My name is Mike. I am 19 years old, currently living in a small Jewish community, but soon to be making Aliyah. And my initial plans for when I arrive in Israel are to study in Yeshiva. My family thinks that I’m crazy and that I’m wasting a year of my life. I beg to differ (clearly or else I wouldn’t be going.)
I grew up in a traditional Jewish South African family. Of course there was always a strong connection to Judaism, close ties with the Jewish community and the State of Israel but we were never “Frummers”. We would drive to shul on a Friday night (some weeks), make kiddush at home and even bentsch occasionally. But then we would watch TV after leaving the dinner table. Saturday was a day just like Sunday, time off from work or school but no greater meaning to it than that. And while pork and cheeseburgers were a no-no there weren’t too many qualms about eating beef lasagna or calamari.
I lived in and felt comfortable with this status quo all my life until a few years ago when I started to attend shul regularly, first on only Friday nights. After a while I started going on Shabbos mornings too, eventually Shabbos afternoons joined the fold. And before I knew it, on weekday evenings as well as mornings I could be found at shul. It got to the point where, in the words of family and friends, I was simply “praying too much.” Of course at the same time I became more involved in issues of kashrut, tzniut, began wearing a kippa and tzitzit. And while I’ve had my fair share of difficulties in dealing with my less-observant family members, they’ve come to accept me for the “fanatic” I’ve become. I no longer feel uncomfortable declaring that I’m waking up at 6 in the morning to go to shul or announcing that I need to wash before I can eat bread. I don’t any more feel the need to hide away in my room and bentsch quickly, hoping that noone will discover me.
However, there is one issue which I still have difficulty relating to my family, an area of my “fanaticism” which still creates a sense of discomfort in our relationship. That is the area of Talmud Torah.
My family simply cannot grasp the inherent value of studying Torah or the pleasure and satisfaction it provides me. When I sit at home wasting away the hours in front of a TV that’s ok – it’s normal – but if they find me streaming an audio shiur from the internet or reading one of my “Rabbi books”, well that’s just weird, fanatical and extreme. And if that’s the reaction I get when we’re talking about half an hour of study here or there at home, you can imagine the sort of response I was greeted with when I announced that I want to do this full time for a year.
The most common reaction is simply the question “Why?” Why waste a year of your life when you could be studying something “useful”, begin using your brain, develop a career and earn a living. Maybe if I was planning on becoming a Rabbi then going to Yeshiva would be ok but why would anyone else possibly want to spend their time there? “It’s such an insular environment and you won’t get any exposure to the real world”, they accuse. “You need to start earning money and a year in Yeshiva is a luxury you just can’t afford to take,” I’ve been told. And even once we manage to break that barrier there’s always the challenge of “but a year is so long, why do you need to spend that amount of time there? Make it a month or so…”
These questions, accusations and challenges have caused me much distress and worry. On the one hand it’s simply impossible to explain the inherent value of Talmud Torah to someone who doesn’t believe in it. On the other hand, I think part of the reason these questions have caused me so much distress is that the answers aren’t actually as clear in my mind as they should be. I’m currently working on correcting that and I think that putting my thoughts down on paper is probably one of the easiest ways to do it.
We can’t begin to answer anything unless we have the question. So now the question seems clear enough in my mind: “Why do I want to go to Yeshiva?” along with all the side points and difficulties mentioned above. And now it seems to me a little bit easier to answer. I should have that part ready soon. In the meantime, what do you think?