Wednesday, April 2, 2014

What's in a Name? (Part IV) - So, how was your trip?

From time to time, I will be writing about my reasons for choosing "Pesach Sheini" as the name for my blog. The more I have thought about the name, the more I have felt that it chose me and not the other way around. What follows is the second installation. To read the first three, click here,  here and here.

I can't sum up my trip to Israel. Too much I'm still trying to figure out. It would be too easy to fall back into listing the number of people I met and saw, places I visited, miles run, or some other quantifiable fact that would hide more than it would reveal. Instead, I will will share a few experiences, without too much analysis. I suspect there's a common thread here, but I'm too tired to figure it out.

How odd to begin a trip to Israel at the cemetery followed by nichum aveilim. Eric picked me up at the airport to be be Menchame avel by two friends whose father, Herb Smilowitz z”l passed away. On the way, we stopped at the cemetery where my father is buried. I have a hard time dealing with visits to the cemetery. Not sure what I'm supposed to do there. Think? Of course. I do that in spades. Do? Say? That's something else. We follow that up with nichum aveilim. Done well, nichum aveilim offers comfort to the aveilim. I've found that it also does more. I learned about some of Mr. Smilowitz's greatness, his humility, his achievements, why his children are the wonderful people they are. The world has lost a special man. I left feeling inspired having learned from him, and his children.

With the event for Team Just One Life, the charity team I direct, coming so early in the trip, it's almost easy to forget that this was a trip for work. I love the race, I love the people who I meet through the team, I love visiting the Just One Life center and hearing from the amazing women who run the organization. More than that though, I love when we hear from one of the mothers who have been helped through JOL. Somehow, we are wired to better understand one woman's story of hope, more than almost 14,000 babies born. She does not disappoint. I suspect I wasn't the only one to fight back tears. When she has to leave early to put her children to bed, there is not a person in the room who doesn't appreciate what we are running and raising money for.

After the pasta party, I needed to go to sleep. I was tired and drained and my bed was calling. The wonderful young man who was struggling with some serious questions meant more to me than rest. We spoke for hours. I had no doubt I had made the proper choice.

I'd forgotten just how different things were during the period I struggled. I hadn't thought about the fact that for the first time in years, I could walk into a seforim store without wanting to buy half the store. I realized it the morning after an overnight trip in Alon Shevut, where Yeshivat Har Etzion (Gush) is located. Needing to prepare for the shiur that I would be delivering at Yesodei HaTorah later in my trip, I walked into the beis midrash at the shul where I was davening. As I saw the many seforim on the shelves, my heart skipped a beat. It was as if I was seeing a good friend who I had never expected to see again. Later, I visited Gush. I had once loved what it represented, then I stopped when I realized they were on the “wrong” team. Now I was back. The kol Torah, the Rashei yeshiva, the young men learning with such fervor. All of it nourishes me once again.

Archeology, midrash and peshat came together in the shiur I gave at Yesodei. What an honor to share Torah at such a wonderful institution. What a pleasure to teach a wonderful former student once again. The rashei yeshiva played a big role in my finding my answer to my questions. I am grateful for the opportunity to teach once again.

One night, I davened at the shul in the Central Bus Station in Yerushalayim. Every type of Jew was there. Not quite, but almost. Not being home, they all davened together rather than with a room filled with people who seem to be just like them.

Outside the bus station, there was a drummer. Young and strong, with dreadlocks and some backup music that is far from what I would ever listen to. I am, nonetheless, drawn to the scene. Young soldiers with crew-cuts, modestly dressed seminary girls, charedi men with the requisite accoutrements and various other people, gather round for a free concert, which is powerful, poignant and, somehow, redemptive.

There are great places to run in the US. Races like the Boston Marathon are, for most people, second to none. I have run on breathtaking trails. Why is it that I feel envious when my friends in Israel discuss where they run? Sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side, and more beautiful and holy as well. A trail run with my brother and some soon to be friends, was worth the exhaustion that would come from having woken up after only three hours of sleep. As we ran through a scene of uncommon beauty, we talked when our lungs allowed us to, and ran silently when they did not. I met Chaim Wizman, a man who helped build the Bet Shemesh running scene. I hope he will forgive me for saying that he is a man of humility, warmth and Torah in the best sense of the term. I also met Yarden Frankl, whose writing has brought me to the verge of tears and heartbreak. A few minutes of running together shows the depth of the man who can write with such feeling and power. I savor the run knowing that, in many ways, it is a special experience that I am unlikely to get again, anytime soon.

I had almost given up on the idea of reconnecting with davening, thinking that it was collateral damage from my religious exploration. During this trip, through the help of some friends and some new thoughts of my own, I got it back. As I stood in the back of Rabbi David's shul in Bet Shemesh, I decided to give Kabbalos Shabbos a try. I had long ago given up on it for various reasons. Mostly, out of an arrogant and misguided attempt to show how serious I was about talmud Torah. As we sing sing a beautiful “Lecha Dodi” I look around the room. I see friends, strangers, young and old, living one of my dreams. Although I traded it for other ones, I still find myself thinking about what might have been. As if, had I stayed, I'd be who I have become, and be living and davening there. Emotions however, have a logic of their own. I am davening and feeling and feeling close to God in a way I'd thought I'd lost. Tears start to flow from a deep, deep place. Naturally, (or is it supernaturally?) we are up to the words “Emek HaBacha”.


  1. Just One Life, eh? R Marty Katz was my teacher at Ramaz in 6th, 7th, 8th grade. And then exec dir at LSS, the shul where I grew up.

    Running in Bet Shemesh - do u know Noach?

  2. I was friendly with the Smilowitz sisters in NCSY and at Barnard. Nice family.

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  4. "I decided to give Kabbalos Shabbos a try. I had long ago given up on it for various reasons. Mostly, out of an arrogant and misguided attempt to show how serious I was about talmud Torah"

    I can relate to this so well. My current hashkafic bent assumes a humanly written Torah and that Judaism is mostly man-made (albeit perhaps divinely inspired). What keeps me a passionate and observant Jew? It's the ruchniyut. Instead of finding certainty in dogmatic fact, I find that certainty in spiritual connection. Singing Lecha Dodi, for example, is what makes me feel like what I'm doing is avodat Hashem, irrespective of factual origins.

    1. Thanks David. I think one of the thing that seem people miss is that we don't have to be a perfect synthesis. We can simultaneously hold on to different parts that contradict.