By Rucheli Manville who posts great photos and writings at Rucheli’s Ramblings.
There was once a young man. He was raised in a good home filled with positive influences. He had the best education in a great community. His parents set him on a straight path towards success, but he had his own ideas of what he wanted from life. And so the downward spiral began. He started indulging in the “pleasures” of life… He demanded meat; he started drinking more wine than normal. His parents tried to curb his newly-formed habits and give him life advice, but to no avail. He declined to listen to them, and worse, he demanded that they fund his selfish habits! No matter what his parents did, he refused to turn his life back around. Left with no other choice, his parents are instructed by the Torah to bring him before the Beis Din (Jewish court) to have him sentenced to death. A tragic ending to what could have been such a promising life…
This is the story of the “wayward and rebellious son” in the parshah, Ki Seitzei. The Talmud (in Sanhedrin 71b) tells us that this story never actually happened… that in all the years of history, not a single “rebellious son” was ever actually found among the Jewish people. Supposedly, it was included in the Torah so that we can reap the reward for learning something simply l’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven. Well, I’m not normally one to disagree with the Sages of the Talmud… but they’re wrong. The story of the rebellious child has actually happened. Don’t believe me? Just ask my parents.
My parents, thank G-d, did a fantastic job raising my sister and I. We lived in a modest home in a great neighborhood in one of the top areas of South Florida. I went to the best elementary, middle, and high schools in the state. My parents taught me self-confidence, self-motivation, and self-worth. I excelled at whatever I chose to do, and graduated high school with a full-ride offer to not one, but dozens of different colleges. I knew that within 10 years of graduating high school, I would be making 6 figures and be well on my way to becoming a CEO of a Fortune 500 Tech company.
I went away to university and things were right on track. My grades were great, I had incredible internships with some of the top engineering companies in the world, and life was good. Little did I know that a crazy Rabbi dressed in a penguin suit, along with his wife, was about to turn my life completely upside down…
A little bit of background first. When I started college, I was a “devout” atheist. I preached atheism. I was 100% convinced that science had a perfectly reasonable and logical explanation for everything. It came with the territory: I was an industrial engineer by trade with the small side hobby of quantum physics. Yet my Jewish soul was still alive and kicking after all those years of being suppressed once I had given up my Judaism after laining (chanting) this very parshah on my 13th birthday. Yes, my bat mitzvah was on my 13th birthday instead of my twelfth. Yes, I lained. Anyway, once I got to college I began looking for Jewish groups on campus. Not for the “religious” aspect of it, of course. I just missed the synagogue’s social scene. (At least that’s what my subconscious tricked my evil inclination into thinking.) And so I tried out Hillel at UCF. They had a nice building and plenty of money, but like David Brooks of the New York Times said last week, they had gone too far and “crossed the Haimish line.” It felt too cliquey and impersonal for me. At the time there were no other options, and so I decided that it just wasn’t meant to be and dove headfirst into the engineering and honors clubs instead. For the next year, Judaism was pushed to the back of my mind again.
This was my mental state when the Lipskiers moved to Orlando during my second year of college. Now, I’m not sure how he did it, but Rabbi Lipskier, being totally in tune with the times, somehow found a way to get the email address of every Jew on campus and proceeded to spam us constantly. From the second they moved into town, I had at least three event invitations in my inbox every week. Shabbat, a class, a barbecue, you name it. He even went on to campus a few days a week to hunt us down. Now for a while, I managed to successfully ignore their blatant attempts at attracting students to their events, but eventually they wore me down. And so one day, I called my mom.
“Sooo there’s this new Jewish group on campus and they’ve been spamming me with invites to stuff nonstop for a few weeks so I’m thinking about just going to check it out…”
She was SO excited that I actually wanted to do something reminiscent of my childhood days in Temple Sunday School. “Really? That’s great! What’s the group called?”
And so I told her: “I dunno, Cha-bad or something.”
And her response? “Oh my G-d, Kabad?! DON’T GO!”
She then proceeded to spend the next seven and half minutes lecturing to me about how ‘Kabad’ is that group of crazy people that walk on Saturdays and they brainwash people and they oppress women because they’re so old-fashioned and that under no circumstances whatsoever should I set foot anywhere near this so-called Jewish group.
But, like the rebellious son, I could only listen to my parents for so long and so started the “downward spiral.” About three weeks after that conversation (and to be totally honest, I’m surprised it actually took three weeks), I decided to go check out ‘Cha-bad’ anyways. And so I called up Rabbi Lipskier at about 4:30pm on a Friday afternoon (which we all know is just about the worst time ever to call a Rabbi) and proceeded to explain at length how I kind-of wanted to come check out this event thing he was doing that night… but I didn’t know what it was, and I hadn’t been to Temple in about six years, and I didn’t know how to pray, and I didn’t know what to wear, and, and, and… And so Rabbi cut me off mid-sentence and told me to stop worrying, wear whatever I was wearing, and just show up at such-and-such address in three hours. And so, three hours later, I showed up to the Lipskiers’ house wearing jeans, a tank-top, and a pair of flip-flops. For Shabbat, my very first one.
Of course, like any Chabad family would do, Rabbi and Rivkie took me in with open arms despite my completely-underdressed-for-the-occasion attire. It was the exact opposite of the experience I had at Hillel. It was warm, the food was delicious, the people were friendly, and the conversation was relaxed. And somewhere deep inside, my little spark of G-dliness –my Jewish soul– was having a ball. And so I went back the next week. And the week after that. Rapidly it became my weekly pre-game before Friday frat-parties and clubbing. I mean, who wouldn’t want a four-course meal and several glasses of wine before meeting up for a night on the town??
After about a month, I think I finally told my oh-so-pleased mother. And after a few more weeks, I started going to the Tuesday night “Kabbalah and Kabobs” barbeques also. And then I started going over on Thursdays to help Rivkie cook for Shabbat. And eventually I started going on Sunday for the infamous “BLT” (Bagels, Lox, and Tefillin) event, even though I wasn’t exactly putting on tefillin. Before long, I added in Wednesday women’s programs, Monday night classes, and even gave up my hung-over Saturday mornings for some quality “family” time at the Chabad house. It was an addiction, I was out of control. I was losing myself… thank G-d.
That summer, my Rabbi convinced me to go on Birthright to Israel with the Mayanot program. I went. It was the most incredible experience of my life, and I loved it so much that I extended my trip and backpacked around Israel with six total strangers. One of them was the guide from my trip, a modern-Orthodox-ish college student from FIU. So even though the rest of us weren’t at all observant, we were respectful. The result was that when I got back to the states, I was keeping Shabbos(ish), Kosher(ish), and was even dressing more Tznius(ish). I wasn’t observant by any means, but turning off my phone on Friday nights and lighting Shabbos candles, paired with giving up pork, and on top of that, always covering my knees and shoulders (even if it was a t-shirt and jeans) was a HUGE deal for someone who was raised as Reform as it gets. And so when I got home, my mom broke down and cried. Literally, on the floor pleading with me not to be crazy because she would never see her grandchildren because she wasn’t Jewish enough for me. It was ridiculous, and it was all my fault… all a result of my rebellion.
Just as things were starting to get better and my family was getting used to my unruly behavior, I went with the Lipskiers to Crown Heights for my first Chabad Shabbaton. It was like a different planet… a whole city of penguin-looking rabbis and women wearing way too much clothing. I was overwhelmed, but something about it was entrancing. The modesty, the confidence, the respect people had for each other… it was enticing to someone who grew up in a culture of “bare all or be nothing.” I was hooked.
Before I even realized what was happening to me, it started getting more serious… All of the sudden I was demanding to have special (Kosher) red meat on Fridays and Saturdays… And I was drinking more wine than normal (making my own Kiddush when I was at home with the parents)… I started talking more about G-d than about my plans for taking over the tech world. I spent more time reading Chabad.org than the latest articles about the Big Bang. I stopped wearing all the nice clothes that my mom had bought me and started buying a whole new wardrobe full of “frumpy” skirts. And worst of all, I expected my parents to fund all of my crazy new habits. I had to have been the epitome of the rebellious child in the eyes of my family. Why couldn’t I just be normal?! But no matter what they did, no matter what they said, I refused to turn my life back around.
I’m sure there were times that my parents would have dragged me off to Beis Din if they had remembered the parshah I had read all those years ago. Fortunately, they didn’t. Not that it would have mattered, since keeping Torah and Mitzvos wouldn’t have seemed so rebellious in the Beis Din’s eyes anyway. But still, it was a cause of much strife in my family.
My grandfather was really the only one who was okay with everything that was going on at the beginning. One of the acronyms of Elul is “Es levavcha v’es levav”, speaking about how “G-d will circumcise your heart and the heart of your children,” an act that will arouse teshuvah (return). Well, it must have skipped my parents’ generation, but in Hashem’s quirky idea of humor, I was the one bringing it around full-circle. Grandpa’s acceptance was a start, and before I knew it, things were getting better. It wasn’t long before my family was making Glatt-Kosher Christmas dinners so that I could come home for the holidays (oh, the irony) and adjusting to my incessant need to dress like it’s mid-winter outside. I wouldn’t say that they were quite happy, but they were no longer ready to disown me.
I kept finding new ways to push my limits, to stoke the fire of rebellion just a little more. Eight days in the Florida Keys with 100 Jewish girls for Bais Chana’s Snorkel and Study program. A few more college Shabbatons in Crown Heights. The Sinai Scholars class on campus. Random plane trips to New York to visit the grave of a man I never met but felt like I had known my whole life. Lavish five-star JLI retreats every summer to listen to Jewish topics that no one else in my family cared about. But no matter how many curve balls I threw, my family adapted with ease.
Left with no other choice, I did something totally insane. You’re adjusting to my rebelliousness? Well then, that’s no longer rebelling! I’ll push you even further!! And so, almost exactly a year ago, I turned down a full-time engineering position making $65K a year to go be dirt-broke in a yeshiva somewhere in the middle of Israel. Surely, that would push any parent completely over the edge… and they lost it. Again.
My sense of social responsibility was completely out the door, I had no regard for the economic welfare of myself or those closest to me, and I had clearly given up on the idea of ever using my brain. I had effectively reduced myself to a life of “sitting in the kitchen and popping out babies,” as my sister so eloquently put it.
Hardly discouraged, I spent the year living life to the fullest. I was soaking up information like a sponge, trying desperately to catch my pathetic childhood Jewish education up to par with my college degree in engineering in the span of 10 months in a Beis Medrash. I was taking trips to places that could be found nowhere else on earth. I was walking on the same stones that my ancestors walked on thousands of years ago, when the Temple still stood. I was tired, I was poor, and I was loving every single minute of my time at Mayanot.
A few weeks after I got to Israel, my dad got a camera and Skype. We talked face-to-face for the first time in a little over a month. He had a beaming smile on his face the whole time, a novelty for my emotionally-grey father. When I asked why he was in such a good mood, he answered, “I wish you could see your face. I’ve never seen you so happy in my life.”
That was it. That was the turning point. I was happy, truly happy, and my family could finally see it. I guess distance really does make the heart grow fonder. Within a few months, my dad was more supportive than he had been since he was my softball coach when I was 12 years old. My mom and I were racking up triple digit phone bills again. My little sister was over the fact that she had a freak for a sibling. My grandpa started reading articles and watching videos on Chabad.org and TorahCafe.com and my grandma started lighting Shabbos candles again for the first time in decades. The tables had turned… The rebellion had spread. We’re all rebelling now, rebelling against the status quo, rebelling against this materialistic world with its fake morals and pathetic values system. We’re rebelling against the idea that money buys happiness. We’re looking for more out of this life, and I’m no longer the only one finding what I’m looking for in the letters of Torah.
The last four and a half years have been a constant battle, always uphill and never easy. But that’s what this parshah, my parshah, is all about… ki seitzei, going out to war. In this case, against myself. And although I’ve won many battles, the war continues on. But this month is Elul, and that makes the struggle completely different. Ki seitzei is always read in Elul, a time for teshuvah, a time for return. It’s time to win the battle and go back to what’s important.
And so, I’ll close with a blessing… may we all continue to live “ki seitzei.” May we constantly go out from our comfort zones; l’milchama – to go to war; al oyvecha – over our enemies, the yetzer hora and material desires; un’sano Hashem Elokecha B’Yadecha – we should always be able to realize that Hashem is on our side and that He will help us win these battles. And let us right now shavisa shivyoi – capture the captives of the yetzer hora, and let us recapture our souls and our very lives. May the beautiful spark that has been trapped inside each of us take this month of Elul to weep in Teshuvah, for a full month, as the parshah says. And through this battle and rebellion, let us be truly victorious over our enemies, and may this victory bring us to the beginning of next week’s parshah, where it says “v’haya ki savo el haaretz asher Hashem Elokecha noisen lecha” “And it will be that you will enter the land which G-d, your Lord, has given to you.” May we enter the Land of Israel together for the final time in the ultimate rebellion against the status quo, with the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days. Amen.