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