This promises to be an exciting week. There are two weddings coming up in Neve. Bnos Avigail is ending for the year next week, so this week the girls are re-learning, and (hopefully) integrating everything that they learned. This set me thinking about how often I do the same. Life flows so quickly, that it’s hard to stop and think, and even harder to integrate what you already know.
This Friday I felt I was crossing the Sambatyon River where the Ten Lost Tribes are said to be. I was visiting my relatives on a Yishuv over the Green Line, high in the Shomron, where you can see almost all of Eretz Yisrael from the hilltops. It’s a different country. The villages are tiny, the Shabbos clothes are lighter in shade. And yes, a shaitel beautician would not be able to make a living in an area where virtually all of the women wear artfully draped head wraps. It set me to thinking about what a miracle it is that we are so unified and so fragmented at the same time. My musings took me to the story of the nazir.
A nazir is a person who makes a vow to refrain from wine and all grape products, who may not cut his (or her) hair, and who has to refrain from any contact with the dead, which would render him ritually impure.
Why would anyone in their right mind make this kind of a vow? Isn’t it hard enough to keep the Torah without adding anything extra? Isn’t it arrogant to add on to a G-d given document? These are questions that the Rambam asks, and his conclusion is that it is wrong to deny yourself what the Torah permits. There are of course exceptions.
Have you ever tried dieting? I am an expert one-day dieter. It has two forms. One is “One day I will diet” and the other is starting a diet that lasts only one day…. If you have ever tried this, then you know that habit can be so strong that you confuse what you do with who you are.
Recently there have been numerous studies that question the well documented fact that most diets work temporarily. The pat response is, “diets don’t work. Change your lifestyle”. This is no doubt true, but what it has lead to for the most part is advertising “lifestyle changes” that are the same old diets re-served and re-branded. Eat more vegees. Exercise. No more white sugar. How novel. The more serious researchers have discovered that dieting leaves you feeling deprived, which subconsciously causes you to associate everything that is a “no no” with self-love and self-nurture. That leads to not only abandoning the diet but eating more of the “forbidden” foods in order to demonstrate that you really care about yourself. None of this is conscious. The source of the problem is that the word “you” is stuck in the mud. Whoever you are today is “you”. It’s hard to let go of that “you” and discover that it wasn’t “you” at all, just the garments that the real “you” are wearing.
The various 12 step programs, all of which have a much better success rate than ordinary dieting or abstinence, often get people past addictions. Before anything else, is the most crucial step of all. It is recognizing that you don’t have enough strength to overcome “you” (or at least the behavior that is disguising itself as “you”). You can overcome someone else, but not “you”. This requires that you turn your battle over to Hashem.
Yes, you have to do everything possible to win. No. You won’t on your own. What replaces the sense of self-love or self-nurture that the addiction gave is the sense of self worth that comes as a result of self-conquest.
Yes, it’s possible to win. No. You won’t on your own.
In this past week’s parshah, you have the situation of a Nazir. He is trying his best to change himself by denying himself wine, which puts your mind to sleep which is the cause of so much tragic loss of the real self. He also moves beyond physical vanity by letting his hair grow uncombed, and beyond contact with everything that blocks your heart from realization that Hashem is the G-d of life. He isn’t trying to do it on his own, by his own rules.
What happens if suddenly someone dies near him. He has become tamei, ritually impure. Can you imagine how it was for the nazir at that time? It was probably a very devastating moment. What does he do? He has to conclude all of the rituals, and then start again!
What does this tell you? It tells you to keep trying despite all of your failures. Pirkei Avos tells us (2:4) don’t believe in yourself until the day you die. The Bartenura (and of the most popular commentaries on Mishneh) tells us that “Yochanan was a righteous kohen gadol for 80 years, and in the end, he became a heretic (Sadducee, one who doesn’t believe in the Oral Law). This means that no one’s future is guaranteed.
The Rebbe of Kotzk said that we should learn from this that no one should lose hope of improving his ways. If even a tzaddik might change and become a rashah (an evil person), how much more so a rasha can change and become a Tzadik.”. The Tanna DVei Eliahu (Rabba 22:7) says, “Even if a person did a hundred sins, one worse than the next, but does tshuvah, I will deal compassionately with him and I will accept his tshuvah. And even if a person will stand up and speak brazenly against Hashem and does tshuvah, The Holy One will forgive him for everything”.
Why does this remind me of my trip to the Shomron? On some level no matter how fragmented we are as a people, there is something that unites us. It seems to me that what holds us together is that the “you” we all have wants the same thing. We want to do what is right, what draws us closer to Hashem. What makes us better people, and the world a better place. On His terms. Yes, we are different, but still very much the same. This is why a Neve wedding (which you will hear about next letter BH) and a graduation of new young women facing the world with so much is relevant to you.
And to me
And to all of us.
P.S. Please daven for Faiga Leah bas Malka Shifra, one of our Oldees but Goodies who is waiting for test results.