It was my first visit back to my parents’ house since I became frum. Over a year had passed, a year without the king-size bed in their guest room, without central heating, without 24/7 access to a fully stocked fridge and cupboard. My mother had, most graciously, stocked up on every kind of O-U foodstuff she could find on the supermarket shelves.
My father, on the other hand, hadn’t spoken to me for half a year.
I felt some trepidation, leaving the womb of yeshiva for the spiritual wilderness of Palm Springs, CA and a secular home. I hardly felt competent to survive without my rabbeim at arm’s reach and without a local makolet that stocked only glatt-kosher food. I had no notion what I would do if a question came up on Shabbos that wasn’t addressed in my English translation of Shemirath Shabbath. I wasn’t even certain how to manage lighting my oil menorah for Chanukah — I had never used anything other than 30 minute candles.
But what I really wasn’t ready for was the first real evidence of how much I had changed.
I woke up my first morning back, not contemplating the luxury of my overlarge bed, but rather with mild bewilderment as my first conscious thought formed around the question, “What is that horrible smell?” It permeated my room, suggesting something dead and rancid, and it seemed incongruous with the obsessive cleanliness that dominated every corner of my mother’s house.
I don’t remember whether I finally identified the odor on my own, or whether I actually had to go out and investigate. But I do remember the source.
Bacon. A whole pound of bacon sizzling in the oven.
Let me explain. Before becoming frum, there was no food in the world that I enjoyed more than bacon. I could eat as much of it as anyone could cook up and serve me. Forget the eggs. Skip the flapjacks. Pass on the toast. Nothing else was worth eating if bacon was on the menu.
So that first morning back my father had started cooking, hoping that powerful aroma of cured pig flesh would penetrate my sinuses and my psyche, vanquishing the religious fanaticism that had taken hold of his once-sensible son.
It’s not remarkable that Dad’s plan didn’t work. Anyone who exchanges a year’s commitment to Torah for a whiff of bacon was never really committed to begin with. What is so remarkable is that an aroma that had previously aroused my senses like the fragrance of Gan Eden now turned my stomach before I even recognized what it was.
This, I realized, is the power of Torah. The power to transform us, to change who we are so that even our temptations change. I would later hear my Rosh Yeshiva say many times that, more than anything else, our yeitzer hara shows us where we are up to in the world. The desires that tempt us at one point in our development later hold no attraction for us because we are no longer the people we once were. As we become more spiritually refined, so too do our physical and material impulses adapt to challenge us on our new level.
I often wonder if, as ba’alei tshuva, we sell ourselves short, waxing nostalgic over the days when we were “free” to do as we pleased, or setting too modest goals because we think it unreasonable to expect more from ourselves. What a pity if we don’t appreciate how much we have changed, and how we can continue changing and growing with every day and week and year.
First published Jun 14, 2006