Late on Tuesday night, I sat in the hospital room rocking chair holding our son. He's barely a few hours old. I looked at his calm, pure face and thought about the miracle of Jewish continuity, of the immense kindness of Hashem.
I thought about the overwhelming privilege and awesome responsibility that Hashem has bestowed upon us; to help this beautiful Neshama to become an Eved Hashem and Ohev Yisrael.
I thought about the countless neshamos that Hashem brought in this world in different and far more painful times. The souls that came to illuminate and elevate the darkness. I am filled with gratitude that our generation is so blessed. It seems to me that our we and our children have not been tasked with the worlds of darkness.
Despite the obvious and plentiful challenges of our generation, it is unquestionable that our lives are far, far better than any of our ancestors. This truth certainly makes for a more comfortable existence. But I won't deny that there have been times I have wondered if perhaps our lives might be a little more meaningful if we were living in more challenging times.
Thanksgiving is a strange day in the Blumenthal home. Despite the past fifteen years of living in the US, Thanksgiving remains foreign to me. Of course, I enjoy a deep-fried turducken as much as the next carnivorous patriot. (Though I still struggle with eating cranberry-apple pie as anything other than dessert.)
My wife, on the other hand, has deep emotions about the day. Thanksgiving for her, conjures warm feelings of family, belonging and nostalgia.
So this year, in this divisive climate, I took some time to think about my gratitude to the USA. I certainly feel a deep sense of gratitude to this wonderful country for all the opportunities it has given me. On a communal and national level, I am grateful to this country for providing the safety and freedom that has enabled our community to flourish and our children to grow.
But more than anything, I am grateful to the Master of the World that I still feel like a stranger.
The Rebbe, Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa put down his cup one motzei shabbos and turned to his chassidim with worried eyes. “I see a time just before Moshiach will come that Jews will not be able to support themselves with a regular Parnassah. They will need to find work on the side to support their needs. I'm shivering at the thought of it...”
To the Chassidim of that generation, this vision most likely conjured images of extreme poverty and hardship. But perhaps the Rebbe was glimpsing at us – a generation of extreme consumerism and the side hustles needed to support it.
Our generation has witnessed the emergence of a new class of American holidays: Black Friday, Cyber Monday and even more recently, Prime Day. These Yamim Tovim are celebrated across the country with ever increasing participation and excitement.
As our daughter Temima arrived home last Friday, I asked her what she had learned in school that day. (For reference, Temima is recently four years old.)
Temima: I learned about unicorns and rainbows!
Me: Really?! That's what the Morah taught you?
Temima: Silly Abba. That's what I was learning about. I don't know what the Morah was doing. But Look Abba, I drew a rainbow!
There's a lot of charm to a four year old's imagination. (And I'm sure we'll hear more about this particular imagination at parent-teacher conferences...) But it dawned on me that our daughter was simply verbalizing a reality which we, as adults, experience all the time, but have conveniently forgotten about. Four year olds are always clearly living in the fuzzy space between tangible reality and their perception of it. But truthfully, so are we all, whether we like to admit it or not.
Simply put: The world that we live in is nothing more or less than a story that we are telling ourselves, about ourselves. We are the protagonists, the directors and the narrators. Everything and everyone is a supporting character in your story.
Raising children is hard. Raising dedicated, observant, healthy normal, passionate Jewish children is even harder. But achieving all that as a Baal Teshuva? It often seems impossible.
Perhaps some of these sentiments resonate with you:
“I wish I had the opportunities that my children have!”
“If only my parents pushed me to daven, learn and practice my Hebrew skills! Why don't my children appreciate it?”
“I got connected to Yiddishkeit through the Kiruv Rabbi on campus. Should I let me children try going “Off the Derech” so that they can find meaning like I did?”
“How can I deny them the experiences that lead me to become who I am today?”
This is the indisputable challenge for Baalei Teshuva in raising children to be passionately connected to Torah and mitzvos. In general, even FFB's have no perfect methods for how to do it effectively and conclusively. But Baalei Teshuva have it even harder: we have little personal role modeling to fall back on.
Many Baalei Teshuva (perhaps you, reading this) can still feel the painful and awkward feelings of not belonging. Perhaps you know the feeling of not knowing which page of the Siddur to turn to on Shabbos Rosh Chodesh. Perhaps you still feel like a faker, an imposter. Perhaps you're still nervous to ask important questions for fear of being made to feel “I can't believe you're asking something that basic.”
Along with all these feelings of inadequacy, is that deep desire for our kids to not have to experience the same frustrations. And yet, there is no denying that in raising observant kids in our insular bubble, we are denying our children precisely those experiences that gave way to the love, curiously and excitement that make us the Jews we are today.
There are two things that I learned this week, that don't make sense together.
The First: At parent teacher conferences, I noted to a number of parents that their child was a mench. Every single parent glowed at the compliment and told me that “being a mench was the most important thing in the world for them.” Some continued and explained: Having Derech Eretz is more important than what they are learning. More important than their grades. More important than anything else going on in school.
I loved hearing this – Jews are incredible. Mi K'Amcha Yisrael! Despite our deep commitment to excellence in learning, we are willing to push aside any other priority, any other value for the overarching value of Menchlichkeit.
But there is a second thing I learned this week. And it doesn't make sense. More and more, I am hearing from teachers, rabbeim and administrators that parents are writing, saying and yelling terrible things, in hurtful ways. All in the interest of ensuring that their children have a better experience in school.
I do not begrudge parents the need to “do everything they can” to help their kids. But I do question if we are fully considering the cost of acting with demonstratively negative middos.
I can only conclude that while good middos is still our greatest value, we've been duped into thinking “they don't apply here.”
The world we live in today considers good middos as a cheap token to be quickly abandoned in the pursuit of other goals. Sometimes, they are political goals. Sometimes social, emotional or educational. People are hasty to find reasons to act with disdain and derision the moment they feel “he or she deserves it!” But even if they do deserve it, even if they “had it coming”, the paramount importance of living with Derech Eretz, that we all agree on, should give us pause.
One evening, when Reb Simcha Bunim of P'shischa was a still child, his father was learning with three friends.
The discussions continued until late in the evening. It was the week of Parshas Vayera, and these exceptional Talmidiei Chachomim sat deep in discussion, contemplating Avraham Avinu and his Hachnasos Orchim (hospitality to guests).
Listening in by the doorway was young Simcha Bunim. His father welcomed him into the room and smiled at him. “Simcha Bunim”, he said “I would like you to think hard, and come up with a new interpretation on the mitzvah hachanasos orchim. Perhaps you could come up with a chiddush (original Torah thought) to share with us before going to bed.”
Simcha Bunim agreed and went into the next room.
Half an hour later, as the four men got up from the table, Simcha Bunim's father called into him, and said, “Let's hear your chiddush on the mitvah of hachnosos orchim.”
Simcha Bunim took his father's hand and led him into the next room. There were three beds with three pillows and three sheets and covers for his father's friends.
“Tatteh,” Simcha Bunim explained, “My chiddush in Hachnosos Orchim is that the beds should be ready in case they need to spend the night.”
Once, during a trade fair, a number of rich merchants gathered in an inn. They were all Chassidim of various courts, and of course, each of them told stories of the wonders and miracles done by their particular Rebbe. Reb Shmuel Gurary, a Chossid of the Rebbe Maharash, was present as well. When it was his turn to tell a story, he said:
“Once, someone offered me a serious business proposition in timber harvesting and sales. It would require an enormous investment, but could generate a tremendous return if all went well. The risk was great, but so was the potential reward. Of course, I sought the advice of the Rebbe Maharash. The Rebbe told me to invest, and that’s what I did. Not long afterwards, the investment fell through and I lost everything I had put into the venture.”
Waiting for a miraculous punchline, the others were surprised that with these words, Reb Shmuel concluded his tale and fell silent.
In honor of the social media crash this week, I'd like to offer you a Facebook-style personality test. Yidden come in different flavors: What kind of Jew are you?
Mind you, I'm not talking about the color of your kippah, the length of your sleeves or your Hashkafa (whatever that means). I'm not even talking about your choice of cuisine. I'm talking about what excites you, what animates you and what drives you in the world of Judaism
In general, I'd like to suggest, there are three primary primary flavors of Jews. Each one exemplified by the emotions in the Jewish calendar. Each Jew, to a certain extent, embodies one of these three – or perhaps a combination.
I have a confession to make. I am not the Talmid Chacham that I once dreamed of becoming. I have not (nearly) mastered the texts that I wanted to master. I have not completed the seforim I planned on completing. And from speaking to many chaverim, rabbonim, and chevra in the community, I don't believe I am alone in this guilt. If we're honest with ourselves, it doesn't feel so good – and this week in particular, it feels worse.
During the Yamim Noraim, we spend hours engaged in lofty pursuits – davening, learning, spending time with family and friends. Our lives were filled with mitzvos, while the pressures of the working world could be (somewhat) ignored.
But now the Chagim come to a close. The needs of our careers and occupations come back stronger than ever, and with it there is a sadness. For many of us who spent time in Yeshivos and seminaries, we once again begin to carry with us the weight of not having learned as much as we once dreamed.
At a some point in the past few years, the Seforim shelf that was once a point of pride (look at all my seforim!) becomes a point of shame (look at how much I haven't learned...) As the dust collects, there is an ironic and painful knowledge that some shelves have never needed to be cleaned for Pesach. And it seems likely that the big dreams of becoming talmidei chachamim worthy of the title seems further and further away. Time constraints and obligations increase as our self confidence wanes.
Of course, we all know that none of these feelings should hold us back from trying harder. None of this should convince us not to attend a shiur, set up a new chavrusa, or open a new Sefer. But the knowledge that we are missing not days or weeks, but perhaps years or more from our once-held goals, is deeply demotivating.
Truthfully, this is the challenge of Shabbos Bereishis – it is the oldest and most insidious Yetzer Hara.