Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Solid Foundation- What is the unifying factor in our lives?

It’s one of my favorite stories in Tanach. Eliyahu HaNavi stands on Har Carmel having demonstrated that God is real, and that the prophets of Ba’al are frauds. As Bnei Yisrael stand there watching, Eliyahu chides them “עד מתי אתם פוסחים על שתי הסעיפים?” In modern parlance we might say “How long do you plan to be a double agent?” Make a choice he tells them. Either serve God or serve Ba’al, but stop serving both. In that situation, at least temporarily, Bnei Yisrael made the right choice.

Until recently, when I heard that story I assumed that they were simply living a double life; at times serving God, and at other times serving Ba’al. Looked at that way, the choice is simple. Pick one of the sides and stick with it, while leaving the false choice behind. What if Eliyahu is telling them
something stronger?

There’s a famous letter written from the great Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin Rav Yitzchak Hutner to one of his students. The student had written to the Rosh Yeshiva concerned that by leaving the full-time world of the yeshiva in order to earn a living he was living a double life. In a beautiful response, which exudes Rav Hutner’s love for his talmid (one of many examples of this love that can be found in his letters), he says that if one lives in two different locations he is living a double life, but if one lives in a single home with many rooms, he can still live a single life. In other words, if properly focused, even our “profane” activities can be of one piece with our inherently holy endeavors. (See here for more on this theme in the writings of Rav Hutner).

Ah, but there’s the rub. Living in one house need not lead to a double life, but even when it does not, what is the unifying force that ties together all that we do? Is a single house enough?

I look around sometimes and wonder what it is that most motivates us as religious Jews. We have multiple options for learning daf yomi, including on a train heading to work, a plethora of choices for kosher sushi and flavored herrings, and shuls to match every possible hashkafa. Never has it been easier to be “frum”. You can be shomer shabbos and still be the Secretary of the Treasury, wear a sheitel and be a CEO, and be makpid on chalav yisrael and have a successful career in academia. Still, I am curious as to what is the foundation on which our house of many rooms is built. In many cases we live solidly modern lives certified by the OU or even the Kof-K, but where do our loyalties lay? What is the singular lens through which we see all that we do? What is our one, the thing we love most? Towards what do we most aspire? We don’t live double lives, but it is good that we deeply examine what kind of single lives we live and aspire to live.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

There's No There Here- On looking for the answer

I was running but getting nowhere. In fact, in what I knew to be an illusion, the finish line seemed to be getting father away with each step I took. It was like being trapped in a work of art by Escher. I was less than 1/10th of a mile from the of what was most probably, unbeknownst to me, my final marathon. I was spent and just wanted to be done. I’d worked hard enough. I just wanted to get to the end.

I read a lot. These days, much of it is about Judaism, God, prayer, and religious experience. I sometimes discover authors and thinkers whose ideas move me. While some fit into my current approach to my Avodas HaShem, others push me away from my comfort zone, reminding again, that I am not there. That place where I often yearn to be, where I can coast, knowing I’ve found my derech. The approach at which all the annoying questions fade away. Even when, on occasion, I think I might be there, something comes along to remind me that I’m not.

The sense that there is some thinker whose ideas I can swallow whole, unfiltered, sometimes appeals to me. I think of those whose ideas bounce around in my head, those whose words tug at my soul with the alluring promise of putting an end to my search. How do these approaches fit together? Do they? Can they? More importantly, are these ideas truly a part of me, or are they volumes tucked away in the library of my mind, where they will gather dust, or worse, be checked out on occasion to suggest to others that I have answers?

It’s a hunger I can’t fully explain. I think of the words of the midrash Bikeish Yaakov leisheiv b’shalva. Is wanting to rest so bad? What’s wrong with wanting to take a break from the challenges and vicissitudes of life? If I can’t get there, or more correctly, if there is no there to get to, how do I live in the search? How do I function in a community where so many seem to know that they have the answer? What do I say when I am asked a question that feels like a punch to the chest. asking more of me than I can answer with a quote or reference?

Perhaps the answer is found in putting down the books, at least for a while, and being alone with myself. Thinking about who I am, rather than what others tell me about who they are. Thoughts and ideas can be found in books, but not solutions to the biggest questions. Those questions need to be addressed in the quiet moments where others’ ideas are left behind, and the books we are writing about ourselves, however inconsistently and imperfectly, are read.