Monday, June 1, 2009
The More I See, The Less I Know
This Shavuos seemed to drag on longer than those in the past. While the staying up on the first night did feel like it flew by, I think the following day-and-a-half took three days to pass. Initially, everything seemed to be going well: I had a nice, small meal followed by learning with one of my roommates. With the learning, I felt like I accomplished more than I have my whole time here, which was very inspiring. However, when it came time for shacharis (morning prayers), things took a turn…
Instead of staying in the yeshiva like most other people, I decided against the warnings of those around me, and my own reason, and opted to walk to the kosel. Once there, I realized just how much of a mistake I had made: I was confronted with not a sea, but a wall of people, thousands upon thousands, smashed into the area around the kosel. Not wanting to turn back, and completely exhausted, I fought the crowds to make it inside the kosel where there are bookcases normally holding siddurim (prayer books). Clearly, I knew that this wouldn’t be the case this morning, but I felt that something had to go well after such a night of learning. Finally, after digging and searching behind books that were behind books that were behind books, I found a small siddur. Having been awake for more than 20 hours, and being amongst a wall of people in the same state, the prayers were a mixture of exhaustion, frustration, and tiny glimpses of solace. After finishing, I walked back to my apartment totally alone with the sun rising around me, trying to beat the masses and get into bed.
Once back home, I got into bed only to have my roommate’s alarm go off three hours later, reminding us that we had a meal to attend. The meal was at the home of my favorite neighbor, and the lighthearted, relaxed nature of the meal (with the addition of lasagna, quiche, and cheesecake) was enough to alleviate my fatigue momentarily. After the meal, I committed myself to walking with my roommate to the kosel again. After the trek there and back, I finally got into bed at 4:30, and slept a whole three hours again. At night I went to a meal with people I didn’t know, only to find myself talking to the 30-something year old cousin of the hosts about annoying Israelis. After this meal, I went to Belz, which was packed beyond belief. Eventually, I made my way home and crawled into bed at 2:15. Through the rest of Shavuos (the second day of which was also Shabbos), I basically slept, only to wake up to feed myself and daven (pray).
While I was at the kosel, watching the interaction of the people and experiencing the way in which things were handled, I started thinking about something that I previously began to write about, but never finished. I could try to explain it on the basis that people were tired, but that wouldn’t explain other times in which the same holds true, and regardless, excuses only go so far. The issue is this: while religious people always seem ready, even proud, to take on stringencies in their religious practice, they never seem to want to take on any stringencies on the mitzvos dealing with interpersonal relations. This seems ridiculous to me, as human beings are the creations and extensions of G-d. Why would you miss a chance to engage with, be kind to, or express general love and compassion to such a creation? Indeed, the great sage Rabbi Hillel said that the whole point of the Torah can be summed up in the mitzvah to love another person as you love yourself, with the rest of the oceans of knowledge and practice meant to drive this point home. Many, however, sadly feel too proud that they keep more restrictions on themselves, bringing their religion to be about objects and stringencies instead of love and expressions of Divinity. This is something that I continue to struggle with, as I see it all around me, with people pushing, struggling to be first and right, and acting as if everything is going well in their learning and life. Can’t they feel that something is missing, or are they too far gone?
A story was told of the Satmar Rebbe, dealing with stringencies and the ways in which people view them. In the early 1930’s, a student from a more modern yeshiva came to visit the rebbe. This student, being from a more modern city and background, had his beard completely trimmed off, a leniency that no one in the yeshiva of the Satmar Rebbe would dream of taking. After the young man left, one of the rebbe’s students approached him, asking him how he could welcome and meet with a Jew who didn’t take his religious life seriously enough to be stringent in this area. Sensing the complete lack of understanding and truth in his student, the rebbe responded, “It is possible that when this young man reaches the World to Come, HaKadosh Baruch Hu will ask him, ‘Holy Jew, where is your beard?’, but it is also possible that when you come into the World to Come, you will be asked, ‘Holy beard, where is your Jew?’” The simple story speaks volumes.