Plateauing & Leaving the Cave

There’s a story in the Gemara which I think describes the phenomenon of plateauing in two of our greatest spiritual giants.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Elazar were forced to live in a cave for 12 years, hiding from the Roman authorities, who had an execution order out for them. After the decree was rescinded they came out of the cave, but whenever they encountered people they “burned them with their eyes” (euphemism for “ayin ra,” according to the commentaries). Their fire for emes prevented them from accepting people as limited human beings, not always filled with the same fire of Torah and avodas Hashem they possessed.

As a result, Hashem told them to go back to the cave rather than destroy His world. When they came out a year later, Rabbi Shimon was able to look at people without “burning them.” His son, Elazar, however, could not.

It’s been pointed out how strange Hashem’s response was. If their problem is too much intensity, too much fire, then why send them back to the cave? It was living in the cave, away from humanity, that gave them that fire to begin with!

However, we see that for Rabbi Shimon, at least, that extra year worked. He was able to temper his fire. He was able to accept people for their limitations.

Rabbi Shimon and his son had plateaued. The extra year in the cave enabled the father, though, to break through to a new level. I think there’s at least two practical lessons we can learn from this.

First, when you feel you’ve plateaued – when you feel mentally and spiritually drained — you may need to intensify your learning, your avodas Hashem. You may think just the opposite. You may think the reason you are stuck is because you’ve been too immersed, too intense, and going back to the Bais Midrash, so to speak (or literally), is the worst thing for you. Not so, according to this. (Consult your Rav for all practical advice, however.)

The second thing we learn, IMO, is that chesed is a means for breaking a cycle of redundancy. Rabbi Shimon’s ability to control his gaze was an expression of chesed, a reflection of his feelings of rachmanus for others and understanding their limitations. As a result, he was able to perform one of the greatest chasadim: sharing his inspired findings with the world (it was in the cave that the Zohar was authored by Rabbi Shimon and his son, according to the Zohar).

In short, if you feel you’ve plateaued look into re-intensifying your learning (even if you feel burned out) and doing chesed.

10 comments on “Plateauing & Leaving the Cave

  1. Nevertheless, I’ve somewhat changed my opinion about BT Yeshivas over time. I’ve come to take very seriously the words of one Rav I consult. He told me flat out that he thinks Jews who come to observance as working individuals through part-time classes (night and/or weekend classes, maybe even the occasional extended summer or winter retreat) are better off than those who do it through extended full-time learning in a yeshiva.

    At first his opinion shocked me. Now, over time, I’ve come to see the wisdom in it more and more. Perhaps it is better because it makes for a more gradual and natural transition that reduces and/or spreads out the psychological shock you described.

    Makes perfect sense to me – it means coming to grips with the side effects of the lifestyle change vis a vis family, friends, etc. It makes it harder for an individual to OD on too much too soon, where yeshiva immersion is like retreating into a “make believe world”. . . and then flop full face when encountering the rest of the universe.

    I didn’t get my year learning in E”Y until post-college,when I had been shomer shabbos, kashrus, etc. for a few solid years, and felt I needed the “book learning” to go with the lifestyle choice I had already made and committed to.

    But I saw friends and acquaintences who jumped in with both feet – some made it, some flopped big time. And the “flops” were heart-breaking, especially one who had started the journey when I did, and later told me that Shabbos “is all or nothing”, and he just couldn’t do it.

    I didn’t keep in touch with many of the newly BT fols I met in E”Y, but the ones who were already solidly frum got much more out of the learning, instead of fighting hashkafa issues constantly; why immerse yourself in learning if you’re still debating torah l’moshe mi’sinai?

  2. BTA —

    I think you’re onto something by describing the first year or years of a BT in a full time Yeshiva as “psychological basic training.”

    However, I’m not sure if that’s good or bad (and I’m not sure if you meant it was good or bad). Medical School, Law School and other intensive programs can be described as “psychological basic training.” Is that bad? Some would say yes and others would say no. I can understand why both a school might think it necessary at the same time some students find it degrading or negative.

    I don’t know myself if I consider that good or bad in a yeshiva. It can be either, I guess.

    Nevertheless, I’ve somewhat changed my opinion about BT Yeshivas over time. I’ve come to take very seriously the words of one Rav I consult. He told me flat out that he thinks Jews who come to observance as working individuals through part-time classes (night and/or weekend classes, maybe even the occasional extended summer or winter retreat) are better off than those who do it through extended full-time learning in a yeshiva.

    At first his opinion shocked me. Now, over time, I’ve come to see the wisdom in it more and more. Perhaps it is better because it makes for a more gradual and natural transition that reduces and/or spreads out the psychological shock you described.

    In any event, perhaps what you are really saying is that this unexpected detour in our lives called “becoming frum” is a major psychological shock to the system (whether it happens during the “basic training” of the early years or later on). And this shock is something the frum world often doesn’t understand very well or help us enough with.

    If so, I concur. I think it is one of the reasons I am here on this blog — both to share what I’ve learned to help others and to hear what others have learned to help myself.

    I think your last point about the problems of dating and marriage is a whole other can of worms. In general, I am appalled how many BT marriages fail and/or suffer, and the often awful and/or non-existant guidance BTs receive in this area from those teaching and/or advising them.

    We BTs have most or all of the common relationship challenges, which are many, and then many unique ones of top of them. Too many shadchanim and BT rabbeim/rebbetzins/advisors seem to be incredibly ignorant of the difficult realities inherent in BT-relationships (yet that doesn’t necessarily stop some of them from plowing ahead with shidduchim and/or advice). If you are saying these things are not understood and/or spoken of openly enough, again you will get no argument here.

    And, similarly, I hope our blogmasters will make BT marital issues a weekly topic in the near future, and that it will be discussed boldly and soberly.

    I can’t say I am aware of the “bait and switch” tactic you describe. I have no firsthand experience with it. The male libido is an extremely volatile thing to have to deal with — both for our teachers and ourselves. Maybe some were encouraging you out of misplaced idealism. I don’t know.

    I do know that dealing with the male libido like trying to navigate the Amazon River, with all its crazy meanderings. You don’t know which way to turn sometimes, and even if you make the right decision potential danger lurks at every twist and turn. Expecting young men ranging in their twenties and thirties, who come from secular backgrounds, to control their libidos like cloistered FFB teenagers (who can’t always do it either) is a very tall order (talk about “psychological basic training”). And then, after theoretically controlling those libidos for a couple of years, to relate naturally to a young lady in a non-physical way on a limited number of formal dates before deciding to marry — that’s asking a lot.

    Too much for some. My hunch is that the rabbeim have as little idea how to really deal with it as the young men themselves. That doesn’t necessarily excuse the behavior you describe, if it’s true. But I don’t know if there is an easy answer to this.

    Nevertheless, isn’t it funny that despite all the mishugas, as you say, your marriage worked out and others do too. That doesn’t excuse the ones that didn’t and don’t work out, which could have been prevented if the proper guidance had been there. However, it is important to realize just how tall an order it is to expect it to work out.

    One final note, how long did you stay in MS? I thought they tell people there to leave after two years. Are you saying you stayed longer?

    If you could share with us, I’d like to hear more details of your thinking when you said: “when you make a big investment of time and money and are constantly hearing ‘give it more time, it will turn around…’ from the rabbeim, it can be influential.” How along were you? In retrospect, what should you have done differently and how would it have been better?

  3. R. Astor- Very good, balanced response. Sorry it took me a while to get to it. I agree with what you’ve written.

    Just to answer your question, I went to Machon Shlomo. It’s got just the idealistic rabbeim you’re talking about. I can’t put my finger on it, but I’d say the rabbeim there and at Ohr and Aish (where I knew lots of guys) seem to know that many BT’s have psychological issues while in their yeshivas. I’d say conservatively that 50% of the guys in their first years manifest some very neurotic behavior. Some get weeded out, and some kind of snap into the mold by the second year. But I think there’s a psychological basic training going on there. Perhaps I’m projecting my experience, but I could see and hear it from the guys I knew. That didn’t keep me from staying a lot longer than I should have. (I should have run sooner, as you implied). But, when you make a big investment of time and money and are constantly hearing “give it more time, it will turn around…” from the rabbeim, it can be influential.

    Have you heard of the Stockholm Syndrome? That’s somewhat what’s going on there in my experience.

    Anyway, I hope you’ll take David L. up on his request for another post. If so, I’d appreciate if you’d address the following concern: RY’s at BT yeshivas know full well what they are likely going to put candidates through when they encourage them to go for a year to a BT yeshiva- the psychological conflict and deprivation. And at least at machon shlomo, it was strongly hinted at that marriage would be the carrot at the end of the stick of the 1st year. This turned out to be a bait and switch maneuver as the Rabbeim inevitably said each person “wasn’t ready” to date and needed another year. Of course, after the second year they were virtually guaranteed to have perfect lives and marriages.

    I’m glad mine worked out, but not all did, and some did in spite of the mishigas of that particular place. Again, it’s fine if they’re “idealistic” but bait and switch and failure to give all vital information should be roundly condemned where it commonly occurs. Thanks.

  4. Here are two totally unrelated observations on this issue.

    1) Plateauing definitely occurs, even among Gdolim.Let me offer a partial parallel case to that of R Shimon Bar Yochai. For instance, R Solovetchik ZTL said his shiurim in Yiddish, his native lanaguage from when he started saying shiur in the early 1940s until 1960. At that point, Rav Soloveitchik ZTL switched to English because there was too much of a language gap. Early talmidim from Rav Soloveitchik ZTL described the atmosphere in the shiur as one which generated genuine fear if you offered the wrong pshat, etc, After the Rav ZTL sustained the loss of his mother, wife and brother in a short span in 1967, talmidim of that era state that the Rav ZTL became more calm,as if he realized that mortal man, at least many of his talmidim, could not reach his amazing standards and demands.

    2) I don’t want to get into the issue of the alleged narrowness or breadth of machshvah in yeshivas, especially BT yeshivas or yeshivos and seminaries in EY that cater to post high school or college Anericans.However, I do think that a parallel and related problem to many of the postings on this issue is the well-documented phenomenon of Orthodox Jews leaving halachic observance. I am reading “Off the Derech”, a book written by Fareke Margolese, a frum journalist. It explores many of the reasons why so many Orthodox Jews of all hashkafos are leaving Orthodoxy. It has haskamos from R Hershel Shachter, R Zev Leff and R D Avraham Twerski. The most compeling conclusion from this book is that rabbis, educators and parents should all think of the consequences of their actions if a student or child leaves Orthodoxy. I think that the book is must reading for rabbis, parents and any Jew interested in the future of Klal Yisrael.

  5. Great response Yaakov and, yes, we will be making the issue of “Finding a Rav” a major blogging point not too far down the road. It seems to me that you have just nominated yourself for the first piece. Congratulations.

  6. BTA –
    I agree wholeheartedly that a Rav is not necessarily a therapist. However, in my experience the better ones do have life experiences and instincts that can qualify them to act in roughly the same capacity.

    At the same time, let it be said that the Mishnah in Avos does not say: Asay l’cha Guru. A Rav is not a Guru, and certainly not God.

    Admittedly, there is an unfortunate tendency for BTs to — at least in the beginning –view their teachers as infallible, or so above them that they ignore or suppress their own better judgment and defer to these teachers in matters of personal advice. It’s such an important subject that I hope our blogmaster makes it a main topic in one of the upcoming weeks.

    In any event, a Rav is not necessarily a therapist. I view mine as an extremely intelligent person with a lot of wisdom and life experience, whom I can consult for both halachic and personal matters, but who, after all is said and done, does not relieve me of the responsibility to think for myself.

    At the same time, let me also point out that a license to conduct therapy from even the highest state and federal authorities does not grant one immunity from dishing out bad advice.

    In general, many of us are pretty complicated creatures and are often on our own when it comes untangling ourselves from the various messes we have put or find ourselves in. Find mentors, therapists, Ravs – whomever you can to guide you — but don’t necessarily blame them for being human, just like you, in the final analysis, and don’t relinquish your responsibility to think for yourself.

    Anyway, in reference to my blog, I was NOT really thinking about a newbie in a BT yeshiva, but (as per the target audience of this blogsite) a BT somewhere further down the line. That’s why I said to consult your Rav, not your Rosh Yeshiva.

    Still, I admit my analogy can conceivably apply to a full-time learner in a BT place and will address your point.

    My first thought is that if you or any BT believes the Rosh Yeshiva or whomever you consider the authority bringing you into the Torah-observant world is acting out of the selfish motivations you described, then don’t just leave that yeshiva – RUN FROM IT AS FAST AS YOU CAN! THIS SECOND! DON’T DELAY!

    I will not deny a) there are some rotten apples out there parading about as Kiruv individuals, b) that even the good apples can have faults and c) that on a subconscious level, at least, selfish, lowly motivations such as you described can theoretically come into play in some instances (this is why the Torah itself addresses judges when it says “a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise”).

    Nevertheless, my strong suspicion is that if a RY or the like encourages a BT to stay in his yeshiva, and that turns out to be bad advice, it is more often than not because he genuinely believes it was nevertheless best for the student, not because he says to himself: “I need another warm body in my Bais Midrash to get government funding,” or “What will my RY peers say if I lose this guy?”

    Admittedly, I don’t have statistical evidence for my strong suspicion, but then again who really has a looking glass into another person’s heart? Do you have for your assumption? For me, my experience leads me to conclude that most of these people are genuinely idealistic, and if they make a mistake it’s from misguided idealism, not selfish motivations.

    Be that as it may, the effect on a young man or woman can be the same. And that’s an issue. It’s more than just an issue. It’s an enormous, unspeakable tragedy. I’m just saying that I don’t think you can lump all the mistakes -– or even most of them — into a single pot of seeking government funding, banal prestige and other selfish motivations.

    Having said all that, I think it’s paramount for a BT Yeshiva to have a RY, mashgiach and/or others who are not afraid to tell a student it’s time to close the books and go back to college, get a job or simply not move so fast into observance. The two BT yeshivas I know a little more intimately than others have such people (one is in the US, one in Israel).

    Often, their problem is the reverse: a young man who wants to continue but whom they feel needs to go on – either to college or find work – or who needs to slow down.

    I, myself, did not say berachos over food – including bread, a di’oraysa — for a good year after starting in yeshiva. It was just something I wasn’t comfortable with. No one said boo to me.

    Of course, there are horror stories. Believe me, I’m painfully aware of what you are talking about – both from the experience of others and my own.

    I think it’s a valid issue that needs to be addressed. All I’m saying is you seem to have lumped every BT Yeshiva and RY into one ugly, stereotyped lump. I disagree. I think there are not only genuinely idealistic Ravs and Yeshiva Staff out there – and that probably most of them can be assumed to fall under that classification — but ones competent enough to bear some of the load of personal advice we BTs need.

    Do we need more? Can the situation be improved? Yes. You’ll get no argument from me on that.

  7. But a Rav is not a therapist, and for those who feel deeply conflicted about staying in yeshiva, or staying frum, a Rav “letting you off the hook” for the day or week, is really only treating symptoms, not root causes.

    Is there a Rav who will tell you to skip mitzvahs deorisa, such as morning davening with tefillin, for a year?

    While that may not be the solution, it defines what the spectrum is, and every single Rav will at a minimum try to find a balancing test of how much he thinks you can “take” without losing it. He’s not coming from a perspective of what is objectively best for you, but rather what is best for you within Torah constraints. Thus he is ill-equipped and has a conflict of interest. Most Rabbeim have far less subtle conflicts of interest, especially in Israel, where the head count at the yeshiva is tied to steady government funding, such as it is. More important, is the diminished prestige that comes with a bochur wigging out or leaving the yeshiva unhappy. So, of course they try to bring them back into the fold. The conflict is manifest.

    There are a lot of guys losing it in BT yeshivas, Reb Astor. And they need more than a Rav in many cases. And most of them won’t seek out a professional. If one is going to go back to the cave of a yeshiva, while carrying emotional conflict, that person needs a therapist who understands the gestalt of the situation, not just a nice fuzzy Rav whose main goal is to get that bochur back on the wagon.

  8. David, you make some fair points.

    I feel the pain you have, and, believe it or not, share more of it than you probably think and that I might normally let on.

    I have had a hard time finding a “local Rav,” or even a not-so-local one. However, if your impression of a Rav is one who would ONLY tell you to go back into the BM, then we have very different impressions of what a Rav is.

    As for me, it took some time admittedly, but I think I now have a Rav, maybe even two or three I trust, who would and indeed have told me to, for e.g., grab a glove and go to the ballfield rather than pick up a Gemara and go to the BM; or play Xbox with my kid at the same time every night rather than getting a chavrusa.

    Such Rabbeim do exist. Much of the time now I can figure it out for myself, but if I can’t then I have a Rav to bounce ideas off of who is not afraid to tell me either way what he thinks I might need.

    Regarding your observation that RSBY was not a BT, I think you have missed the point. The point was that if even a person as deep and learned as RSBY could plateau, then certainly those of us — myself at the front of the line — who have limited backgrounds can plateau.

    And his solution to plateauing has nothing to do with growing up secular or not, IMO. And I can say this from experience: sometimes it’s worked to increase my particular learning instensity and sometimes it’s been best to join a basketball league or simply chill out for x amount of time.

    Perhaps this could have been said more clearly in my piece. Let me give it a try now:

    At any given time, an individual may be more like RSBY or more like Rabbi Elazar. And each of us has to gauge where we are, and who we are, to decide if going back “into the cave” will benefit us, as it did, RSBY, or not benefit us, as per Rabbi Elazar. If the former, crack the books. If the latter, don’t.

    That’s where having a Rav, a mentor-figure in the truest sense — i.e. someone who is not afraid to tell you either way — can make a big difference in a person’s growth.

  9. While I would certainly not dispute your choice of comparing a BT lifestyle as a “cave” (wow, you people really do all my work for me!) I would say that this comparison fails in almost every other ways. It seems to me that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was not an average person, nor was his son, and they did not come from secular backgrounds. In fact, if I remember right, “many failed” in attempting to emulate their single mindedness, and I’m guessing a good portion of those were FFB’s.

    Their challenge (RSBY and son) was interacting with the world. They weren’t sick and tired of the cave itself.

    Additionally, some of us became quite sick in “the cave,” and got worse and worse until we took steps to change our lifestyle.
    You are advocating more of the same, the same which made us sick, and only temper it by advising to check with our “local Rav” in the Bais Medresh, that is to say, the Rosh Yeshiva at a Black Hat BT yeshiva, who will certainly usually second that recommendation of staying in the cave, even more so than before.

    I think that is quite irresponsible of you.

    I think I would go out on a limb and say that most of us from a secular background have very different challenges than Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai or his son, and should not spend extended periods of time “in the cave,” particularly once we feel we need to get out of it and live a less singleminded lifestyle.

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