Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 11 July 2009 / 18 Tammuz 5769

Out of a Shell

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Shelly

Dear Rabbi,

I personally find your column to be very well-written, sensitive and insightful. It is quite uplifting for me, even though I am not the questioner. I imagine that those who you’re advising appreciate your responses even more. My question is, of course you’re helping a lot of people, but do you ever feel you benefit personally from what you’re doing as well? The flip side of my question is, do you ever feel frustrated or dissatisfied either? I’m sorry for being too personal, but since you address people’s personal questions, I thought to address this one to you.

Dear Shelly,

Thanks for your candid compliments, and I appreciate the sincerity of your question as well.

The truth is, if I can help people, I feel rewarded. It’s a good feeling to be able to make other people feel good. This is a major motivation behind what I do not only as a writer of this column, but also as a teacher and rabbi in Yeshivat Ohr Somayach and in other contexts as well. This applies even in the realm of guidance and counseling, and even more so in sharing more formal Torah ideas and teachings.

In addition, as in the spirit of the teaching of our Sages “much I have learned from my rabbis and peers but even more from my students”, every question requires me to clarify my understanding of the Torah on that topic. In many cases, questions and challenges require research that spurs my own learning and inevitably results in new knowledge. This is also rejuvenating and inspiring for me. Even questions that require research into “secular” topics is rewarding since it broadens my general knowledge and increases my appreciation of how Torah relates to everything.

Another rewarding aspect of what I do results from my interaction with and exposure to a very broad and diverse group of people: young and old, men and women, observant and secular, Jewish and non-Jewish, educated and ignorant, “normal” and odd, mainstream and extreme. I find this both interesting and also helpful in learning how to relate to and deal with all different types of people.

The flip side is that, like all rabbis, what I do does take away from my personal time to learn for my own learning’s sake and takes a lot of time from my own family. Tending to many different types of people’s different needs, literally at all hours of the day and night, is draining and results in less time and more pressure to take care of the personal needs of myself and large family. Sometimes this does make me question whether I should be doing this rather than full-time learning on my own or even just keeping a regular “9-5” job where the rest of the day would be purely mine and my family’s. The following stories are some of many which have answered the question:

Regarding frustrated: Once I met a young Israeli man at a family gathering and we got to talking (my representing the “religious”) about religion. The talk soon escalated into a heated discussion, then debate. By the end of the evening, I was exhausted and so frustrated that everything I had said had fallen on deaf ears. I told my wife that I couldn’t believe I had wasted so much time and energy on this guy, which ended up ruining my evening. Several years later, while walking through Mea Shearim, a complete stranger, in full religious garb, “accosted” me with a big hug and smile. I didn’t recognize him until he reminded me of the “conversation” we had many years earlier. He revealed how impressed he was at the time by the truth of the Torah and admitted that that was his last tenacious defense before becoming religious. If G-d had not caused our paths to meet, I would have never guessed or known what had transpired since that “fruitless” discussion.

Regarding dissatisfied: Not long ago I was napping on Shabbat afternoon, having had a very trying and tiring week with a few couples I was working with. When I awoke, I was seriously questioning whether I was really doing what G-d wants, or perhaps I should be devoting my energies to family and myself. Lying there debilitated by these thoughts, I heard a knock at the front door. My kids said a student so-and-so from five years ago said he’d come back to visit. I didn’t recognize the name and my first reaction in that mood was to tell them to tell him go away. Of course I didn’t, but rather got up. At the door was an impressive looking young Torah student with a large smile on his face. I didn’t recognize him at first until I changed his appearance in my mind: I took off the beard, added long hair, put in an earring, dressed him in a tee-shirt and torn jeans and voila – it was him!

I couldn’t believe my eyes. This was a kid from an American modern Orthodox religious family who, before dropping Judaism entirely, decided to make a last-ditch effort to find inspiration in a baal teshuva yeshiva. He made me personally responsible for the task. We met one-on-one for many hours, but by the end of his stay he said I had one last chance, and then he was off to experience the world. I didn’t seem to succeed, and he was off. Five full years went by until he showed up on my doorstep. He said our conversations kept ringing in his ears through his travels and wouldn’t let him rest. Not much time passed before he entered a yeshiva in America where he spent the next five years, becoming the serious student standing before me. He came all this way, he said, in order to thank me and give me the joy of knowing that, unknown to me, all this had happened as a result of our conversations.

The amazing confluence of my doubts and the arrival of this visitor and his message was a clear answer from G-d to my questioning what He really wants me to be doing.

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