Welcome to Elul. The cliché of the mussar Rebbeim that’s been drilled into the heads of anyone who’s ever attended a yeshiva. What’s that one thing we always hear that Elul is all about? Change. What a great thing. So what’s the deal with changing? We’re supposed to come out of a month, then a ten day period, then a grand finale of Yom Kippur completely different people. That’s the idea all of our Rabbis spend so much time shmoozing us out about. We can evangelicalize the situation and think that our Rabbis are all hopped up on crazy conman dreams of glory and money and “Healing this boys SOUL!!!!” and we can walk out of a shmooze thinking the fire and brimstone is a bunch of bull, telling ourselves that, “my rabbi doesn’t know me!” or “who does this guy think he is?” Besides the fact that (I cannot remember which sefer this is from) one itty bitty joke can always shoot down a powerful, moving mussar shmooze. Now, that is if it’s actually fire and brimstone, because I don’t think too many Rabbis in community shuls these days rub too hard on their constituents. Shteibels, definitely not; they’re lucky if they even have a rabbi. Meanwhile, 15 year olds in yeshivas who can’t even control their own hormones, let alone outside pressure, get subjected to biweekly harangues.
I’m not an enemy of change in the least. In general, I prefer routine. But I certainly don’t have anything against people doing some serious soul searching, doing a cheshbon hanefesh, even if only once a year, and actually changing their evil ways.
Elul makes me uncomfortable. Yom Kippur scares the bejeeses out of me. And like I said, I prefer routine, but I’m certainly not afraid of change.
So since I got a keen sense of the obvious, I’ll call it like it is. We’re supposed to change our ways from evil to good. To make it a little bit more mathematical:
Elul+Asseres Yemei Teshuva+Yom Kippur=Change.
Specifically from bad to good, or better known by its more popular title, Teshuva.
Now, notice how I just equated Teshuva with change. Is that not all that Teshuva is? Changing.
The big problem with change though, is that there has to be something to change. A personality trait, a character defect, a business practice, or maybe a different perspective on life. Those all seem like things that may need some changing. Or maybe just a good attitude adjustment. Yeah, I think a lot of Jews out there just need a swift kick somewhere below the gartel to get ‘em contemplating what put them in their current fetal position on the ground weeping like a little girl. What better way to realize you have a major ideological deficiency than by someone making it physically clear to you?
In all seriousness, what is change? I think by now you’ve all realized that I’m not the greatest master of subtly. In fact, I prefer painfully obvious any day over the gentle drawn out prod with a stick approach. And that’s why I’m here telling you what change is.
Bur first I’ll start with what change is not. Change is not taking the Triboro Bridge instead of the Whitestone because of the construction. Change is not going to a Mets game ‘cuz the Yanks are out of town. Change is not going to Wok N Take Out instead of Glot Wok just to see if food tastes different on the other side of town. Even if you do all those things for no reason, it’s still not the change I’m referring to. I’m also not referring to the stuff you find under the couch cushions when you’re gutting your house for Pesach.
So we know what change is not. But then what is change?
How about deciding to let the old woman go in front of you on line for once in your life, is that change? How about deciding to file your taxes honestly this season, is that change? How about putting a little extra in the pushka this morning at shachris? Hmmm, I’m starting to smell a hint of something.
I finished summer school a month ago. The partners at the accounting firm I worked at for the past year told me I could take off for the five weeks of summer school that I was going to be living in Brooklyn, since summer classes were every day from 3:30 till 8. I finish school and inform them that I’m ready to come back to work. They say they’ll call me when they need me. A week and a half later I walk in asking what the deal is. They tell me they don’t need me anymore. And I didn’t fight for my job because, frankly, I was kind of sick of the place anyway and I wasn’t learning as much as I could have been. But anyway, here I am a little while ago without a job for almost seven weeks. Money’s getting thin, my parents are in Alaska for the next two weeks and my car is in the shop getting a week and a half long $1,300 “tune up”. Besides being in a rut and sitting on my tuchus all day watching war coverage, with $40.69 to my name, wondering how I’m gonna pay my car insurance bill, I wasn’t very happy.
I suddenly realized that my life has completely changed in seven weeks. July started with money in the bank, a steady job, a GPA that was ok (but sinking), and a car. But what really changed? Things were all different, but nothing changed. I never got up and consciously decided that I wanted my car not start, to be running out of money, to be suddenly out of a job, and to be wondering whether it’s worth it for me to go back to school next semester. But now here I am, conscious, healthy and wondering. And everything seems to have worked itself out. So maybe nothing did change. But that can’t be since I have some ideas now that I’ve never had before. I finally realized that school is actually more important right now than working. So yes, something definitely did change.
I finally figured out a direction to go in after that shake up, and that direction is of a completely different mindset than I had just two months ago. And that’s change.
It must be. Change must be more than just things being different than the norm. It must be a certain emotional, or mental/psycho earthquake of sorts. It must be a shake-up not just of shaky, but of shattering proportions. It must not just move you to action, echoing a thump as you roll out of bed. It must move to action as the lava that eventually moves an entire city and consumes it as it flows down Main Street. And the speed of action is not as much a factor because all that really matters is that the change will lead to an end result of becoming better, of rising up. However, the change must also move the way a tornado suddenly sweeps in and throws the trailer across the county. It’s got to be drastic (and seems to best be described by metaphors of natural disasters).
I am not concerned with how quickly one makes a life altering change or how many steps they must first make in order to get to wherever they truly hope to be in life. That’s because if you ask one Rabbi, he’ll tell you that you have to work on yourself slowly, step by step. However, if you look at some of the dudes I went to yeshiva with in Israel, they never would be sitting in the Mir right now if they never decided to just take a swan dive off the deep end. What concerns me is that people actually do it, not how fast or how slow they do it.
I want people to change. I want to change. I want to be better and learn more and do more chessed and daven with a minyan three times a day. I want to change plenty of other things about myself that I don’t feel like talking about here. I’m not even close to being as good of a Jew as I want to be, and who knows if I ever will be. But it’s not just about wanting to change. It’s about actually changing. It’s about how I change for the better, that I elevate myself in whatever way I can into a higher being. The point is that I become a better Jew at the end of the day after all is said and done.
And yes, I know, “sur meira v’aseh tov.” Yes, it sucks to talk about all the bad in the world. And not just all the bad in Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Sudan, Sri Lanka, and everywhere else, but the bad in our community. Yes, there is bad in our tiny little interconnected insular Jewish village. I know, doesn’t it suck to think about? There are bad Jews? The more I think about it, the more I feel like thank God we haven’t resorted to murder just yet (at least not that any of us know about) . We seem to have covered white collar crimes, indecent public officials, drug dealing, and a recent checking of the sex offenders list shows that we thoroughly covered that area as well.
Then what about the stories not everyone hears? In my 22 years on this Earth, should it make sense for me to say that nothing surprises me anymore? Should I listen to stories about fights breaking out in beis medrashes and Sefardi quotas in yeshivos and bais yaakovs, and not bat an eye lash? Should I read in the newspaper about frum girls getting kidnapped and Rabbis getting away with child molestation and not think that it’s weird? Should I hear about tax fraud, money laundering, housing schemes and $100 million Chasiddus empires, and not be wondering how certain people have the guts to call themselves “ultra-orthodox” Jews? Should I be driving through a predominantly Jewish neighborhood and wondering if this is really how my people were meant to go about their daily lives? Is this how God fearing, Torah abiding people act?
And everyone reading this knows that I could go on and on about all the cracked out stuff that goes on in the Orthodox Jewish community. We all have the little deep dark community secret that we think no one else knows about, so I’m sure you can all relate. And yes, all the negativity makes my skin crawl as well. I’d rather smile about all the fluffy seminary girl stories that we can all tell about all the good things and how much chessed we do. But like I said, thank God we haven’t started murdering people yet. I just don’t get how bad we are. This is our community? This is the Jewish world that I grew up in? Am I just a huge pessimist?
Last week I had a discussion with two friends of mine, CD and Duvs, about how annoying it is to live in a large Jewish community. Of course, it’s easier to live like a Jew with having tons of options for minyanim, having easier access to mikvaos, and other necessities that plenty of Jews in the larger communities totally take for granted. But even better, you can also get eight different brands of a myriad of types of kosher products; you can choose your poison/Chinese take-out and compete with your neighbors for coolest chumra of the month club, but is that what it means to live in a large Jewish community? My friend Duvs told CD and I about how in a particular small Jewish community, it was just about impossible to keep Cholov Yisrael. Guys from a certain Yeshiva would love to go there because they’d finally be able to eat Entenmann’s donuts. But this one guy was determined to keep Cholov Yisrael and he had an industrial freezer and he’d drive many hours just to stock up on Cholov Yisrael milk.
Keeping Cholov Yisrael is not the point. Working to be a Jew is the point. It’s almost like the more Jews that congregate in a certain place, the more competitive Judaism becomes. 2 Jews, 3 opinions. Why does that have to be true? Why can’t we work together to change that? Why can’t we all realize that it takes work to be a Jew and just because you can wake up and choose from six different minyanim to go to, it doesn’t by default make you a better Jew? Why can’t we realize that belonging to a Jewish establishment does not mean we can automatically have a place to hide when the poop hits the fan? Rabbis and teachers, and principals, and parents, and everyone who has a say in the community has to realize what it means to be accountable for your actions. They have to realize that they hold the future of our people in their hands and that they mold and form these fragile souls into the next leaders of our community we supposedly hold so dear.
I almost feel like I’m on my knees here pleading to the world. Maybe a little dramatic, ok, I’m sorry. But what’s left to do? I can change myself, of course, and I’m trying to do my part. There are the little things I know I can change that I have been working on. But then I look out at the microcosm of the Jewish world that is the community that I live in, and I wonder who out there is working? Who out there is pushing for change? Who out there sees the 24 year old girls with three kids getting divorced and asks what can we do to change this situation? Who out there is seeing all the imperfections of the Am Kadosh and wondering when something is going to change? I’m not begging for a Jewish utopia. I’m just asking for people to get up off their tuchuses and try to change, personally and as a whole. Actually, no, that’s not what I’m asking for. I am begging for perfection. I am begging Jews to make change an agenda. I am begging Jews to change for the better in order to reach the ultimate goal of Moshiach. I am not a pessimist. If I was, I wouldn’t have wasted my time typing this up.