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.