Coming to America from Europe, and coming from a place where even the Orthodox Jews were fairly undistinguishable from their surroundings both in looks and in outlook, to living life in a frum community, was more than a culture shock – it was space travel! I had been religiously observant for many years already, had brought up my children to be shomer Shabbos and keep mitzvos, was indeed considered something of a religious fanatic in my home town, but – this! Real life people, looking and behaving like something out of a library book (because in der alter heim, we only had a Jewish library – no Hebrew book stores).
I wanted to live a Torah-observant life, there was no doubt about that – it was the reason we had moved to the US – but there was still a little part of me that wanted it on my own terms, so to speak; a part that would have liked to adapt certain chapters of the Torah to my own sensibilities, rather than to adapt myself, unreservedly, to the will of the Borei Olam – the Creator of the Universe. In other words I was at that time, regrettably, one of those about whom Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch said: “We must reform the Jews – not the Judaism”.
Additionally, there was all this intensity that I had never experienced before, the all-or-nothing-ness, so uncompromisingly and incessantly involved with the innumerable minutiae of observance, where so many things were “not done” even though they might not be outright forbidden, where everybody lived according to endless, complicated minhagim that had not even been hinted at in any of the many books on halocha I had devoured – it was scary! I, who had been used to being considered quite knowledgeable, found myself making one clumsy gaffe after another.
There was also my own, personal shock of having been a relatively big fish in a small pond for many years, but now being suddenly a nobody, demoted to the level of those at the lower end of the observant spectrum – something that was surprisingly painful. As Rashi points out in his commentary on Parshas Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:2), when a person leaves his native country, one of the things diminished in the process is his fame – his status, his renommé – and he becomes an anonymous unknown. Like Avraham Avinu, lehavdil, I had left my home country for the purpose of living closer to Hashem, and I knew exactly what Rashi was talking about. (It should be noted, perhaps, that my new acquaintances were kind and encouraging, not in the least judgmental of my “lesser” background, but I had eyes to see with; it was clear to me that I was not up to standard.)
To say that I was disoriented, would have been entirely accurate.
Then came the momentous day, perhaps two years into my foreign adventure, when I was standing in my bedroom one morning, fiddling with something in a drawer, and pondering something regarding a potential date, my hopes for the future, or some such, turning over a few things in my mind. The sun was coming in brightly through the window – I remember so clearly the rays on my cheek.
And suddenly, out of nowhere – what was it that happened? An unexpected, unsolicited insight; a conclusion that was not the fruit of my ruminations; an unperceived, unsuspected conflict, suddenly resolved; conviction born in the blink of an eye; knowledge hitherto unrecognized; a light that reached into the soul; words not chosen, nor strung together, by me, but yet so very clearly enunciated – I can only call it: “G-d spoke to me”.
“Don’t you see that this is your only road to true happiness, that this is what I have always held up to you, what I have wanted for you all these years?” (This, being of course the Torah life, held up in front of my eyes, for me to see, desire and embrace.) “How long are you going to fight Me?” What do You mean? Fight? I’m not fighting You – I believe in You; I am shomer shabbos, I keep kosher, I keep everything as best I can! Had I been fighting against Him? Surely not!
But in a flash I understood that my fear of being swallowed up alive, as it were, by the overwhelming intensity; my reluctance to look like “them” with a little stretchy bag over my head (if I ever managed to get married); my need to assert my own standpoint; my divided attentions and loyalties, were exactly that – a fight against complete, wholehearted surrender and commitment to Hashem and His eternal truth. It was perhaps the difference between actually getting married and remaining eternally, conveniently, engaged. In love, certainly, but with a feeling of “yes, but what if it doesn’t work out?”.
And He continued, in words that are forever etched on my mind: “How are things going to be between us? As long as you compromise with Me, I shall compromise with you.”
It was clear that He meant it. My response was instinctive and immediate – and without the slightest doubt or hesitation. No, no, Hashem – I don’t want to be compromised with!
And it was like a clarity and peace came over me – it was so obviously the right thing. No more holding back. No more “what if”. Let’s get married! I am yours, and I want you to be mine. Ani l’dodi v’dodi li. I will stop compromising with you this minute!
And I did.