By: Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz
Intro – I had intended to write and submit this piece back in February when we read parashas Yisro but you know how it goes. Projects, the kids, community needs, parnassah. The list goes on. I even got a second wind during Pesach when we bentsched Tal – the prayer for dew. Precipitation, yes, but still no piece.
How fitting is it that I finally sit down to write then on the eve of Pesach Sheni – the time when those who were otherwise unable to bring the korbon pesach in Nisan were allowed to do so. In chassidic thought Pesach Sheni is the ultimate ba’al t’shuva celebration – a day which stands for the proposition that there’s always a second chance. – SHS
When my daughter Tova was little, when we would ask her how she felt about going somewhere or doing something about which she felt conflicted, she would respond “a part of me does, a part of me doesn’t”. As she got older we would seek greater clarification (not to mention grabbing a quick teaching opportunity) as in “Well if the parts voted, which set of parts would win?” and then again “what percentage of part A does and what percentage of part B doesn’t?” It challenged her to ascribe values to each conflicting emotion, to prioritize but most importantly, to move forward.
Similarly, we in the BT community often have conflicting emotions and responses given who we are and where we’re from. How do we reconcile and deal with them? And what light can the Torah ha’k’dosha shed on our dilemma?
As yidden we live in an inherent state of tension. In Sefer Tehillim – the Book of Psalms, Dovid Hamelech boldly proclaims “vat’chasrehu m’at me’elokim” – man is slightly less than divine. Yet in davening each morning we say “u’mosar ha’adam min hab’heima ayin” – there’s not much difference between us and the beasts. So nu, which is it?
The Torah gives us clues to the resolution of this dilemma. It describes Moshe’s father-in law’s reaction to the news of the exodus and the crossing of yam suf with the following, somewhat elliptical phrase – “vayichad Yisro”. What exactly that means is a matter of some discussion in the commentators. Rashi explains that on its simplest level it means “Yisro rejoiced” but he also provides an alternate conflicting interpretation from the gemara which translates it as “Yisro’s flesh got goosebumps (pinpricks)” from the news of the death of the Egyptians. (Significantly, Rashi also uses the second interpretation to transmit the gemara’s admonition against reminding converts of their former ways.)
Ironically, the Ba’al HaTurim uses yet a different root to translate the phrase “vayichad Yisro”. He feels it derives from the word “yichud” – singular or unity. So how can these conflicting ideals – happiness and apprehension – constitute “unity” one might ask?
When Rivka was about to give birth, the Torah describes her pre-natal condition – “Vayisrots’tsatsu habanim b’kirba” – the kids struggled inside her. The Midrash explains that when she would pass a yeshiva, Ya’akov would strain to get out. Likewise, when she would pass a situation of “lo tov”, Esav would jostle Ya’akov trying to get out. Chazal explain that on a certain level the twins represent our own conflicting desires and emotions struggling inside each of us. What was Rivka’s response to this painful inner churning? It was a heartrending “Im kein, lama zeh anochi” – “if so, why do I exist”. I humbly suggest an alternate reading of the same posuk – “Im kein lama” – if so, why? “zeh anochi” – because that’s who I am. Yes, I can be happy and apprehensive at the same time about the same “realities on the ground”. Yes I can harbor inner conflict. But as the Ba’al HaTurim suggests, it’s those very competing emotions that constitute my unity, my essence.
Recently, my son Shlomo had to build a stringed instrument as a science project. He worked diligently on his little guitar. When he was done he tried to play it but the strings only buzzed flatly without giving off any musical notes. I suggested he insert a bridge and nut and increase the tension on the strings (I’ve dabbled with the guitar myself.) He did and lo and behold it worked!
So too with us. Of necessity we find ourselves in a constant state of tension – in a veritable tug-of-war between conflicting tensions, emotions and reactions, between the past and present, the holy and mundane, the physical and the spiritual. Yet we need that very tension, that energy, that chayus – the vital life force – to exist and flourish. Too little and we just buzz and rattle – too much and we just might snap, r”l, but just the right amount and we’re making beautiful music.