My, how I have grown. I don’t mean “how much.” I mean, “how,” as in the manner or progress of a thing.
One of the cliches we hear, and learn to repeat, as baalei teshuva is the idea that you have to always be moving forward, growing, or else you’re doing something other than staying the same. “Growth,” improvement, development, are necessary components to an ongoing, meaningful life as an observant Jew. This is the mussar imperative, and perhaps also a concept also found in chasidus, though it is not obvious from a casual study study of Judaism. To some extent the implantation of this idea early on in our development as orthodox Jews is the placement of what may propel most of us to “the right.” But this description of movement is facile… one dimensional.
On a graph along the X and Y axes, one would think that — if there were some way to quantify it — one’s avodas Hashem would be represented by a nice, smooth curve of upward spiritual growth. But we have discussed here many times how seldom it is that the experience is an unadulterated parabolic delight — or perhaps more accurately how the experience can be perfectly parabolic, in the less felicitous sense of featuring both the up and the down side of the curve.
Really, we should use integral calculus when measuring our ups and downs. As we all know, integral calculus means measuring the area under a curve, defined by f(x), between two points (say a and b). The area under a curve does not care what the shape of the curve is; its value is absolute. This value we may hypothesize as actually being the true measure of a meaningful Jewish life. Any life. Your life. (Yes, I recognize this steps a little on the toes of my most recent post on a related topic. Let us call this a… refinement.)
My curve in the last few years has been… funny. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. It wasn’t, perhaps, what I would have thought it ought to have been. The route it has traced along those famous axes has taken me places that I am sure if you had asked me ten or even five years ago I would not have volunteered to go. Life is full of surprises, though.
In my case, at a certain point I was in a holding pattern. I had not really continued growing. The pressures of family life, making a living, all those standard excuses, as well as laziness and, if I may use the term here, jadedness had probably kept me more or less meandering spiritually for a decade.
My curve dipped. It peaked; it valleyed. I needed to know, to feel, even to hurt more in order to be more, and God provided me with a number of extraordinary opportunities to learn more, some of which came at some risk to the safe and happy mental life in which I frolicked. For one, I got involved in new and different kinds of kiruv — don’t worry; all fully “sanctioned.” Also, through my professional life, I moved “up” in frum society, and thereby also gained behind the scenes looks at the sort of reality, sometimes squalid, sometimes glorious but necessarily anonymous, that does not get taught in beginners’ seminars. And, off a less beaten path, I chose to establish genuine friendships — not kiruv files — with people who had views about the Torah world and even the Torah itself with whom I previously would not have ever had anything to do, and I engaged them sincerely, as equals, and listened to what they had to say, and then some. In short, I exposed myself to the rough edges. Some pointy-rough edges, in fact, which were encroaching on me stealthily, anyway. But this engagement is what they tell us, as we leave BT school, we’re not supposed to do. And what I wrote in these very “pages” I would not do. But I did it.
The sort of engagement I took up, really, may not be for everyone. You have to have quite a bit of self-confidence, and ego, to follow the curves I have in this latest stage of my “growth.” I had to do it. I have to still. With my characteristic modesty I will remind those not already bored of hearing it that I was an early success, a quick learner, almost literally a poster boy for the movement. So I got “there” fast — and then what? After a period of stasis, I had to open the doors again (were they the same doors?) and walk through them and see who I really was, and who and what I could yet become. And I did.
And I am still here, never more sure of who I am, and the decisions I have made. I learned through these encounters to appreciate more than ever the world in which I have ensconced myself, — even if some of my new friends (and they will always be that, I hope) shake their heads more in wonder than ever about my choices, knowing me and my views and where we might agree about what they think are crucial things. They may not understand what they have done for me — how their passion, their honesty, the blood from their wounds they have bled on me and the gall of their own devices with which they have splashed me — have nourished who I am now, and what I can yet become as a Jew, if only because I opened my heart a crack … as a Jew really should do. I would never have dreamed, if you had told me about where I would “go” emotionally and psychologically in this process, how much stronger, deeper, wiser I would be at the end of it, how much more meaning there is in my choice, how much more love there is in my life.
Maybe my particular wrestling matches were not for everyone, but there is some juncture… some moment… some challenge… some “hard” or obnoxious question, from which each of us, depending on who we are, and where it is, and when, should not walk away. For our own good, our own eternity. That encounter is different for all of us, but at this time in history, in our place, each of us must, at some point, engage this world.
The formula that defines my curve is mine alone. The measure of it all is, I say, what is accumulated under the curve and, with God’s help, in its continued progress… yes, upward. Because of where my formula has taken me in the last few clicks along the x-axis, I will never be the same, after too long of being just that. Is there any other way to define growth? For me, there was not.
Originally Published April 2, 2008