I was young (younger?), single, living here in Baltimore. I was expected to start dating like many of my friends. It was assumed that I would continue studying at Ner Israel and start taking night classes at the master’s program I was accepted to at Johns Hopkins. But I couldn’t.
I had an itch, a bug, something that was compelling me to put it all on pause. It was something that I could not quite articulate, but I knew, I just knew, that I had to head back to Israel. And so I did.
I had previously studied in Israel in a Hesder Yeshivah known as Kerem B’Yavneh. The Yeshiva is a few feet away from Kibbutz Yavneh. Aside from the terrible stench from the cows and chickens, it was the most idyllic place on earth. Away from the hustle and bustle of Israel’s major cities, this farmland-turned-yeshiva was the perfect place for a post-High School teenager to study Torah and grow spiritually without any distractions.
This time, I decided to study in the center of Jerusalem. Not just in the center of Jerusalem, but in the largest yeshiva in the world with approximately 9,000 students, the Mir Yeshiva.
Allow me to take you on a little journey into a day of my life during that special year.
The apartment I lived in, if you could even call it that, was what we call a hole in the wall. You had to walk up three flights on a rickety staircase over a courtyard that looked like it was bombed out by the Jordanians. The apartment itself had two bedrooms packed with 10 beds. There was a narrow hallway to a single bathroom, which also doubled as a kitchen. The bathroom, an add-on structure to the original building, was encased in aluminum siding, which was frigid in the winter and deathly hot in the summer. The bed I slept on was cracked in the middle. I knew this because my mattress was so thin, I could feel every time another piece of wood snapped away.
And I loved it. I absolutely loved it. Those ten months were the best ten months of my life.
I’d wake up in the morning to the sound of a rooster. That’s right, one of our neighbors had a rooster that crowed out at the crack of dawn. I’d jump out of bed, make my way around the block to this huge complex known as the shtieblich. If you think Rabbi Eichenstein’s shul is a minyan-factory, you haven’t seen anything. (Thank G-d, almost no one drives in Meah Shearim, so there were no parking issues!) The shtieblich had more rooms than I could count and every fifteen minutes a new minyan would start. The amazing thing was that despite us calling it a minyan factory, which gives us the impression of people standing at an assembly line praying, the people there really davened. No one talked. No one seemed to be daydreaming. At least that’s the way I remember it. There was a palpable energy in the room, as people started their day, thanking G-d for the good in their lives, begging Him for help, for health, and just connecting with their Creator.
I finished praying and ran over to the Mir Yeshiva’s cafeteria. In the Mir, there were set seats in the dining hall. I sat with a group of Yiddish speaking chassidim. I am not a chassid and I don’t speak any Yiddish. I sat there deliberately. My goal that year was to be laser focused on spiritual growth, and I wanted to eat without any distractions. I sat down at this table every day, I nodded at the chassidim, they nodded at me, and they’d continue their conversation in fast-paced Yiddish, while I quickly ate my meals.
Now I have no good way of describing to you what comes next. With the exception of quick meals and Mincha and Maariv, I’d spend the next 15 hours immersed in Torah study. If you haven’t experienced it, you can understand what I mean intellectually, but it was so much more than an intellectual experience.
Imagine for a moment – a thousand students, crammed into a study hall. A thousand students! Now imagine those students studying in pairs of two – at full volume! But when you walk in the room, you don’t see pairs of two. You see and you feel a mass of people swaying, singing, arguing, as one. I’ve been to Ravens games, I’ve been to hockey games, I am telling you the energy does not come close. People are not on their phones, no one seems to be distracted, it is 1000% immersion into the holy texts of our tradition. It’s like a roaring wave and it just pulls you in.
I sit down next to my study partner, and we start to read the text. We open commentaries, we debate the finer points of what they’re saying; we become one with this mass of people and one with the text. Before I know it, the first study session has gone by. We have not moved from our seats for the last three hours.
The Rosh Yeshiva, the dean, enters the room. The people by the door notice his entrance and immediately rise, the people in the next rows follow suit, and like the wave at a ball game, all one thousand people in the room jump to their feet. The study hall is perfectly silent, you can hear a pin drop, as the Rosh Yeshiva makes his way to the podium to deliver a lecture.
The Rosh Yeshiva at this time was a man by the name of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. He grew up in Chicago, he went to Ida Crown Jewish Academy, a modern Orthodox school in Skokie, Illinois, and even played on their basketball team. He was 62 at the time I met him. He looked like he was 85. And that’s because he had advanced Parkinson’s. He would shake violently due to his illness, and it was clearly very taxing on his frail body.
Despite the fact that he spent a good part of his day lying down due to his illness, and despite the fact that it was sometimes hard to hear what he had to say, a few things shined through brilliantly; his love for people – he had a smile that could light up the world. He made time for anyone who wanted his attention. And he was a paragon of good middos. A friend of mine once watched him, after a ten-minute laborious walk down his block with the assistance of two aides, turn around, go back home, because he realized he had forgotten to say goodbye to his beloved wife before leaving their home.
The other thing that shined through was his love for Torah. He sat down in the front of the room with two microphones on either side of him – so that even when he moved, the microphone would catch his words, and he immediately jumped into a deep discourse on the page of Talmud that we were studying. I remember one time, as the lecture carried on, I sensed that his voice was getting weaker and weaker. And then it just stopped. He literally taught until he had no energy left to speak.
He was our hero. We emulated him in our behavior, our attempt at kindness and personal growth. And we emulated him by studying until our bodies forced us to stop. And so late at night, we’d begrudgingly close our books only when we felt spent. We’d make our way back to our apartment, quickly change out of our clothes, and fall into a deep sleep, at times dreaming of the Talmudic dialogue that we just engaged in.
Every week, usually on Fridays, I would walk to the Kotel. I left the enclave of Meah Shearim and entered the Jerusalem that many of you are more familiar with. But despite the hustle and bustle that surrounded me, I was lost in my thoughts. That walk, to me, was symbolic of my entire year. It was like I was meditating on a mountaintop on my own, but I was also surrounded by a sea of the loudest and noisiest people on earth. It was the strangest mix of noise and silence I have ever experienced, and it was sublime.
Friday is usually a quiet day at the Kotel; everyone in Israel is running around getting ready for Shabbos. So I usually had a few feet of the wall to myself, to pray. To stand there, just a few feet from the Temple Mount and all of its history. To talk to G-d, b’himotzo, where He is found. To stand close to His presence. To caress the stones that millions of Jews caressed before me. To add my tears to the river of tears that were shed at this wall…
When people ask me what spirituality is, my mind immediately goes back to those months in Jerusalem. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. Maybe it wasn’t as long. Maybe it was a single event. Maybe it was spending some time in Israel. Maybe it was sitting in shul with a parent or a holiday meal with your grandparents. Maybe it was a time a Jewish melody touched your soul. Or really anything at all. Experiences of transcendence vary widely, but I imagine we all have a spiritual memory or a set of spiritual memories that reside in a special place in our heart. If you’ve chosen to live a Jewish life – whatever a Jewish life means to you, if you’re sitting here today, there is likely a memory, or a set of memories that are fueling your connection. Those moments in which you have this almost out-of-body experience, or maybe a sense of calm and being at peace. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?
They’re beautiful but thinking about them years later could also be depressing.
Because you see it’s only because we’ve tasted moments like these, that we now know how much we’re currently missing. It is only because our life was at one point so vibrant that we now feel such a void. The greater the previous high, the lower we now feel.
In the words of one contemporary poet, “The memory of that momentary blaze… can become a reproach to the fireless life in which you find yourself most of the time.” (Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss)
I now have five beautiful, rambunctious children vying for my attention. I have a family to support, a congregation to serve. I don’t even think I could concentrate for that many hours if I wanted to. I am not going back to Israel and living the life of a pseudo-ascetic. Those days, with all that powerful energy is behind me. And that makes me sad.
Studies have shown that our most memorable memories typically take place between the ages of 15 and 30. That’s because it’s during that time when we experience our first love, our first kiss, our independence, our first job, our first big decisions. As life goes on, things become more familiar and a little less memorable. So is that it? Is all the excitement of life behind us all? That feeling of energy, of flow, is it just a distant memory?
And if that is the case, if all we have is stability and that’s all we care for, if all we have is the same as yesterday, then, to put it in the bluntest fashion possible, what’s the point of living for tomorrow? Is that the goal? Is that our desire, to live in a perpetual repetitive, Groundhog’s Day loop, until one day we die?
I sure hope not. And I don’t think it has to be.
I’ve come to realize that those memories of my spiritual highs haunt me due to a fundamental mistake we all make about the process of teshuva. Teshuva, repentance, spiritual growth, the theme of these holy days, is normally seen as an exercise in retrospectivity. In the past I was good. I need to return, to get back there. Isn’t that what the word teshuva means, after all? To return? I look back to this past year, to think about the mistakes I’ve made, and to ask G-d for forgiveness. I asked him to erase all the mess I’ve made, to clean me up, so I go back to the innocent, uplifting, spiritual, and idealistic self that existed decades ago.
I am constantly looking back, but that is fundamentally wrong. Maybe wrong is too harsh of a word, but it is the most superficial level of teshuva.
Allow me to read to you the words of the Aish Kodesh, Rav Kolynomous Kalman Shapira, from a sermon he gave in the Kovno Ghetto in 1941. He is explaining the connection between the New Year, the anniversary of the creation of the world, and repentance. He writes:
“The time for teshuva is Rosh Hashana, the anniversary of the creation of the world. This is because teshuvah… is also a kind of creativity. The Hebrew word teshuvah means repentance and return. However, as a creative act, teshuvah is not a simple return. We return to what we are meant to be but have not yet become. We return to growth and possibility that has lain dormant within us and not yet flourished, much as a sculpture lies hidden within a brute block of stone.”
We are here today, and frankly, we are here every day of our lives, not to pine for the days of old, of what was, of who we once were. That is lifeless. We are here to look forward; to create something new. The new reality looks nothing like those memories of old because our new growth is a creative response to who we are today.
It may not feel as great as our feelings of the past – and that’s okay. That’s a function of our age, we need stability and form to our lives. But that does not in any way, preclude us from changing, from injecting new and fresh meaning into our lives.
In just a moment we will blow the shofar, the staccato of the teruah, the broken sound of the shevarim, each sandwiched within the uninterrupted tekiah. The shofar blow is a prayer, a primal scream of the soul. It is a prayer that begins and ends with stability, with the things, the good things, to remain the same, like the Tekiah – that straight, unbroken sound. But tucked within that prayer is an aspiration and a commitment. The broken, jarring sound of the shevarim-teruah cry out: “G-d we will shake things up, we will not be the same person this coming year. We will create! There will be disruption of the most beautiful kind, in my relationship to my family, in the development of my character, in the relationship to my faith, in my relationship to you, Hashem!”
Ladies and gentlemen, will we just resign ourselves to accept that the great spiritual highs of our lives are all behind us? Or that whatever remains will just come our way – on its own? I, for one, refuse to accept that. But that means that I must, we must, create something new.
I remember flying home from Israel after that whirlwind of spiritual highs. As the plane took off, I remember looking out the window and watching the land of Israel, the source of my powerful emotions, get smaller and smaller and smaller. Eventually, I stopped craning my neck and turned around. For the first time, I noticed my surroundings. There was an elderly man sitting next to me, who introduced himself and we started chatting. A stewardess came by to offer me my kosher meal, which I thanked her for. And a little boy in the seat in front of me, turned around to stare at me. I gave him a little wave. He laughed and waved back.
It was time to stop looking back. It was time to start planning for my next destination.
It’s time for all of us to start planning for that next destination.