Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Voice that Spoke

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.

Shalom Uv'racha!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Israel Diary 2: Home Alone

I am happy to say I feel very much at home when I am in Eretz Yisrael. I feel safe and connected, and I never thought it would make a difference if I went there on my own or with company, but this past winter, as I mentioned last week, I went there by myself and I had a very unexpected experience – I felt lonely. I don’t think it was primarily for lack of my husband’s company on a purely simplistic, “social” level – I am independent to a fault, and have always had a great need for alone time. I am usually able to entertain myself very well, and often relish my privacy.

However, to begin with, I was staying in a neighborhood that was new to me, Giv’at Hav’radim, also known as Rassco – which actually stands for something as unglamorous as “Rural and Suburban Settlement Company” – west of Katamon, because kind relatives had made available their gorgeous apartment free of charge. It was a far cry from where we usually stay, in a small rental efficiency in Zichron Moshe, a stone’s throw from Kikar Shabbat.

In Zichron Moshe you are surrounded by pious, frum, Jews all day long, whether you like it or not. But I like – you don’t feel lonely when Hashem’s ambassadors are running about all over the place. They are also noisy, so you feel irritated – but not lonely. In Rassco, frum Jews are very few and extremely far between. In fact, I saw none. (The Jews I did see must, sadly, not have been aware that they were supposed to be Hashem’s ambassadors.) Only walking east towards Katamon, as I did on my second Shabbos, did they become visible. Also, it was very quiet in the apartment, with only sounds of distant cars, but none of human voices. Almost eerie.

It also has to be said that when it comes to securing invitations for Shabbos meals and the like, my husband is second to none, and very useful to take along on any kind of outlandish venture. He has no social barriers whatsoever. He can go up to a complete stranger and say “When are we coming to you for a se’udah?” No kidding – I have seen it with my own eyes. People are usually too stunned to refuse. Then again, many actually enjoy it; my husband is very good company and can make anyone feel at ease right away. Even farfrumte women will sit and talk to him as if he were their cousin. It is a particular gift, an extraordinary measure of chen, the blessing of finding favor in the eyes of others, that the Creator has given him. I myself am not like that. I have barriers. Very barriers.

For the first Shabbos, I went to stay with my darling friend and her husband in Efrata, but as my second Shabbos in Yerushalayim approached I was actually stuck, being that several promising leads had fizzled into nothingness. The day meal was taken care of, but I was facing the possibility of a Friday night se’udah all alone, and it got to the point that I was toying with the idea of booking myself for a meal for a fortune at the relatively nearby Prima Kings Hotel, just to be surrounded by human faces. In Zichron Moshe I might have been able to make Shabbos on my own and be okay, but in Rassco I would have felt utterly desolate and desperate. Finally, my husband (boruch Hashem for Skype!) was the one who came to the rescue and set it up – from home – by making a few well-placed phone calls and arranging a pleasant evening with a wonderful family in Katamon.

But there was also another kind of loneliness, one that is harder to pinpoint, and which is actually the topic of this post. I made a very interesting discovery – one which is a bit complicated to break down into logical thinking or meaningful words. I am not even sure how I came to this surprising conclusion (unless it came to me through the influence of having sat in the Rebbe’s seat!), because there is still a little part of me that is vaguely suspicious of this kind of thinking. All the same, here it is: Being in the Holy Land without my holy husband felt – less holy.

Dare I actually proclaim that there might be a dimension of kedusha, of holiness, and connection to the Divine, that is brought into the world exclusively through the male – just as there is another one, given birth to, and nurtured, by the female? I am confused, and I am unsure of how it is actually working, but something tells me that it is so. (And if you are going to tell me that: duh! – this is what the Rabbis have been saying all along, I would retort that certain things are not true and "real” to you, unless you are able to experience them on an internal, emotional level.)

Rebbetzin Tzippora Heller, in her book “The Balancing Act” writes obscure things about “men bringing down Torah and women building with it”, and honestly, I don’t have a clue what she is talking about, and I wish she would explain herself, but I had a bit of an inkling, over there in Rassco. Obviously, I went to the Kosel, the Western Wall, and of course I went to visit my very holy Rebbetzin in Meah Shearim, and I went to pray at the graves of tzaddikim, and to a women’s Torah lecture, and I had two beautiful Shabbosim with frum families – and yet, there was a dimension that was missing from this experience.

On a pedestrian, logistical level, a man’s constant concern about davening and z’manim (the daily prayer services at the proper appointed times) is a perpetual reminder of our connection to Heaven, but it goes deeper than that and it is more subtle than that. Perhaps it is the fact that two – connected – minds are involved with avodas Hashem, Divine service, instead of only one? 

Could it be that men, because they are so different from normal people (women), transmit their spiritual experience to us in a way that adds something novel to ours? They burst in through the door and carry on with this mishna, and that shita; and guess what the gabbai said?; and it is quite remarkable how people don’t enunciate their brochos properly and am I really supposed to answer Amen to that garbled nonsense?; and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has a real bomb on this week’s parsha! And we say “that's lovely, darling – here are your eggs”, but all the same we are affected – in a good way. A holy way, I think, because it adds a dimension that we women are not usually directly involved with.

But maybe it is even more subtle than that? When Hashem is beaming His Presence into our material universe, could it be that the female and male “receptors” are quite simply so different that we will absorb different aspects of the Shechina, in radically different ways? That our very fundamental concepts of Heaven might be light years apart? If the male conquers and the female nurtures, it stands to reason that we should perceive the spiritual world in different terms. And considering that we women and men were created to complement and complete each other, we each need the other’s vision. Without this other vision there was something missing from my life – and I felt lonely.

I once had a female coworker of an older generation who told me about a woman of her acquaintance who prayed “just like a man” three times a day. “She never got married” my coworker explained, “so she doesn’t have a husband to pray for her – she has to do it herself.” Strictly speaking, this may have been a little bit of a misconception on my coworker’s part regarding the role of prayer in a woman’s life, but the concept appealed to me, and has lingered in my mind these fifteen years. The husband prays for – and on behalf of – his wife, and she – well, she does all the other thousand-and-one things for him, and they both benefit.

Perhaps it was as simple as that – on this trip I didn’t have my man there to pray for me; I was home alone.

Shalom Uv'racha!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Israel Diary 1: Sitting in the Rebbe’s Seat

Last January I went to Eretz Yisrael all by myself. Difficult logistics and conflicting schedules meant that my husband and I had been unable to organize a proper winter vacation together, as we normally do. Finally he said: “Why don’t you go on your own? You’ll be frustrated without a vacation, and then I’ll be frustrated also. If you want, just go – then I can relax too!” Smart guy.

So I went alone to Yerushalayim for two weeks, and besides being wonderful, it was also an interesting experience – one that I will digress on more another time. But now I want to tell you about a small, but extraordinary, thing that happened to me.

In order to ensure that I would have a meaningful experience I had decided from the outset to go on some kind of excursion. However, I felt it would be a bit unfair to my husband to go somewhere new and exciting, where by rights we ought to go together, so I signed up for an old Hoffman favorite, “Holy Places of the North”, consisting mainly of visits to the graves of tzaddikim – very great and very holy persons. You can’t get too much of that.

The little 15-seater bus that picked me up at the designated spot that morning was pleasingly half-full (you see what an optimist I am) so, naturally, I grabbed the seat immediately behind the driver and prepared myself for a day in splendid comfort. Unfortunately, it soon turned out that this was only the shuttle that would take us to the real bus, a monster of a vehicle, stuffed to the rafters with Jews who were on a quest for more graves of more tzaddikim. (Luckily though, I am much more tolerant of physical discomfort in Eretz Yisrael than I am here – because there I am more in touch with the spiritual aspects of life, I think – so I didn’t mind too much how we all had to climb over each other and get our shins scraped in the process.)

During the drive to the Real Bus, the driver proudly regaled us with the full scoop of how, only two days previously, he himself had had the privilege of picking up none other than the Satmar Rebbe from the Ben Gurion airport, and driving the Rebbe, in this very bus, to Meah Shearim. We were all suitably awed and impressed. Then the driver caught my eye in the rear view mirror – and spoke some words that significantly upgraded my life, right then and there. “The Rebbe was sitting exactly where you are sitting now”, he said to me. Did my ears deceive me? Nope. “He sat exactly in that seat” the driver confirmed, “and you know what – nobody else has sat in that seat between him and you!”

How do I describe the sensations that coursed through me? Perhaps I ought to clarify that I am not chassidish, not of any stripe. Based on my family background I would be a yekke, a German Jew; by choice of Rabbi, a Litvak. And yet, sitting in a seat that had so recently been occupied by a great Rebbe, a tzaddik, felt like an honor, a crazy kind of z’chus. If you think about it, considering that the Satmar Rebbe doesn’t generally go by public transportation, it is the kind of thing that probably doesn’t happen too often to anyone – especially to a woman. Was Hashem bestowing upon me some special kind of gift? Were there still some lingering sparks of Divine energy that were to be transmitted to me by means of a bus seat? What was the big idea? It is said that a tzaddik cannot stand in the place of a ba’al teshuva, a person who has returned to the Torah life – but maybe a ba’alas teshuva can sit in the seat of a tzaddik

So much fuss about nothing, you say? Perhaps, but life is largely made up of small moments and nothingnesses, and we must continuously look for the message in everything that comes onto our path. I am still not sure what the message was in this case, but I think it will come to me. In the meantime, let us just say that I’m sitting tight.

Shalom Uv'racha!