Dealing With Doubts on the Teshuva Process

I recently read a D’var Torah that really spoke to me. Part of it focused on Devarim (Deuteronomy) 25: 17-19

“Remember what Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt. That he encountered you on the way and cut off those lagging to your rear, when you were tired and exhausted; he did not fear G-d. Therefore… you must obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget.”

It then brought us back to Shemoth (Exodus) 17:1-8, when the Jewish people just left Egypt and camped in Rephidim. There was no water to drink. The people questioned “Is G-d in our midst or not?” This was right after departing Egypt, after the 10 plagues, the miracle of the parting of the Reed Sea, etc. After such miraculous events, how could they question “Is G-d with us?” Moses is so annoyed that he names the place “Challenge and Strife.” Then, right after the Jews showed doubt in Hashem, the nation of Amalek attacked from the rear, picking out the weakest and destroying them.

Next, the D’var torah pointed out that the Hebrew word for doubt (safek) has a gematria, or numerical value of 240. This is the same numerical value for Amalek. And when words have the same value, it shows they are interconnected. Thus the fight against Amalek can also be seen as a fight against doubt.

For me as someone trying to become more observant, this is something I constantly face. Why do I try so hard to keep kosher? It would be so much easier for me if I went back to only keeping kosher in the home, but eating anything, or even just “vegetarian” outside the home. Why do I bother being Shomor Shabbos? Does it really make that much of an impact that I don’t check my email, or watch TV? After all, I survived for many years not keeping it. Why keep struggling?

And the biggest doubt of all. Why am I becoming observant at all? Is it really worth doing? Who the heck am I doing it for anyway? Does G-d really care what I do? Little ol’ me? After all, I’m just a speck in the grand scheme of everything.

The D’var torah ends by talking about how to defeat Amalek, and thus doubt. It points out that Amalek is irrational and counterintuitive. To overcome him, we need Faith/Emunah. It is not something we develop, but rather it’s something already inside of us that needs to be unveiled.

And subconsciously, that’s what I’ve been using most of the time to quell these doubts. I’m doing it because I’m seeing the truth in the Torah, and how it relates to all people, even little ol’ me. And if that’s true, then the Torah as a whole shouldn’t be treated as a “Chinese Menu” (e.g. I’ll take two from column A, and 1 from column B, I don’t need anything from column C.) I have faith that there is a reason for everything, even if I don’t yet know what it is. Seeing it spelled out, especially with the allegory of Amalek helps to strengthen my faith even more. Will I ever completely defeat doubt? Probably not. Like all epic battles, it’ll probably be one fought through the ages (at least until the Moshiach comes). But at least the tools to fight it off are more clear.

Preparing for an Emunah Enhancing Pesach

Preparing for Pesach goes beyond ridding our homes of Chometz. Our seforim teach that the opportunities for spiritual growth on Pesach are huge, but we need to prepare ourselves for that opportunity.

The principles of Jewish Belief broadly fall into three categories: belief in Hashem, belief in a G-d given Torah and belief in reward and punishment. Each of the three Jewish holidays emphasizes one of these: Pesach is Emunah, Shavuos is Torah and Succos is reward and punishment. So our focus on Pesach should be on strengthening our Emunah.

How do we define the Emunah we are trying to strengthen? Emunah is clearly not just a yes answer to the question, “Do you believe in G-d?”. Emunah is a knowledge-level clarity that there is a Creator, Who created and runs the world. But as Bilvavi and others point out, this knowledge has to go beyond the intellectual and reach the experiential.

Experiential knowledge is knowing something with a certainty beyond what our intellect can bring us to. For example, philosophers have shown that it is impossible to prove without a shadow of a doubt that we exist. Perhaps we are experiencing a dream-like illusion. Yet each one of knows with absolute certainty, that we do exist. Another example: do we have to prove to ourselves that we have a hand? No, our experience of moving and controlling hand leaves no doubt.

It is possible to reach that same level of experiential knowledge of Hashem. It should be clear to us that we have quite a ways to go in this matter, as how many of us can say we experience the reality of G-d in the same way we experience the reality of the existence of our hand.

Pesach gives us the opportunity to significantly increase our experiential knowledge. The Torah commands us to re-experience and re-tell the story. And Chazal through the seder and it’s 15 steps provide us with additional tools to experience G-d in even a deeper manner. Every single step of the seder (and all seven days of Pesach) provide the potential of experiencing Hashem in a deeper and clearer manner. If done with foresight and focus, we can each reach the next rung in our spiritual growth ladder.

To achieve this growth we need to prepare. One suggestion is to get one of the great Hagaddah commentaries and start reviewing it today. Try to concentrate on the Emunah enhancing commentaries (suggestions are welcome).

A second suggestion is to work on enhancing experiential knowledge well before Pesach. Perhaps consciously focusing our thoughts on the fact that there is a Creator and He created us, a number of times a day as Bilvavi suggests. Or focusing on feeling and experiencing Hashem’s greatness, might, and awesomeness when saying those words in the first brocha of Shomoneh Esrai.

Real growth takes real effort and we have a tremendous opportunity to achieve real growth in the next month. Please share any experiential Emunah enhancing techniques you have found in the comments.

A Privileged Trip

Because I have four children in Israel, I travel there often to see them, and I belong to a frequent-flyer club. As a result, when I purchased my ticket for the trip from which I am coming back as I write this, I was able to get a one-way upgrade to a premium class. I decided that I would get the upgrade on the flight back from Israel, my reasoning being that, firstly, it would alleviate some of the “blue” feelings I always have when I leave my children and leave Israel, and secondly, the westward trip is longer.

So here I am, sitting in the premium cabin on an international flight – something I have never experienced before – and as everyone sleeps while I am trying to stay awake and readjust my inner clock to Dallas time, this is a good time for reflection.

My family and friends laugh good-naturedly at my trait of always being early for everything. I had spent my last Shabbat of this trip at the home of my daughter, who lives in a remote village in Shomron, across the green line. Most taxi drivers don’t go there, but another daughter of mine, on her most recent trip, had found one who would, so I used his services also. My flight was scheduled to depart on Motzae Shabbat, and I asked the taxi driver to leave his home base right after the end of Shabbat to pick me up and take me to the airport. Hashem made everything go smoothly; I arrived at the terminal in plenty of time.

As a premium ticket holder, I was invited to while away the hours in an exclusive lounge with all sorts of amenities. Regular coach passengers have to be ready to board an hour or two ahead of time, but premium passengers can spend their time in the lounge and go to the gate only one-half hour prior to departure. I got so caught up in the various creature comforts in that lounge that, when my flight was called, I had to run to the gate! As I was sprinting there, I thought about the well-known metaphor we’ve probably all heard, about how life is like a cruise ship which makes an interim stop at a pleasant port. Some of the passengers get off the ship but hurry back in plenty of time. Some get so involved in the pleasures of the port that they almost don’t make it back to the ship; those are analogous to people who get so caught up in the pleasures of this world that they nearly forget about the World to Come. The lesson was just too obvious to ignore!

When I boarded the plane, I was ushered to a section of magnificent, roomy seats with many features you don’t find in coach. I had asked for an aisle seat; this section of the plane was set up in a 2-3-2 pattern, with my seat being at the end of one of the “3” parts. A woman sat next to me in the middle seat of the three; she started scolding one of the flight attendants, protesting that here she was in a premium class but she was in a middle seat “like a tourist.” The seats were arranged with plenty of room to get up and move around nevertheless, but my seatmate was not a happy passenger. As I write this, she is asleep. I hope she is comfortable; all of the seats in this section can recline like beds. To me, though, this experience is too exciting to sleep through – and I am usually one who sleeps on planes, even when I’m cramped in coach.

I once watched a movie where a woman, blind from birth, was given the opportunity to see for a period of a few hours before she would once again be blind. To me, flying in a premium class is like that. Why would I want to sleep through it when I can be awake and have all these new experiences? To be attended to and served and have my every whim catered to is not my everyday life.

There is an article on Aish HaTorah’s Web site by someone who was upgraded to first class, and he mused on how it was so easy to feel superior just because one is sitting in a premium class. I’m glad I read and reread the article, because it keeps me mindful of not falling into that trap. Flying is usually a very stressful experience for me. While in Israel, I bought a book about emunah, faith in Hashem, and I’ve been trying to internalize the lessons it teaches. It’s almost like Hashem has given me a special gift now, to let me enjoy this flight, because I have taken a first step toward strengthening my faith and trust in Him. So rather than feeling superior, I feel grateful to Hashem that He is showing me such overwhelming kindness. Of course, He shows me kindness every day and every moment, but I’m not always able to see it. I can see it and savor it now, at this moment, as I sit in this roomy seat. On a practical level, as well as thanking Hashem, I am trying to compliment and thank the flight attendants as much as I can for their help in making the flight pleasant for me. I want to spread my happiness around and make it easier for service people, whose lives are certainly not easy. And I’m sure that in a premium class, more is expected of them than in coach, as shown by my unhappy seatmate.

Judaism is such a beautiful religion. Hashem doesn’t ask us to deny the pleasures He gives us in this world; He asks only that we keep a higher goal in mind and look toward the World to Come. We have to remember what the Chofetz Chaim said: We are only passing through. But meanwhile, as long as we remember Who is giving us the pleasures we have, we are free to enjoy the banquet He sets before us. When He gives us a free gift like this, He is like a loving parent who gives his child a prize. The child, if properly raised and not spoiled, just wants to hug and kiss the parent for showing such love to the child. I sing in my heart to Hashem, and thank Him for letting me enjoy this wonderful experience. And most of all, I thank Him for once again having let me visit His holy Land of Israel and my beloved children who live there.

What is Hashem Telling me?

I was in a car accident last week. Or perhaps the right words are, “I caused a car accident last week.” The guy in front of me slammed on his brakes because the guy in front of him did, and I crashed into his car. I didn’t respond fast enough when he suddenly stopped, and now I have a sore body and a car with significant damage and since I live in NJ, I can look forward to G-d knows how much of a bill when you add up tickets, points, and deductibles.

I keep living the accident over and over again, this constant nightmare in my head. I can still hear the crash, feel it in my body, and that sinking “Oh no!” that comes from it. I had plans, an appointment I was on my way to, and so did the other driver. But this happened instead. Now it’s insurance adjusters, and body shops, and chiropractors, and apologizing over and over again to my husband for messing up his car. There is also a renewed and deeper fear of leaving my house, of driving anywhere, of recognizing that every day I don’t know if and when I’ll return to the house — or if my family will — in the same shape they left, or even, at all. This awareness haunts me, terrifies me, makes me cry.

I share this incident with you because I am acutely aware of how being frum shaped the way I responded to the accident from the first minute. I’ll share with you what I mean.

My first response after “OH NO”, was thank you, Hashem, that no one was injured. Even though the accident happened because the guy in front of me slammed on his brakes, I am considered at fault because I hit him. I wish it hadn’t happened. But it did, so I thank Hashem that it wasn’t much worse.

The other guy was rushing to an appointment. The damage to his car was minor. He suggested not bothering with the police, and just trading car insurance info. I should have done that, would have saved me a lot of money in points and insurance increases. But I knew the right thing to do was to call the police, and in that instant, I chose to do the right thing and call the police. (I admit several moments since then of clunking myself on the head and saying, “you idiot, what were you thinking?!!!!”)

At the end of the transaction, I approached the man and apologized to him for hitting his car. Although this in itself was an admission of guilt, and perhaps I should have been taking the stand of, “Hey, this is YOUR fault for putting on your brakes!”, I chose in the moment to just say, “I’m sorry for hitting your car.” He softened immediately, told me it was all right, and asked me what my first name is. I told him, “Azriela, a Hebrew name which means G-d is my helper.” He smiled, and quoted me back a bible verse from his religion. For a moment, we were just two people recognizing that G-d is in charge, and we forgave one another. I wished him a good day and he wished me the same.

Ever since the accident, I keep asking myself over and over again — if this was from Hashem, and I must believe it is, why? Am I being punished for something I’ve done wrong? Am I being warned to stop doing something I’ve been doing? Am I being given a wake up call? Why the expense right now we really can’t afford? Did I come by some money in the wrong way, and Hashem is taking it back from me now? Was this not a punishment, but actually saving me from something? Now that my car will be in the shop for who knows how long, did Hashem take it off the road because if that hadn’t happened, something much worse could have happened while driving it? Does the accident take the place of something so much worse, and I should be grateful for it?

And then, there is the sinking feeling I try to avoid dwelling on, that now consumes me. Life is so fragile, gone in a second, one crash and it’s all over as we know it. I kiss my children goodbye in the morning and pray they will return to me. I hug my husband before he heads off for work and pray for his safe return. Every morning, what is so dear to me can slip through my hands. I can’t hold on to it no matter how much I want to. It’s really all in Hashem’s hands.

And that is, for me, a really scary thought.

This is the moment when I am supposed to take the high road, and increase my bitachon, and feel a sense of serenity in this wake up call that reminds me that Hashem is in control. This is the moment when I should just be concentrating on my gratitude that the accident only resulted in broken metal, not broken bones, and that the guy I hit wished me a good day by the end of it.

And what does any of this have to do with being frum? Simply this.

I keep reviewing the whole accident with G-d in mind. G-d is always in mind. What does G-d want of me? Why is G-d doing this to me? What did I do wrong? What can I do better? Why today, and what does it all mean? Why was this G-d’s plan for me today?

I don’t have the answers, but I do know that it’s important that I keep asking the questions.