference between returning a gentile’s lost money and a woman covering her hair? As far as the letter-of-the-law goes, we have less of an obligation to inform AMEX than we do to cover hair; and as far as the spirit-of-the-law, the two mitzvos are identical — we are supposed to be courageous, step forward, and do the right thing. If we view these mitzvos differently — if we view hair covering as less significant — we must realize that we are thinking like non-Jews; we have lived among them for so long that we can’t read our won Torah anymore. But from the Jewish perspective, mitzvos are mitzvos, and life is life, and heroism is heroism.

Chana and I agonized over your note. There are so many apologetics we could have written to you. We could have written something about how romantic it is to “reserve your hair for your husband,” or how “covering hair is a badge of honor.” But all these excuses miss the point. Does it really make a difference how I personally Howardefit from a particular halacha? Is that why I follow it, because I get a better Olam Hazeh? Life is about doing what Hashem asks. Life is about doing the right thing, even when it costs us. And we must not allow American culture to suck out of us every last drop of idealism and courage. We are big people on the inside. We are heroes on the inside. We must not forget that.

When people who try to set you up with dates ask if you will cover your hair, I don’t think that’s really what they want to know. I think they really want to know if you are a life-liberty-hapinnesser, or if you are a Jew. They want to know, deep, deep, inside, what your life is about. Are you a great woman? A hero? A lover of Hashem? Are you driven by a more lofty vision? Or are you an American? Are you a life- is-about-2-cars-in-the-garage-and-summer-in-the-Catskills sort of person? I think that’s their question. I think they want to know if covering your hair is too big a sacrifice to make for God.

Rachel, you know who you are. You’re a great, great woman, in the middle of a long and difficult road. You’re an Avraham. You’re a struggler and a grower. Deep within, you are someone who would sacrifice for a higher goal. As we prepared to write this note, Chana and I concluded that you aren’t “modern” at all. You want answers, not for the sake of escaping difficulty. You want answers even when those answers make life a little less comfortable. You are essentially “ancient,” but you happen to be in the early stages of your growth. You are on the way to covering your hair, even if you aren’t there already.

Okay, it’s late and we’ve got to wrap this note up. Please forgive our passion. We care about you, and we admire you so much! We just couldn’t say over any of those “kiruv” lines to you, so we just let it flow from the heart. Again, we really wish we could have talked this over in person. We could have explained ourselves so much better. Please feel the love behind all these words. We promise to write more about the other issues you raised as soon as time permits. In the meantime, please stay in close touch.

Warmly,
Leib & Chana

Archives

Adar 5759 – Completing the Job

1 Adar 5759

From the Desk of: Rabbi Chaim Flom

A general was once walking by an army tent and noticed that a rip was being held together with a piece of tape. “That tape has been on that tent for a month; it better not be there tomorrow,” he barked. Sure enough, the next day he saw that a new piece of tape was on the tent.

In Parshas Vayechi (47:29-30) Yaakov asks Yosef “not to be buried in Egypt. Let me lay with my fathers, take me from Egypt, and bury me with them (my fathers).” There is much discussion on the seeming redundancies, but I would like to zero in on just one. If Yaakov wanted to be buried with his fathers (in Israel), why must he specify that he didn’t want to be buried in Egypt?

Yaakov’s concern was that if Yosef buried him temporarily in Egypt until the opportune time arose to be taken to Israel, he might never find the opportune time. Nothing is as permanent as something temporary!!! Once I do something that lets me possibly think I’ve completed the job, I don’t always feel or understand the need to actually finish it.

When one sees a person drowning and can’t do anything about it, he should still scream, even though no one will hear him. No one should allow himself to see a tragedy and not react to it. The Chofetz Chaim comments, however, that one should never say “oy” when seeing a tragedy, because he might feel that he has fulfilled his obligation to help.

Archives

Shevat 5759 – Letter to a Student, Part 2 of 4

15 Shevat 5759

From the Desk of: Rabbi Leib Keleman

(This is the second in a series of actual letters written by Rabbi Keleman to a student. Names have been changed.)

Dear Rachel,

Great letter! Thanks so much for taking out the time to write. As I mentioned in the previous note, your friendship means a lot to Chana and me. We are sorry that we are separated by so many miles right now, but we value this interaction.

You wrote about four really important issues, and it’s probably impossible for us to discuss these in detail through the mail. Every sentence you wrote stimulated pages of thoughts in our heads — hardly any of which there is time to write — and for every word we write back, pages of considerations will probably occur to you too. Still, the main purpose of a letter is probably to indicate concerns and affection — certainly the purpose cannot be to communicate all our thoughts and feelings, to create complete understanding, since that would take a book, not a letter… or a visit… so here goes…

First, about Howard. What a difficult relationship you must feel that you are navigating through. Howard is no doubt a sensitive, responsible, and loving man — the sort of person so many women are longing to discover — and here he is, perfectly prepared to commit to you and you even have deep feelings for him — yet you have hesitations. How uncomfortable. We feel for you.

You wrote that Howard’s response to your new status as “friends” is that he is “just rolling with the punches,” and that he confessed that this is the way he has always handled things. That is a very significant theme, you realize. Rolling with the punches, just “handling” and responding to one’s environment is a specific approach to life. Chazal attribute this approach to Noach, and compare him and his approach to Avraham Avinu, a”h. Rashi, I think, even says something like, “Noach hayah tzarich sa’ad l’somcho aval Avraham hayah mischazek umehalech b’tzidko me’alav” — Noach responded to and needed external support and encouragement, but Avraham strengthened himself and stimulated his own growth. The key word in that Rashi is “me’alav” — Avraham created his own wind and waves, and then rode them to wherever he wanted to be; he didn’t roll with the punches; he created the punhes. That’s freedom! That’s progress and hope!

Rachel, you ask so many questions and pursue them so vigorously because somewhere deep inside you want to be someplace else; you want to move; but you feel that you can’t move without resolving these important issues. The most important point is not whether the questions have been (or will be) answered. The most important point is that you are an Avraham. You picked yourself up and came to Neve; when your returned, you looked for and started taking a midrash class; you are looking into classes at XXXXXX; you called your father to ask about why we don’t eat the back of the animal; you want to move, or you wouldn’t bother asking. “Avraham hayah mischazek u’mehalech b’tzidko me’alav.” Somewhere deep inside, you love truth, consistency, and idealism. Your personality is essentially open to change.

Noachs aren’t like that. Noachs have no questions, because they don’t yearn to be in a better place. They yearn to do the best they can do given the circmstances they find themselves in — whatever physical circumstances, and whatever spiritual circumstances. But they don’t yearn to change, grow, travel, or move. If given “sa’ad l’somcho,” Noachs will progress — “He told me that once he gets married to someone, things will be different…” But Noachs only change because of some external circumstance or pressure. Change isn’t intrinsic to their nature. “That is just the way he is” is the perfect description of Noach.

I don’t know Howard at all, and it probably isn’t right for me to categorize him from 10,000 miles away. But you know him well, and the profile that you sketch puts the two of you in different camps — not because you are holding in different places religiously — but because you are on different roads.

One of my teachers once told me that a couple considering marriage shouldn’t be concerned if they aren’t holding “in the same place.” They should be concerned, he said, if they “aren’t moving in the same direction.” In marriage we aren’t looking for a chevrusa as much as a travel-partner. Chevrusas come and go. Initially two chevrusas might be matched identically, but eventually one surpasses the other, or one’s interests veer off in a direction making the partnership untenable. Long-term relationships, in contrast, are built on (a) the realization that we’re both going to change over the years — on the one hand, and on the other hand — (b) the reality that we are both heading down the same road. We might be travelling at different speeds right now, but that can change. (That was the case with Chana and me.) We might be far apart on our road. (That was also the case with Chana and me.) But we are travelling the same road, heading in the same direction.

You’re a very special woman, Rachel, with very special ways and values. You don’t need to worry that you’re going to have to compromise and marry a religious man that you aren’t attracted to or don’t feel passionately about. There are many sincere, passionate, idealistic, nice-looking, refined, heroic, religious men looking for a girl just like you. I’ve got dozens your age right here in Jerusalem, and there are probably thousands roaming the U.S.A. What a tragedy it would be for you to compromise out of (mistaken) desperation. Your personal profile is too splendid to have the slightest concern about meeting the right man. If Howard is it, marry him; but if Howard is not the one, God forbid don’t connect yourself to him just out of fear that you won’t merit the sort of fellow you so deserve.

In this same vein: don’t be held by an otherwise inappropriate relationship just because you have deep feelings for the man. Many women are trapped in really unproductive relationships because they have deep feelings for someone. A woman who can feel deeply about a man is healthy and normal — that is a good sign. When this healthy, normal woman finds an even more ideal relationship, she will again feel these deep, healthy, normal feelings. If you decide to move on, don’t worry that you won’t fall in love as deeply again.

On another note, your stories confirm our suspicions about New York. I think your impression is correct that the State has an over-abundance of formerly-religious Jews. Per-capita, I see more remnants of Jewish self-destruction coming from NY than any place on earth. Whenever I receive those sad phone calls asking for help with someone who was reaised frum and is now secular, I can almost be sure that the once-religious/now-secular Jew is a New Yorker. Again, Rachel, like we said in the last note: You are living among many people who are Jewishly “crazy,” and maintaining your own objective standards of observance and normalcy can’t be easy. But you are doing it! You are attneding classes! You are saying brachot! They are crazy, but you are acting sane! We feel for you and admire you!

Your continuing relationship with nature is thrilling. That is your connection to Hashem, it seems. Your plant, the birds you saw flying in a “V,” and your trips to the park are an essential part of your path. I was alays bothered by a statement of the Rambam in Yesodei HaTorah. He writes that “THE” path to love and fear of Hashem is through the contemplation of nature. Why, I wondered, does he state things so exclusively? Isn’t the study of Torah also a path to love and fear? But the Rambam says that love and fear can only be found in nature! You’re on a good path — the only path. If you keep moving forward, one day you are going to find that you have returned home.

This leads to another observation: You seem to be following Avraham’s path in many ways. Avraham also found Hashem in nature. And Avraham also came to the conclusion that you shared with us in your last letter: “I realize that being a Jew carries with it the responsibility of educating those who don’t know or those who care not to know.” Do you see the irony? You are an Avraham! Your nisayon was to become a ba’alas teshuva — like Avraham — and Hashem made your test that much more difficult by placing you into a frum family. But you have discovered your own path, slowly, painfully, despite your environment — and it is slowly looking more and more like your great-great-great-great…-grandfather’s path. You have the neshama of a ba’alas teshuva and the body of an FFB! What a sense of humour Hashme has!

About nature (ducks & birds), you also commented that “There is an order to everything they do — from how they eat to how they follow each other in single file.” The Talmud & classical commentators make a similar observation: They note that Hashem said, “Let there be light,” and there was light! Hashem says, “Let the wind blow,” and the wind blows! Hashem says, “Fish should swim and reproduce,” and they also obey instantly. The whole natural world is an extension and illustration of Hashem’s will. But Hashem says that I should keep Shabbos, and I say “No!” That’s a miracle! Everything in the world responds instantly to Hashem’s every word, except for us. We can act supernaturally — we can defy the Almighty’s orders. And when we defy Him, we create an illusion: We make it seem as if Hashem is not One; as if something exists outside of Him. All the seas and trees and birds and clouds testify to Hashem’s Oneness by instantly illustrating His will; but through our defiance, we make it seem as if something has power outside of Hashem, as if the universe lacks unity.

Like you, Chana and I admire the underlying order, the unity. It is simultaneously beautiful and awesome. And we want to be part of it. We can’t fly in a “V,” or pull off the neat tricks that Cecil can. But we’re not supposed to follow bird or plant mitzvos. We’re supposed to follow Torah mitzvos — mitzvos for Jewish people. And we are thrilled to exercise our miraculous “bechira” muscle to do so; we are thrilled to choose to take our place in the underlying order of this spectacular Creation.

One of your personal strengths — your love of nature and its order — will be your most powerful tool in finding the wherewithall to continue saying brachot, to continue keeping Shabbat and Kashrut, etc. As you look into the Creation and fall more deeply in love with it, you will long to be part of it and its order; you will wnat to contribute to the harmony rather than shatter it; and you will be able to do so by following your mitzvos.

Oh, there are so many things we would like to say, but if we don’t conclude this note, we’ll never mail it. Please stay in touch. Again, it’s not so much the content of our letter that is important; it’s the feelings. Chana and I think of you often and miss your smiling face. Please stay in touch.

Warmly,
Leib & Chana