In my first Teshuva Journey column from The Jewish Press that appeared on BeyondBT, I wrote about the who, what, where, when and how of my journey back to Judaism, but the one question I did not fully answer is why. Answering that question is actually much more challenging than tackling all of the previous ones, because there simply is not enough space in a thousand-word column to mention all the reasons why Orthodox Judaism first attracted me and why it continues to do so.
Why does a Jew raised in a Conservative home, given all the conveniences, freedoms and choices of the modern world, find himself attracted to the seemingly restrictive and old-fashioned framework of Orthodox Judaism?
The Rabbis explain “Turn it [Torah] over and turn it over, because everything is in it.” (Pirke Avot 5:26) The Torah is the ultimate guide to everything. If you look closely enough, everything you need to know and do is contained within it.
For starters, the Torah is the decisive self-help book. The Torah and its Rabbinic commentaries teach people how to avoid anger, overcome poor self esteem, become more generous and beat addictions. It teaches people how to become better parents, better bosses and even how to be nicer to your pets. It contains essential lessons for how to succeed in business, and how to have a fulfilled marriage.
I became religious during college, while majoring in Psychology. As I learned more about Judaism, I realized that most theories of human behavior that modern psychologists have discovered in the last 200 hundred years were actually written down in the Talmud and other Jewish sources as long as two thousand years ago! For instance in 1965 Dr. Martin Seligman coined the theory of Learned Helplessness, as he discovered that a dog will accept even the most painful of situations if it believes there is no escape.
Seligman could have saved himself much work and the dogs much pain simply by looking at Jewish history. The Torah records that when the Jews were slaves in Egypt and G-d sent Moses back to free them, they did not want to hear about it. You would think the Jews would dance in the streets to welcome Moses and then go pack their bags, but they completely rejected him and his message of salvation. Several Rabbis explain that the Jews were suffering so much pain and persecution at the hands of the Egyptians that they had completely given up any hope of freedom. Sounds like the learned helplessness theory that Seligman “discovered” thousands of years later.
Growing up I often heard people lament at the complexity of life and wish they had a guide book for maneuvering through it. We Jews have that instruction manual! It’s called the Torah. The Torah was written by G-d in part as a guide book for us to know how to live our lives. And because He made all of us, He knows exactly what messages we need to hear. G-d knew in advance every event and struggle that the Jewish people collectively and individually would go through, and so He gave us the Torah to provide us direction.
In my Conservative Hebrew School I remember being taught that many of the Jewish commandments and traditions were old, worn-out customs applicable only to another time period. Years later as I started my teshuva journey I learned that nothing could be further from the truth! I finally learned about the eternal relevancy of Judaism and the Torah. Judaism teaches that there is something appropriate to do at every moment of our existence. Every minute presents us with the chance to choose between right and wrong, and shows us how to give our lives more meaning. The Torah’s commandments are practical ways to live our lives, to help us get the most out of this world and achieve our goals.
The American writer Henry David Thoreau wrote “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” American society offers people every possible enjoyment, distraction and physical pleasure, but what are we left with when we’re done? After we’ve run from one pleasure to another, what’s left? We’re always looking for something better and brighter that we can write about to the folks back home. But the majority of people are never satisfied, as they’re always chasing another short-lived goal.
How to solve this problem? Judaism offers the antidote. While other religions believe that one can only become holy by withdrawing from worldly pleasure and living an aesthetic life as a monk high up on a mountain, Judaism teaches that we can become holy in the physical world by elevating everyday activities. I discovered that Judaism offers a way to still enjoy the pleasures of this world, but to dedicate them to a higher purpose. Nearly every enjoyable activity, from eating tasty foods, to even sleeping and shopping, can be used for a spiritual purpose. When we eat food and say a blessing to thank G-d for it and use the energy to help someone else or do a mitzvah, we’ve converted a pure physical need into something holy. If we sleep and then use the energy to learn and teach, we elevate the act to a level far greater than we could ever achieve by sleeping in late on a Sunday morning. Judaism teaches that when we do any action in the right way at the right time, we are living for a higher purpose than just our immediate needs.
For many people, an ideal vacation consists of going to a faraway beach, and spending quality time with family without the distraction of Blackberries and PDAs. But why save up to get such a dream vacation only once a year when you can get it every week? That’s what Shabbas is! Shabbas is a day to unplug from all our everyday distractions and spend time bonding with our families and having long meals with plenty of delicious food. It’s the Day of Rest, so yes, you get points in heaven for sleeping! What an amazing religion we belong to.
There is an endless list of other features of Judaism which first attracted me and continue to do so. Each person that becomes frum has his or her own list of reasons, which we will uncover as we explore amazing stories of other peoples’ teshuva journeys in future
issues of this column.
The Teshuva Journey is a monthly column by Michael Gros chronicling amazing teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To share a story or send other comments, email email@example.com