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A Tutor's Suggestions for Maintaining Your Sanity While Studying in a Baal Teshuva Yeshiva
By: Friedman the Tutor
These suggestions are not requirements. They are friendly hints about wellknown, frequently-tripped-over obstacles which litter the road ahead of you. Forewarned is forearmed. May you have an enjoyable and satisfying journey.
If you take on too much, too quickly, you can cause an inner backlash. You could wake up one day sick of Torah, sick of yourself, or just physically sick. Or all three.
Find a Mentor
One human connection is worth more than ten perfect institutions. Torah is inherited through personal relationships more than class curriculum. You’ll need your yeshiva classes to provide a balanced range of information, but the melody behind all those details comes through human bonding. Look for a teacher who has what you want, or whose teaching is inspiring or, in an intuitive sense, familiar. If you find more than one person, use them all, but find at least one mentor. Then be brave and ask for times to talk and invitations for Shabbos.
Don’t Abandon Your Old Identity
Don’t get so excited over your new script that you destroy all your old props and scenery. Don’t suddenly give away your old books or throw out your favorite music. (Please use earphones if you live with others.) Keep contact with your old friends. Continue to use your own name. Don’t hurry to declare that you are too religious now for your library, your family, your profession, your artistic life, or your old hobbies. Such radical changes will only become appropriate for you to consider several years down the line. Racing into those decisions now won’t help you purify your soul more quickly. Instead, such changes could unravel you by removing all your familiar coordinates. Amputating your past undermines your creativity and authenticity. It could leave you spiritually limp instead of spiritually more vigorous. It’s great that you want to explore who you might become, but don’t do it by losing touch with who you are.
” (Gittin 43a) Some of us were trained by our families or our universities to get it right instead of getting it wrong. and all your creative work. Being A Guest You would have to make Shabbos for a family to believe how much work it is. expertise. one of those families could become your supportive refuge. Bring a gift. One painter used to tell his beginning drawing classes. If all goes well. You’re still the same adult with the same intelligence and accomplishments you had before. but that approach to learning prevents any deep understanding. Keep this in mind when you go to someone’s house for Shabbos. The second grader down the block knows more Hebrew and Torah than you. You could put the list in your notebook among all those other lists of what you don’t know yet. your cheering team. grades. I promise you that if you continue struggling with these impenetrable texts. Try to remember that you could talk most of your teachers under the table in your own area of expertise. cooking.” If you aim to become wise in Torah someday. Look at it whenever you’ve misplaced your adulthood. eventually you will understand them. all the classes you taught. you had a certain amount of self-confidence. Meanwhile. Every hour you make between five and sixty mistakes. Every week you discover yet another subject about which you know nothing whatsoever. leadership roles. etc. getting everyone bathed and dressed. Honor All Your Failures “A person cannot stand in words of Torah until he has stumbled in them. Now you are back to square one. salaries. and a place to give caring. That’s one of the most difficult parts of being a beginner. Make Friends with Families Torah is essentially a human endeavor. This may be the most powerful single move you can make to integrate your spirituality into “real life”. Consider making a list of your achievements and skills to help you keep perspective. you can see how people live Torah. keeping the kids from tearing the house or eachother apart. If you’re short of funds. rather than how they talk Torah.Take Your Inadequacy Lightly Six months ago. Your failures bring depth and grace to your knowledge. not an academic one. one basic secret is to fail frequently. so you might as well start making some of those mistakes immediately. “You will have to make at least 5000 mistakes in drawing in order to learn how to draw well. skill. cleaning. In a family home. all the articles you wrote. You can’t avoid it. Include all the pots you threw at the wheel. and accomplishment. you . But don’t let it redefine how you see yourself. You might mention awards. Shopping. You fill your notebooks with information that you repeatedly forget. you feel both stupid and ignorant.
continuing to learn. Or go swimming sometimes. Please don’t correct the Halacha of your hosts. to become the school expert in checking bugs in vegetables. “The women help clean the table. The men are oblivious. There is also the practical realignment of a thousand details in your daily life. etc. to dress and speak like a tenth-generation Ben or Bat Torah. Above all. cranky. It can balance your appetite and keep your body in shape. If you are depressed.) Regular exercise is not Bittul Torah (a waste of Torah study time). This pacing varies from person to person. (See Three Favorite Halachic Follies #3). They take the kids to the park. One family I know still has a papercut from a guest who came eight years ago. Help with the serving and cleaning up. dressing more or less modestly. Consider balancing your week (as much as you can) with exercise. Try walking to school. growing into Shabbos observance. As one householder explained. It’s also an effective way to prevent getting depressed. A possible suggestion: Women: just growing into kashrus. to study until midnight. Men. to be especially stringent about which kosher labels you accept. Say thank you. Go Slow There is the intellectual and emotional commitment to a life of Torah. growing into Shabbos observance. On the contrary. praying three times a day. it gives you more energy to learn. and daily learning may be more than enough for the first two years. I guess I’ll take a nap now. exercise will help you take your body along as you move forward in your spiritual and intellectual life. This applies especially to you. ‘Well. Your commitment may happen in months or even in an hour. to learn every Rashi in Tanach. Or join an exercise class. It’s not necessary to pressure yourself now to say all the prayers in the prayerbook. you have probably taken on too much too quickly. Men: Just growing into kashrus. It’s true that you should . take note. Try not to fulfill this stereotype. Pay attention to the children. to say psalms every day.’ ”. Try not to keep anyone up until 1 AM talking to you unless you are 100% positive the other person is as eager to talk late into the night as you are. or just unbelievably unenthusiastic. They do dishes. It reminds you that you are more than a floating head. you have gone forward too fast. When they finish benching. or anxious about your religious life. The nitty-gritty rearrangements of how you live should be grown into gradually over several years. putting on tefillin. and finding your way around the prayers may be more than enough the first two years. etc. they’ll yawn and say.can make something or come early and share in preparations. If mitzvot are becoming a guilty burden. It is enough to know you are heading towards total observance. Don’t lose sight of your goal. but pace yourself as you travel towards it. not just the parents. Exercise Yeshiva schedules keep you bent over books for many long hours. (Be forewarned that swimming in Israel is expensive.
Please don’t try to untangle all your knots on your own. a diary could help you clarify your worries and other discomforts. etc. though. Can you rough it without heat? I would like to add: ·What is the pressure level? Does anyone threaten that you will be spiritually harmed by learning anywhere else or associating with people outside that particular yeshiva’s community? ·Will there be members of the staff who are concerned with your personal development. no matter what the answer is to the other questions. a journal will make great reading five years from now. Ideally. but it will end up noisy and distracting.eventually create as rich a religious life for yourself as you can. Otherwise. honestly. a teacher from where you were before. that’s the right place. you can find somebody outside the school to complain to: a relative. You’ll enjoy remembering the friendships and pleasures of your time here. . Sometimes the clarity alone will solve your problem. Also. ·Do you feel in sync with the students? ·Do you feel in sync with some of the teachers? ·What are the students like who learned there a few years ago? Is that something you would feel comfortable becoming? ·How will you feel. even if you end up selling computers in Samoa. you may want to find another advisor. The Yeshiva Search There is no perfect yeshiva out there. Anywhere. or you leave the conversation more miserable than before you started talking. but in six months you’ll be painfully bored. but DON’T take it on all in one year. a teacher from an outside class. If the person suggests you double your mitzvot and learning. Maybe the center of the city is exciting. living in that environment and that neighborhood? Maybe the quiet country is nice. Consider Keeping a Diary Studies have shown that students who keep a journal catch fewer colds and flus. or will you slip through the cracks? ·Is there a teacher you could happily apprentice yourself to for years? If there is. Meanwhile. Teachers love to feel needed. these are some useful questions that one student suggested using to find a place that more or less works for you. this should be a person who is religious and can see where your situation pinches. If every single staff member looks unapproachable. Primarily. you’ll at least have a sense of how to explain what you are struggling with… which brings me to: Consider Using the Staff When You Are Upset About Something Please don’t feel shy.
a student three years ahead of you does not qualify as an expert scholar. 2. or a cultural norm. a few of your favorite stringencies could be old wives’ tales or even complete misunderstandings. or downright immature ideas. anti-spiritual.) Believe me. Even if you have all the necessary facts. Three Favorite Halachic Follies I read an article written by a journalist traveling on the back roads of Central Africa. involves a whole set of complex halachic requirements. if you start telling people what to do.” answered the cafe owner. politically backwards. Learning the correct label for each practice is the first step towards knowing what to do in each situation. “How do you know which pills to take for which illnesses?” asked the journalist. The Torah is from G-d. m’doraisa and m’drabbanan. environmentally unsound. illegal. halacha and kula. A cafe owner at a truck stop was showing off a shelf of medications he had salvaged from a clinic which closed down. So ask an expert scholar before you throw up your hands and flee. a minority approach. The labels were in European languages. correcting others. You are also supposed to correct with subtlety and artistic diplomacy. don’t allow it to chase you away from Torah. like keeping kosher. . especially for a baal teshuva who hasn’t grown up with them. (By the way. illogical. unscientific. You will only exhaust yourself if you try to resolve all your quandaries and paradoxes before your next birthday.” 1. Also. Please don’t proffer your assessments of other people’s halachic requirements. You could easily be wrong. Don’t prescribe without a license. 3. many of those statements will actually be personal opinion. G-d cares about how you act. sexist. rather than an essential Torah perspective. halacha and chumra. 2. Sometimes stringencies can be undesirable or even injurious. 3. ten years from now you will cringe with embarrassment when you remember what you said.Work With What You Like and Leave The Rest in The Pending File If you hear something that outrages you. You don’t have to let go of those parts of Torah that attract you just because other parts of the picture offend you. And I guarantee you will hear statements that will drive you to despair: racist. Luckily. “They’re all the same. Rabbi Yosef Albo (early 15th century) counted only three root principles you must believe to be a Jew: 1. (Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah said this art has been lost entirely. They’re not all the same: Learn the difference between halacha and minhag. Meanwhile. A higher dosage isn’t always better. hearsay.) One option is to just let some of those problems sit for awhile. You could put your “patient” off Torah. G-d exists. “Oh it doesn’t matter.
you shouldn’t travel from New York to Seattle by 747. (This also applies to completely observant Jews who think they have been maintaining the same position for years. if you are still doing a bit of shoplifting on the side. 2. right down to an article in last week’s Jewish Press. But you won’t change very much if your only ambition is a walk from 16th Street to 24th Street. or your relationship to yourself. You are losing vitality. speed and efficiency are counterproductive. not because G-d is trying to talk to you in coded signals. attentive enjoyment. your relationship to other people. You CAN begin with one paragraph of the grace after meals instead of five pages. Or every two months. then you are not on a spiritual journey. go to a lecture by a teacher you never heard before. There are subtle nuances in the layers of Oral Tradition. Or spend five minutes every day thinking deeply about a problem in your community. Sinai. Your sandwich probably fell to the floor because you dropped it. If you forgot to write to your aunt. But Have An Inspiring Destination When you are on a spiritual journey. if you can’t translate one sentence of a Hebrew prayerbook. It could be your own absentmindedness.You do not have to believe that everything. Looking for private. Try working on ONE personality flaw this year. Or say something encouraging or sincerely complimentary to three different people each day. was given to Moshe on Mt. If. not just changing the traveler’s location. you are still wondering whether to eat cheeseburgers. Stretch your relationship to G-d. Increase quality rather than quantity. You ARE allowed to pray in English.) Reach for something. Go Slow Here’s the good news. because the real point of the journey is changing the traveler. A measured amount of challenge will add joy to your religious life. Metaphorically. step by step. . You should walk the whole way. You need to direct yourself towards some meaningful dream that takes a long time to accomplish.Two Favorite Philosophical Blunders 1. Go and learn them. it’s not necessarily because of G-d’s intervention. For instance. after years and years of hanging around Torah. If you aren’t growing a little. There’s no such thing as standing in one place in spirituality. What’s worse is that it could be a blunder into schizophrenic thinking. cryptic messages from G-d is not a reliable key for navigating the world. If you want more intensity you might consider picking ONE mitzvah you particularly like and start doing it with more and more slow. study a commentary you never paid attention to before. Some of the Oral Torah is human application of G-d’s revelation. You are on an amble around the block. you are sliding backwards.Not everything that happens to everyone has been preordained in G-d’s plan.
Play It’s very intense here. you can start to think. It keeps you from forgetting what you managed to achieve. “You need to know what you look like to the world. This keeps the frustrations from hogging the stage. Or go for coffee with a friend. You can write this in your journal. too. Finally. you could put the list in your journal. your siblings. and everyone else in your vicinity to be better Jews. Keep A Credit List This is a daily list of ten things you accomplished or learned during the day. don’t give your friends halachic advice. Keep A Gratitude List This is another daily list which can change your whole mood. Give yourself a few years to discover what you don’t know before you make yourself the local expert. . don’t try to convince your parents. Or go to a museum. Or spend time playing your own musical instrument. It really makes a difference. Jewish law and spiritual advice are both very subtle. and you need to know what the world looks like. “I didn’t do anything! I wasted the day/the month/my life!” If this idea sounds good to you.” Please Do All Your Dishes and Put Away All The Books You Use It’s easier on the eye to have a neat room. complex fields. if you leave your stuff around. Or go listen to some live music. Find a way to decompress once in a while. Also. your mailman.Have Daily Access to A Mirror and Radio or Newspaper I cribbed this from a Hassidic rebbe who gave these instructions to the dormitories of the men’s and women’s yeshivas in his community. and they’ll have less time to run the school. Also. then staff will have to spend more time nagging you or cleaning up after you. the deliberate creation of a moderate amount of order in your environment can induce a certain parallel emotional harmony and intellectual order. Write ten things you are grateful for. Or play games. You might include occasions when other people have helped you. Forget About Being a Rav or Spiritual Advisor for At Least Five Years Again. He explained. You could go on a walking tour. Otherwise. It could help you keep perspective if you take time to lighten up. Or hang out at a library and read magazines.
You might cook yourself a real meal sometimes. Be Careful About Meals (This is especially true for women. Your connection with Gd will grow deepest when you take your Torah plain. weight panics. You’ll discover every variety of horrendous human behavior somewhere in the frum world. You wouldn’t drop out of med school if you found out that too many doctors are egoists. and a simple life of normal mitzvot. . Go Slow A stitch in time saves nine. and you’ll find a few ordinary flaws in everyone. extraordinary measures for your next decade. that’s an extra flourish and not yet for you. If you feel pressured and exhausted. an average knowledge of Torah. or an Angel for At Least Ten Years It is more than enough to create an ordinary working relationship with G-d. Torah is only a guideline. let yourself take half a day off. Eat breakfast. I regretfully inform you that they exist. You won’t get perfection or utopia anywhere. There is an Overeaters Anonymous in Jerusalem. and some counselors who specialize in food issues. A Tzaddik. even though Yeshiva food isn’t ideal—. Use the same amount of wariness you would with any other human being. “The righteous should…” or “A Talmid Chocham must…” or “Hassidim will…”.to say the least. please don’t automatically place your complete trust in everyone sporting a religious wardrobe or a pious vocabulary. Please be careful. Corollary #1: When you do business or go on a shidduch. You won’t even get spirituality and common decency every single place you will find a mezuzah. Kabbalistic flavorings and devotional flourishes. Consider finding another way to let off steam besides raiding the bakery. even anorexia and bulimia. The more theatrical your austerities and embellishments are.Forget About Becoming A Saint. the more likely they are to obscure your understanding of holiness rather than enhance it. Don’t Expect Frum People to Be Angels Either You wouldn’t stop reading poetry because half of your favorite poets were alcoholics. Better a day of vacation now than nine days sick in bed two weeks down the line. Try to eat as healthily as you can. without obscure. It’s not an all-powerful. So don’t abandon Yiddishkeit when you meet frum (orthodox) creeps. Save the dramatic. fully guaranteed bleach. Yes.) Yeshivas are notorious for sparking off old (or new) food problems: weight gain. If the Shulchan Aruch (or the Zohar) says.
The truth is not that extreme. Most of the Gemara is questions. or whenever you can. but you should find your community through choice. which has the best food in the world.Commitment to Torah Is Not An Address The land of Israel and the law of Israel are intertwined but not identical. and even fiftiethtime-around-but-I-forgot-the-answer questions. “When you travel to Paris. The only stupid question is. other people’s rhythms. Stay an individual. and other people’s reactions. This is not a nice theory about Ethiopians or Jews in Texas. Check out the places where the events of Chumash. He isn’t interested in a relationship with a good Jewish xerox. and mitzvah giants of our own generation. not fear. but a practical attitude you should have . his unique piece of G-d’s revelation. “Should I keep my mouth shut instead of asking this?” You may need to wait until the end of a class to ask about something somewhat off the subject. But don’t forget to ask it. Ask Questions Learning Torah depends on questions. Find a way to be by yourself sometimes. Go visit the great ravs. You can’t do that back in Seattle.” Spend Time Alone Dormitories and yeshivas leave you no time and space away from other people’s issues. Keeping in touch with your own individual rhythm is the foundation for developing your personal path in Torah. in early morning. trivial ones. Navi. One teacher put it like this. painful ones. but it offers abundant luxuries in the realm of holiness. Tell them not to pressure you. Israel is holy. you don’t waste your time eating hamburgers and french fries. Exploit Your Local Resources Israel may have some austere living conditions. Respect Your Fellow Students “My classmate is holding me back in my learning!” Probably not. People you meet may insist that leaving Israel is a desecration of Torah. Each Jew carries his own letter of the Torah in his soul. Hang out for awhile at the synagogues and graves of the greatest people of Jewish history and absorb the atmosphere there. Go to the Kotel at night. and the Mishna unfolded. mystics. or that the materialism of religious communities overseas will dissolve your spiritual ideals on contact. Meanwhile. That’s how you learn. G-d went to a lot of trouble to create you that way. You can ask hard questions. and love of Jews are all interdependent. love of Torah. Most of the great commentators were considered great because they could ask great questions. We must have everybody’s piece of the puzzle to get the whole picture. Indulge yourself as much as possible. you are in Israel now. Love of G-d.
around that torah which your parents either actively rejected or relegated to a distant corner. Good education thrives on feedback.” (If. On the other hand. developing patience for each other’s personality difficulties is a direct path to fixing your own personality flaws. Here are a few possible ways to ease the transition for your parents: ·Write home frequently ·Tell them “I love you” more often than usual ·Tell them in detail what you appreciate about who they are and what they have taught you ·Talk about “normal” non-threatening subjects like friends. Rejecting food is like rejecting love. Ditto Father’s Day. interrogations. or to reconstruct your parents. Listen to their concern as patiently as you can. and patience. Your fellow students are just as vital to your education as the books and the teachers. put Mother’s Day on your calendar and in your datebook. G-d forbid. Before you go home. They may suspect you were sucked into a cult. and fearfully anxious about your welfare. The less you know. make a point to find out all you can about how lenient you can be about halacha in your parents’ home. they may feel massively challenged. •If you’re from the USA. There will be absolutely no mention of the date anywhere in Israel. But it doesn’t tell you to be angry or self-righteous about it. confront. or any other problems come up. the family war machine will roll right into the arena of Torah given . Also. They may totally support your choice. Also.towards both good friends and annoying nincompoops sitting in the room with you. the more likely it is that you will create a crisis about a “requirement” that isn’t really a requirement at all. condemn. etc. or dire predictions. weather. your family is especially dysfunctional. All of this negativity intensifies when halacha enters the picture. It’s very hard for a mother to hear that her child won’t eat her cooking. Try to remember the fifth commandment is not to convince. Talk about good or funny times you’ve had together as a family. It is simply to honor them. “Well. mention it to the teacher. If a class is continually being drawn off course. or even your life. try not to panic over their panic. Torah requires you to resist your parents if they want you to do something against halacha. attention. “What do you mean you can’t eat this? Isn’t cheese kosher?” or “You can’t even hug them hello? They knew you before you were born!” If your parents surprise you with antagonism. I can’t do that anymore. Please give each one respect. Reassure them how much you appreciate being with them every time you say. Be especially tactful about food issues. You’ll forget all about it until your mother asks why you ignored it. places that you visited. Reassure Your Parents You are now centering your year. try not to bite back. emotionally rejected. convert.
how was your plane trip?” Keep off the debating team as much as you can. Listen to Your Friends There is a lot of enthusiasm for the laws of lashon hara (gossip) in the Jewish community right now. or other stress-related diseases they never knew existed ·Gained 50 pounds in 3 months · Got Depressed (most frequent possibility) ·The worst possibility: Seemed to be doing hunky-dory. Go Slow “Oh. By the way.g.” It could also be said to the tune of “My involvement with X hurts. I can handle it. colitis. e. But before you tell a friend who is saying something unseemly that you don’t participate in lashon hara. and now you really picked a stupid thing to do!” Wisely Self-Protective Student: “I can see why you would say that. You are listening to a subjective distortion rather than objective facts. eating disorders. obsessions. So avoid the subject with any destructive family members. ·Developed a desire to have an affair with the most low-life Israeli they could find south of Lebanon… someone they would have kept miles clear of back in America ·Began to endlessly instruct all the other students about how they should do more or more perfect mitzvot ·Developed allergies. and ten years down the line had a close approximation to a nervous breakdown. They were model students.the slightest opportunity. For good reason. phobias. I personally have known people who: ·Stayed in bed for four weeks and cried most of the time. I’m doing just fine. had a house full of wonderful kids. and I need someone to listen to me and help me talk it through. no one can deal with him” could be said to the tune of “Let’s you and me be friends and say snide things about X. “But this isn’t me! How did I get into this situation?!” They ended up wrecking other people’s lives while they went off to become award-winning singers or Wall Street wonders.” You are allowed to listen to tale-bearing comments if the speaker needs to ease his agitation (Hilchot Lashon Hara Rule 6:4) Halacha only asks you to keep in mind that upset people are not objective. got married to a great religious spouse.” People have said that before.: Problematic Relative: “You were always stupid. please listen carefully to the tone under the words “X is such an egoist. . pains. Please spare yourself and everyone else and go slowly. Avoiding negative comments radically increases our mutual respect and community unity. This will cause you agony and also affect your feelings about Torah.
Many people have been trapped in silence with confusion. It won’t fall down. G-d is present in every sentence of every chapter. You won’t ever know everything either. Go Slow There’s an aggada that even Moses didn’t know everything that was put in his Torah (Menachot 29b). and even abusive marriages because they were afraid to “say lashon hara” about a serious problem.You could save a friendship by allowing someone room to speak. not just at the end of the book. Budding comedians: Always bear in mind the difference between cynical ridicule (trouble) and friendly ridiculousness (wonderful). Give attention rather than correction. So it’s much more useful to enjoy each day’s learning than it is to panic over getting “there” fast enough. You could even save a life. Keep Your Sense of Humor You can tell jokes about your situation or about the school. You can even tell jokes about the Torah. There’s no “there”. Begin with the assumption that anyone complaining to you privately (or in a small group) needs to talk. depression. toxic interactions. Be especially careful about this distinction if you are creating a Purim spiel. or you will spend the next morning wiping up spilled tears instead of spilled wine. .
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