Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz
Firstly, I’d like to thank Beyond BT for inviting me to guest blog. It’s truly an honor and a privilege to share some of my own experiences with my peers. It is also an auspicious time to blog – I’m writing this on the third day of Chanuka which mirrors the third day of creation when Hashem saw it was good twice. Chanuka is also the time for “pirsumei nisa” to publicize and show gratitude for the miracles Hashem has worked.
We live in an age of baggage. Everyone seems to have some to one degree or another. The unprecedented shidduchim crisis is exacerbated by fears – unfounded or otherwise – of the other person’s “baggage”. Similarly, when people undertake a journey towards a Torah life they frequently express concerns about all of their past “baggage”. So what can we do about all this baggage?
I actually began thinking about this theme in earnest several years ago when we were about to move to a smaller house. Suddenly, my “assets” (antiques, oversized furniture, collectibles) didn’t really seem so much like assets any more. After all, I had to build space for them, pack them, pay to have them moved, stored, etc. Perhaps Hillel was on to something when he said “when one increases possessions, one increases worry”. I recalled reading a story about several gold prospectors in the Yukon who hit the mother lode. They sewed the gold into their sleeves and cuffs and got on the raft to go back down the river. The raft capsized and our prospectors apparently drowned under the weight of their clothing while those who had been “less fortunate” swam to safety.
What about the other kind of “stuff”, the spiritual kind? In his seminal work “Tanya”, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi cites a gemara in Yoma which is simultaneously enigmatic and empowering. The gemara quotes Reish Lakish (himself an inspired returnee) as saying that one who does t’shuva out of fear – his sins are expunged, but one who does t’shuva out of love, his sins are converted into merits.
What a radical concept! Imagine an accountant telling the CEO of a major company that the company was about to post a huge loss. The CEO is mortified and asked the accountant for a suggestion. Suddenly the accountant jumped up and said “I’ve got it – let’s carry all the losses over to the profit column!” Reish Lakish tells us that we can in fact do just that with our spiritual ledger. A story is told of the famous Berditchiver, Rabbi Levi Yitchak who went over to a fellow reputed to be a wholesale sinner. “I envy you” he said” You possess such potential spiritual riches.”
By way of a “regel achas” (on one leg) introduction, I’m probably more of the classic type of BT – brought up frum, leaving the “derech” for a long walkabout and then fighting to come back, making peace with what I lost and what I left behind and moving forward. I’ve been in love with pop music since childhood and I can hold my own on the guitar with the best of them! I worked as an attorney in the entertainment industry for many years. Whatever they say about the music business is true and then some. It’s full of shallow, narcissistic, vain people who labor under the illusion that they will remain “forever young” – and that’s the positive side. The seamy underbelly contains a self-destructive force of unbelievable intensity which has claimed numerous victims over the years. I was going through some old industry photos recently and my wife pointed out that I was pretty much the only one in most of the photos who was still alive.
So what do I do with my “peckel” of life experience? I chose to work with Jewish kids. The minute they hear that I knew “Jerry” or hung out with Clapton or Dylan or the Beatles, they’re suddenly open to hear what I have to say. I’m no longer just another guy with a black coat and beard (I still have to convince people that Chassidim had the look before ZZ Top!).
It’s ironic that my credibility has to come from experiences which I’ve largely repudiated but in chassidus one takes one’s Torah where one finds it. When high school kids would come up to the farm where were lived with their guitars in tow, I used to get a kick asking them if I could “sit in” They’d kinda stare at me and say “Rabbi, do you play?” I’d smile and say “Just a little” Then, I’d break out the old telecaster and off we’d go – no hostages taken!
Similarly, in the days when we still had TV, I was a huge fan of the classic TV show “The Honeymooners.” I am a firm believer that the answers to all of humanity’s problems lie within the original 39 episodes. I’m currently working on a quasi-Purimlike work entitled “Tal D’vash” or “Honey Dew” (gematria anyone?) in which the episodes are used to demonstrate everything from the shabbos melachos to the Story of Purim (by way of illustration, one of the episodes had the main character, an oversized, ego-inflated bus driver named Ralph Kramden being asked to make a speech at the annual Raccoon dinner. He thought that he was being given the coveted Raccoon Of The Year award . The speech he crafted echoed his ersatz surprise and false modesty at being the recipient of such an honor. Imagine his surprise when he was given a speech to deliver awarding the honor to his best friend. It’s the Purim story on steroids!)
One year we planted a huge patch of corn on our farm. One day I came down to the garden and the heads of corn seemed to have exploded with gray and black pustules. It looked like something out of a science fiction movie. It was truly frightening. I ran into the house holding one of the misshapen ears screaming “Rivkie, we’re ruined”. I grabbed one of my organic gardening manuals and went back down to the garden to figure out what had gone wrong. I did some quick research and discovered that the culprit was a fungus called smut. The book recommended burning, not composting the plants, not planting in that area again, and to use smut resistant strains next season. It then went on to point out that if there was a gourmet market nearby to sell it as it is considered a delicacy (it is actually related to the mushroom and truffle). I ran back into the house yelling “Rivkie, we’re rich”.
The bottom line – baggage or riches – it’s your call.
Originally published on Dec 31, 2005