Recently, my family had the honor of serving coffee, in our home, here, in Israel, to the rabbi and rebbetzin who built the gesher that brought us from the secular life to the religious one. That dear couple was visiting The Holy Land for a celebration. Their arrival in the Holy Land meant an additional festivity for my family.
A decade and change ago, my family knew our essential selves to be Jewish, but had no idea what present depth or grand history such a heritage could call forward. The appellation “Jewish” seemed, back then, no more of a special sort of nomenclature than did the word “red,” in the service of describing apples, or “hot” as used to refer to the kind of weather one might experience in August.
We were clueless that we could choose to open ourselves to a texture of life richer than anything built from finance or from fickle social status. Up until the point at which my husband and I made a commitment to learn about Torah living, our days and nights, like those of the people in our circle, were largely measured by who we knew, what we accomplished and the like.
Fortunately, a series of life and death events, which smacked us upside the head, forced us to heed the types of goings on that we otherwise conveniently ignored. Working on middot takes effort. That effort, in turn, initially, often hurts.
With a smile, those leaders, a young couple who did not even reside in the same town as the minyon over which they presided, schlepped their pots and pans, their seferim, their foodstuffs, their candles, their kosher wine, their homemade challot, and their children, so that suburban Jewish neshemot might have a taste of a better life. They did not chide us or our fellow learners for our ignorance, electing, instead, to focus on helping us become accountable for our time on this world.
Erroneously, we and people like us assumed, at first, that if we didn’t instantly transform into someones whom resembled our teachers, we would never morph. It had been our experience, in the business world, in academia, in the marketplace, and in additional positions of secular leadership that the best view was from the top. It had been our experience that the top was a seat large enough for only a few or maybe for only a single individual. It had been our experience that any and all means of acquiring that most superlative position were justified by their end.
What we learned under the rabbi and rebbetzin’s tutelage, however, was that growth: is personal, is beyond the strictures of mundane paradigms, and is available to all Jews, simultaneously. We were encouraged to integrated foreign ideas such as slowing down and such as not competing. Out guides were liberating us in significant ways.
In addition, at their table, we supped, sweetly, not just on Shabbot cholent or on Purim cakes, but also on the concept that individual development, in isolation from the healing of the collective is relatively worthless. More practically, anyone, among us, who merited knowing a little about Torah, was at once obliged to give that knowledge over to other people. Our former model of the hasty, self-serving catapult was emptying of meaning.
From the rabbi and his rebbetzin, we learned to respect ourselves and then to respect others in ways to which, prior, we never gave credence.
Tzniut, for instance, we learned, was not about antiquated modes of dressing, but about separating the private from public view. Koshrut, likewise, we discovered, was about bestowing holiness on eating and drinking, not about some ill-advised martyrdom involving reading the fine print on labels. Learning Torah was about acquiring a blueprint for living, not about one-upping the kid in the next row by reciting, but not understanding words and ideas. We lost interest in self-promotion and gained interest in reaching closer to Hashem. Our best moments became constituted by deeds of loving kindness which we also merited to comprehend.
Concurrently, we taught our children how to cross the street, inspected hand-me-down clothes for rips and tears before passing them on to others of our offspring, burned the soup, forgot socks in the laundry pile, and buried, after they had lived out their lives, various pets. We carpooled, we paid taxes, we stepped in national rallies, we picked up litter, we ran away from seemingly rabid squirrels and we anchored our jungle gyms again and again so that our children and our neighbors’ children would remain safe even when pumping the swings too high.
Our rabbi and rebbetzin did not rush us or, any of their other students, away from our insular yuppie lives. As a result, we were able, B”H, to “climb the mountain” without having to turn back due to poisoning from moving too high too fast. Later, when we learned that would-be hikers before us had failed from their bursts of short-lived enthusiasm and later, when we learned that there really is no peak to reach, no summit to attain, just more and more years of marching forward, we were grateful for the wisdom of those two others that held us back until we learned to pace ourselves.
We were grateful for their closed-mouth encouragement, too. No one laughed at my ill-fated first sheitel. No one criticized my husband’s first pronunciation of kiddish. No one scolded our young children for not having longer pants or skirts or sleeves.
These many years later, those babies and elementary school kids, whom we brought with us to the rabbi and rebbetzin’s home, have grown and are ready to set up households of their own. These many years later, the rebbetzin looks a little more tired and the rabbi looks a little more grey. At the same time, the rebbetzin seems a little more radiant and the rabbi seems a little more luminous. They are still building connections, for Jews, from the world of illusions to the world of truth. We, their spiritual children, are right behind them, filling up pails of holy bricks and of sacred mortar.