A Message from the Dungeon

Before I begin, I should apologize. Much of this post is going to sound like I’m kvetching. And, to be honest, I am.

Nevertheless, I hope that by indulging in some moderate venting I might come around to make a point or two of value.

I always feel a certain ambivalence after Tisha B’Av as I start looking forward to the Yomim Noroyim. For the past several years, I’ve led a learners’ service on Rosh HaShonnah and Yom Kippur, forgoing my own personal avodah in the hope that my efforts might bring others closer to Yiddishkeit. The crowd numbers anywhere from thirty to sixty people, and although I can point to a handful of individuals over the years who have clearly benefited from the experience, I can’t conclusively say that I’m personally responsible for bringing any neshomas back to Torah observance.

What I can say, conclusively, is that I miss the inspiration of a regular Yomim Noroyim davening. Even more, I miss the spiritual intensity of serving as ba’al tefillah for a congregation whose members are tuned in to the meaning of the day, not groping their way toward the most elemental awareness of spirituality.

So why do I do it? I suppose partly out of a sense of obligation, to use my talents and acquired knowledge to enlighten and inspire others, as I was enlightened and inspired on my way to becoming a ba’al tshuva.

And, if I’m being completely honest, I suppose I do it because, like so many ba’alei tshuva (and many FFBs as well), I’ve never quite found my place in the frum world. I’m suspect on the right for teaching in a yeshiva high school, I’m suspect on the left for wearing a black hat, and the Pavarotti-like cantorial renditions common in many older congregations inspire me to the same degree as fingernails on a chalk board.

So I’ve come to miss the eagerness with which I once approached the High Holidays, just as I’ve come to miss the inspiration that I used to draw from those days. Therefore, in an effort to slow my annual slide into melancholy as these most important days approach, I’d like to take this opportunity to remind myself (and anyone still reading) of a few basic hashkofos.

1. IT COULD BE WORSE. On the scale of personal suffering, my inability to find the perfect minyan ranks pretty low. I’m not sure whether it’s worse than the five days my family recently went without electricity during a St. Louis heat wave, but I am certain that it can’t begin to compare with the suffering of Tsunami victims, Katrina survivors, or Israelis crowded into their bomb shelters day after day. If I have to suffer the indignities of a less than perfect Rosh HaShonnah davening, I might indeed benefit from reflecting upon how fortunate I am that HaShem hasn’t sent something far worse, lo aleinu.

2. HASHEM’S PLANS ARE HIDDEN. I often try to imagine Yosef HaTzaddik wasting away in Pharaoh’s dungeon for twelve years. Here is a son of Yaakov Avinu, seemingly accomplishing nothing day after day, year after year. I imagine him davening, “Please, Ribono Shel Olam, I could serve You so much better if I were free, please give me freedom and the opportunity to serve You to the best of my ability.” And yet, day after day, year after year, his prayers went unanswered.

What we know now, what Yosef couldn’t have known then, was that HaShem had a larger plan in mind, a greater role for Yosef to play that required him to be in that dungeon for twelve years. And, when the time was right, HaShem brought Yosef up from the pit and, in a single day, made him the most powerful man in the world. In retrospect, those twelve years were not wasted at all.

3. WE DON’T KNOW THE GOOD WE DO. Rav Ezriel Tauber tells how he misread his schedule and missed his flight one day. Furious with himself, and recognizing the need to regain his composure, he asked himself what it would take to make him feel better. “What if I find out later that the plane I intended to take had crashed?” he asked himself. Then, in the next instant, he wondered, “Why do I need hundreds of people to die to make me feel better? What if, instead, I would find out in the World to Come, that a young secular Jew had seen me on the flight, that I reminded him of an old picture of his religious grandfather, and that the experience led him back to Torah?”

Indeed, we have no idea which of our most seemingly inconsequential actions may have cosmic consequences. What if one single person did become frum through my own personal involvement in a learners’ service? Would that not make all those years of learners’ services worthwhile?

In the final analysis, if that’s where HaShem wants me, then that’s where my divine service lies. Maybe a different congregation will need a ba’al tefillah this year or next year of the year after, and I’ll end up there, in which case that will be where my avodah lies. Or perhaps my own personal avodah is to deal with the frustration of not being where I think I ought to be. It’s certainly not as bad as a dungeon, or a hurricane, or a bomb shelter. Come to think of it, it’s not really so bad at all.

27 comments on “A Message from the Dungeon

  1. “Pavarotti-like cantorial renditions common in many older congregations inspire me to the same degree as fingernails on a chalk board.”

    Try a basso. I prefer the chazan to be clear, with words that can be understood by any ear. If, to get that, I have to suffer some unnecessary – but sometimes elegant – trills, okay.

    Listening to mumbles instead of words is no fun – nigun excepted.

  2. Thank you again, Rabbi Goldson. It was good to read you this morning. It helps to refocus on the Yomim Noraim. It helps to refocus when sometimes I feel a pity and melancholy. The self is so self-serving. Nothing cosmic ever occurred by meditating on the belly button.


  3. I got back from out of town last night, and I’m delighted to discover how much discussion my post generated in my absence. Thanks to all for the chizuk.

    Mark and David:

    How about a place on the blog for resumes and job postings?

    Just kidding.

    Sort of.

  4. Dear Rav,

    This is your student writing to you… I hear what you had to say about the brouhaha that was caused in your heart from the circumstances that impose on you; however, I certainly wanted to mention to you that you and no other rabbi at Yeshiva Atlanta made me feel close to Torah — you spoke my tongue, you were not presumptuous as most frum rabbis are, you do not take Torah and its teaching for granted — and I wanted to console you that at least in one student your teaching has found most cherished resonance, and I owe it to you. Your name rings when I share with many who was the rabbi at Yeshiva Atlanta with whom you were close. Aside from that, I wished to share with you some other thoughts on the matter at hand, namely, “How deep can you Love somebody?”, asked Leo Tolstoy — the answer is “Only as deep as you can suffer” — shallow people tend to fall off the boat from a mere trifle, and ask for a divorce when in reality the problem is insignificant. Likewise, the pain, the trial, the suffering is the conditioning that G-d imposes on some of his most worthy students to make them greater. As Ramchal writes, sometimes G-d brings you to the ground, so that he can rebuild you with a broader base, so that you can loom above other buildings.

    Shabbat Shalom,

    your student, in whose heart you will not be forgotten,


  5. David Linn said,
    ” I usually script my speech, rehearse from the script and gradually wean myself from it..”

    This does work for disciplined speakers with ad-lib-ability.

    Whichever way, there has to be structure. If the talk might not be great, it can at least be good.

  6. Rabbi S’ reference to Mordechai touches on another challenge that Rabbi Goldson and countless others surely face from all sorts of dungeons. The final (some say most admirable) praise for Mordechai is found in the final words of the Megilah “v’dover shalom l’chol zar’o”, maintains peaceful relations with ALL his children. Quite an accomplishment to be so politically and communally involved and still have time for good relations with all one’s children. This could be a thread all to itself (I really wanted to use the “thread to itself” line when the discussion was Marty’s new tztitzis…)

  7. Bob,

    You make some good points. As far as the cutsie titles go,I think they are often a necesity since we live in a world of sound bytes and shorter attention spans. That doesn’t mean that we need to dumb down the shiurim but it often does mean that the cutsey title will bring more people out to learn Torah. I do agree that we generally need to be given more info on the topic.

    As a bit of a public speaker myself (those who have heard me, please hold the jeers and virtual rotten tomatoes) I think that a script is often a bad idea since it tends to lock the speaker into a mode that often robs him of the free form and ad libbing that make for a great speech. I usually script my speech, rehearse from the script and gradually wean myself from it to the point that I can deliver the speech without the script. I then make a written “roadmap” highlighting the major points and transitions of the speech. That walks the line betweeen a rote script and freedom to change words, descriptions or even points on the fly.

  8. There are more than enough fine public speakers on Torah topics of interest to go around. The organizations need to spend wisely based on their situations, and the members need to see beyond “star appeal” and turn out for presentations on interesting topics.

    We could also benefit from fewer cutesy titles for lectures, and more advance information on what will actually be covered. Speakers should be encouraged to work from a script (the really good ones know this already). Speakers should not have to rush at the end to the punch line because of poor pacing or organization.

    If the speaker slips in a negative reference to any Jewish group or person (not a good idea in general, but unfortunately common) there had better be enough question time for the other point of view to be heard. I’ve been at one talk in Shul where a visiting rabbi who should have known better ridiculed a Gadol of a few decades ago; I felt as if I needed to take a shower after his presentation, for this and other reasons, to remove the “tumah”.

  9. Chaim I agree 100% but even there, there’s somewhat of a bittersweet paradox – the real Rabbi Akiva Eigers would hardly consider themselves “marquis material” ‘nuf said.
    R’ Goldson and Chaim – Mark and I had a wonderful discussion last Sunday about your very dilemma. The gemara teaches us that Mordechai’s standing as a learned member of Anshie Kneses Hag’dola dropped several notches when he went into public affairs. Should he have just stayed within his dalet amos and kept his learning/spiritual level, etc. as high as he would have liked? The Rebbe pointed out that the megilla itself provides a clue – Ki Mordechai hayhudi – to the king he was “mishneh lamelech” (viceroy) to the populace he was still a gadol and among his peers he was still “ratzui l’rove echav” – desirable to the majority of his colleagues – not everyone approved but the consensus was apprently that he had done well. Yeyasher kochacha and try to keep your eye on the bottom line while avoiding the bottom line (v’hamayvin yavin)

  10. When A. Rod was about to sign his Yankee contract the media reported that his agent negotiated an “escalator” clause stipulating that, if before his contarct expired some other ballplayer signed for a greater annual salary, his would automatically “escalte” to $1 more than the other guy’s! Talk about ego!

    I don’t think that the popular lecturers on the Frum circuit are of the same ilk, but part of Kavod HaTorah is establishing a hirearchy and pecking order. Chazal tell us that Dayonim in the Sanhedrin were seated according to scholarly rank with the least august sitting at the ends of the table and the most illustrious towards the middle. As you mentioned recently in another thread, in order to avoid the mistakes of thinking that the Rambam was wrong or that Rav Akiva Eiger was superficial it’s vital to establish who the “Rav Akiva Eigers” are. I know this may sound Orwellian but some Talmidei Chachamim (and their opinions) are more equal than others.

  11. “There is no doubt that there is a both a pecking order and star structure in guest speakers,”

    How ironic – I was an entertainment attorney for nearly 25 years and I spent a great deal of time negotiating credit clauses and calculating star’s “marquis value” and fighting how big their names should be on the screen, the placement, duration and “most favored nations” that no one’s credits could be better than theirs. I thought when I moved away from that world that I could use Moshe Rabbenu’s model “M’chani na misifr’cha – write me out of the book” meaning that bottom line – it wasn’t all just about him. I’m comforted to learn that the skills I picked up in that world might still be put to use :)

  12. Elul is just around the corner. It may seem that when giving to others, like running a minyan, program, shiur on Yom Tovim, that we are losing something personally, and maybe we are in some way, not clear on that, some personal focus perhaps. Nevertheless, there is a gain, a greater gain in my humble opinion, even if we don’t feel or recognize it immediately. We grow from every experience, everytime we give to others. Every time our children watch us sincerely giving to others. I see it over and over again. My husband’s students come often to visit. Sometimes some of us are tired, some families might prefer private time, we try to stay focused on giving, sharing, being there for others, within reason of course. Delicate balance to walk.

    Another seemingly difficult scenario is for mothers who must care for their young children on the Yom Tovim instead of being able to attend inspiring davening in shul. That was a hard one for me many moons ago. Took many years of work to appreciate the value and privilege of being able to care for childrens needs instead of being in shul on Rosh Hashona or Yom Kippur, or for shorter periods of time. Also work to stir ones self to as much intense and meaningful prayer as one is able to alone. Now, looking back, I have learned so much about what is truly important, about how we grow, and don’t always realize it until later.

  13. Mark-Thanks for the clarification. No disagreement here.We also save our best speakers for special events ( i.e. Selichos, etc. There is no doubt that there is a both a pecking order and star structure in guest speakers, etc. that demands a lot of thought and preparation into logistics and topics.

  14. Steve,

    The main purpose of a shiur is clearly the Torah learned and the intangible (i.e. not measurable) spiritual benefit derived.

    However, that does not mean that we would fly Rabbi Frand in from Baltimore to address a crowd of 5 people, although those 5 people would certainly be learning Torah and accruing spiritual benefit.

    So although every time Torah is learned there is immeasurable spiritual benefit, other more mundane factors such as the time spent and kavod of the speaker, the time of those involved in the project, the cost, the number attending, etc.. must be taken into consideration when evaluating whether to take on the project.

  15. Quick global point on the initial post. The only flaw in the glitter martini glass half full reasoning, albeit it being a great way to pretend things appear brighter than they actually are, using the Pollyanna perspective on a personal spiritual growth comparison level like: be bright and happy …..there are homeless people in Port Authority that would give anything for the spiritual meaning/focus I’ve managed to fabricate replete with intricate/artificial woolly direction weavings and fuzzy focus threadings – the knitting needles and yarn of today’s blackberry and treo covers (hats and scarves are soo last season) don’t usually work. You cant avoid the itchiness and cumbersome undertones and subtexts generally associated with fabricated and moth eaten woolly concepts -even if they do serve some sort of function . Its really just a cover if you think about it …when your glass is empty.

    Regarding Altruism -there will always be those that are less fortunate and those that are more fortunate-its a universally applicable given. It gets tricky when that is incorporated into the “Y am I doing this” equation. The martini glass half full or it was meant to be slogan definitely messes with free will/choice/effort and predestined hard coded facts – the four nebulous and fluffy components of that ubiquitous concept called destiny.
    What makes St. Louis the winning city answer? Remote location kiruv options are endless-you can apply the same reasoning to any given city or town from Neversink, NY to Truth or Consequence, NM to Bangor Maine.

    One cant ever really get all cozy and comfortable with the one size fits all slippers and flip flops of altruism . There are other sizes/manufacturers/sources of Altruism and the competition to consider.You can even outsource your altruistic instincts to third world countries and give mass production a whole new global redefining connection tag, by becoming an actual manufacturer of altruism and branch out into related products like care and concern and in the process eliminating overall middleman costs and reaching so many more end users. Or reaching end users that are not usually part of the general marketing campaign and targeted end user Altruism R. Us connection program. Its hard knowing what the right thing to do is or what you were meant to be doing according to g-d.

  16. Mark-WADR,I am not sure what you meant by your last post.Do you consider attendance,speaker, time of the shiur or cost the exclusive factors of success ? I am also unsure what you meant by intangibles.

  17. Steve

    Whenever we run shiurim at CAY, we define what we would call successful – based on the attendance, the speaker, the time of the shiur, the cost involved, etc..

    Many people feel that just preparing for the shiur takes their learning to a higher level, so they’re happy if a handful show up. For others, there time is at a premium so they are looking for a higher attendance.

    Of course the big problem with such a pragmatic approach is that we can’t measure the intangibles, such as the eternally lasting spiritual benefits of our efforts. For my own time, I take the intangibles into account, for other people’s time I try to define clearer measures of success.

  18. Another angle on this could be to think instead of ‘what is in it for me’, more something along the lines of ‘what can I do to better the community – how can I be of service’. Sometimes if we think of things from other peoples’ perspectives, we realize something not easily seen from our own perspective, and hopefully that can mitigate some frustration.

  19. Rabbi,
    I understand that you are trying to draw a Mussar Derher from Yoseph HaTsadik’s imprisonment but I think saying that he “seemed to accomplish nothing” (I’m assuming that you are suggesting that this was his own self-perception) is inaccurate.

    We have very little concept of the inner workings of the minds and hearts of even common Yidden a few generations ago, kv”c figures from the Tanach itself. To presume that we know how he thought about himself and his tight spot or whether he felt that his confinement was an exercise in futility is IMO at best a stretch and at worst superimposing our own level on that of one of the Shevatim thus cutting him down to size. I do agree with the basic premise that he no doubt considered his incarceration a hindrance to his Avodas HaShem, hence his efforts with the Chief wine-steward to end it earlier.

    Hey Gershon, long time no blog! Welcome back!

  20. Mark-as you know the Vaad Lchizuk HaTorah provides shiurim on legal holidays. I once asked a lomg term friend of ours who created the concept if he was ever dissapointed when the turnout was mininal at best. His response was that he couldn’t care if 3 or 30 attended the shiur-the concept that a free morning was dedicated to Torah by someone was important

  21. Reb Yonoson,

    As you likely recall the story, on one Kol Nidrei evening, Rav Yisroel Salanter spent a few hours holding a crying baby who’s mother had gone to shul and left the baby alone thinking it was asleep. As he was on his way to shul Rav Yisroel heard the crying he went to investigate and determined that since there was no adult to care for the child, it was his obligation. He never made it to shul that evening.

    Now I can’t tell you that at no point during those hours did Rav Yisroel wish he was somewhere else, but at least you can be comforted in knowing that you’re doing far, far more than what Rav Yisroel did. You’re actively involved in what the days of rosh hashana and yom kippur are all about. If Rav Yisroel paskened he needed to be with that baby, kal v’chomer you need to be running that minyan.

    While we can all use the chizuk that being in large groups of devoted Jews brings, doing the right thing is, after all, the right thing! That too can give you chizuk.

    If every talented kiruv person was able to reach out to 30-60 Jews as you do on the yomim noraim, imagine how many more Jews would feel connected to their roots!

    Kol Hakavod, Reb Yonoson!

  22. In the competition for the philanthropic dollar (a competition that this Yeshiva was losing badly in any event) I understand that his statement does not make a very good pitch. I would not even hazard a guess as to what he z”l would’ve paskined or been meyaetz a person who asked “Should I cut a check to my local mainstream Mesivta, BMG in Lakewood or Yeshiva X? (where I taught)”

    I think that the statement was meant to offer chizuk, by way of realism, both to those Rebbeim and teachers toiling in a frustrating atmosphere and to those donors already predisposed to support this kind of a cause but who felt that they weren’t getting bangs for their bucks. I think that he z”l was also trying to sensitize us to the catastrophe of intermarriage and the value of even one solitary neshoma.

  23. Rabbi Schwartz,

    How do you understand Rabbi Kaminetsky’s statement in terms of allocation of financial resources among our many communal institutions or do you feel that his statement was not addressing that area?

  24. Before my current position @ the JHC I was a Rebee @ a Yeshiva catering to the children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Suffice it to sat that it was the M.A.S.H. unit of chinuch and moments of satisfaction and apparent accomplishment as a mechanech were few and far between.
    My first week on the job as I was learning the ropes one of the veteran Rebbeim told me that Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky z”l (one of the founders of the Yeshiva and the head of it’s Va’ad Hachinuch) said that “It will have been worthwhile to maintain the school for 50 years if during that time ONE student who would otherwise have intermarried does not do so because of the education received here”
    That quote helped me get out of bed in the morning more than once!

  25. Reminds me of an anecdote attributed Rebbe Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev.

    The Rebbe was known to invite all sorts of types into his Sukkah. The types of people one likely would not want mentioned on a child’s shidduch resume under the question

    “Who’s part of the father’s chevra?”

    His reply to his questioners was is that when after ahd a hundred und tzvansik yohr (120 years) when he has to plead his case to the Beis Din shel Ma’ala (Heavenly Court) on what merit he deserves to enter the Sukkah in Shomayim, he’ll have the answer ready based on how he himself wasn’t judgemental about who was entitled to enter his own Sukkah.

  26. True confession:

    I have a frequent problem sorting out the esthetics of services from the essential part.

    Every bad or inappropriate tune, every fluffed or outright wrong nusach, every song searching for a key, every out-of-place cantorial shtick, etc., still drives me up a wall. I’m constantly challenged to suspend my music-critic-like judgment and buckle down to concentrate on the main reason I’m there.

    Of course, I should have better control over my thoughts. If anyone knows of a good cure for my problem, I’m all ears.

  27. Rabbi Goldson,
    Thanks for an insightful posting. This is getting me in the mood for Elul.

    “Indeed, we have no idea which of our most seemingly inconsequential actions may have cosmic consequences.”

    This is a great thought to start any day with.

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