I begin this letter with mixed feelings. On one hand, I am not sure how much to share with you, and on the other hand, I like you far too much to keep much back.
I received a wedding gift today, one that put any other gift we received in the shade.
It is a check for $9. It was sent from a man who began corresponding with me years ago. He reads Hamodia, and likes the Torah articles. He had a question and a comment on an article I wrote, and we have been corresponding since. He is a prisoner in a federal facility.
In the course of the time he has been incarcerated he has developed himself spiritually in ways that we can all envy (or at least admire). Keeping kosher, studying Torah and most of all not being destroyed by an environment that tells you hundreds of times a day that you are unworthy in every possible way, is a great feat. Many people have been reduced to emotional and spiritual pulp in situations that are far less overwhelmingly negative. On one of my trips to the States, I travelled out to his “home” a medium security jail, together with another woman. Our aim was to meet him, and give him something small. In order to arrange our visit, we registered, arrived at the right time, and then sat through an indeterminant amount of time while all of the prisoners were counted before they could enter the large public room where visitations take place. The vast majority of visitors were women whose faces told me that they are mothers and wives. In the short time we spent with him, we got a feel for what it means to never have warm food, because if it koshers it’s cold. Never turning your back on your”friends”. There were some rays of light in the darkness. One was having visits from an unbelievable group of frum men who come out on a regular basis to learn with and to bring chizuk to someone who was once just a stranger to them. I didn’t notice any others.
The $9 is more than he earns in a week doing the kind of work available in the lock-up. It means real sacrifice of small things that help make life bearable.
I made a decision on the outset not to ask questions about his pre-prison life. It would be intrusive, and in a certain sense voyeuristic. In the note he sent with the check, he expressed regret that he couldn’t attend my wedding personally. “I won’t be here forever” he wrote. I hope the day will come when my husband and I can have him over for a Shabbos in our home.
Why was I reluctant to write this? I like to write about either the parshah, or what is going on in your lives or in mine. His story is not one that will resonate to you, at least not on the surface. You don’t live his life, nor do you know what getting up in his cell feels like. When I thought about it more, I changed my mind. It occurred to me that in some regards we are all imprisoned. Some of us have addictive behaviors, others are locked into families that are so hard to navigate that your love for them and your belief in yourself can barely coexist. Almost all of us are locked into self imposed traps where the person you want to be and the person you are barely on speaking terms. The good news, is that you can be like my acquaintance, Mr. G., who is free in the deepest sense of the word. His trick (from the outside) is that he has realistic aspirations and knows what steps he can take to make them actually happen.
The reason that I decided to write it anyway isn’t just because of the message of dignity and hope that came with the $9. It’s because it is actually related to one of this week’s Parshah’s most moving questions; What does Hashem want of you? You may have tied yourself down to one of the answers that work for most people . He wants you to do all the mitzvos. But not only that . You have to get your kids into the best schools. Make a great shidduch. See that the couple can get by in the beginning at least. You want to marry (or stay married), raise perfect kids (have you met one lately?), have a rewarding career (In every sense of the word rewarding). The proof that these are popular goals is that this is where the majority of people invest not only their time, but their hearts and souls. The Torah tells you that all that Hashem wants of you is to fear Him.
Fearing Hashem isn’t the same thing as dreading punishment. That has nothing to do with Hashem; it’s about fear of suffering. Your first step in learning fear of Hashem means taking in some of the wonder and enormity of His creativity and power. The next step is to envision yourself working in the perfect job, one that you have dreamed of forever. Your employer is brilliant, generous, and has told you that your work is more than good-it’s great. If you were given an assignment you would relate to it seriously. If you see the deadline approaching, you might begin to feel some anxiety. Is it because you think that the boss will slap you? Hit you? Hold a staff meeting in order to humiliate you? Of course not. Your anxiety is born fear of losing his respect, admiration, and possibly your position. Along the same lines, realize that Hashem has given you an assignment that only you can do. You don’t want to lose the bone that you are building as you do this assignment.
The sages play on the word mah, which means “What”? They point out that it is very similar to the word “meah” which means a hundred. “What does Hashem want of you? “ they ask enigmatically, “To say 100 blessings a day”, which plays out by your seeing everything that you eat, see, touch or experience has being a gift from Hashem, for which you can/should bless Him. This means that you are on assignment, your job is to find Hashem in the world regardless of your situation, and to become His servant. Mr. G. is on assignment.
He is on assignment. He has no complaints to The Boss. He does his job as best he can.
So are you
On assignment with the knowledge
Of the dazzling
Place that your heart becomes as you go on one step
At a time.