Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Ratzo V'Shov To Lubavitch
A hirhur teshuva is a common thing; it’s that feeling that I should improve and stop doing what I know is wrong. We all have them, but what’s interesting is that they’re selective – there are many things that I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty about while other things I am consciously regretful for. For example, it’s a universally accepted halacha, cited by the Beis Yosef and the Rema, that we must never go a moment without a conscious recognition of G-d’s presence. Yet, I dare say that a very high percentage of religious people have moments that pass without this conscious focus on Hashem – and nevertheless there is seldom a hirhur teshuva for this. The reason is simply because this is something that we consider beyond us.
There is little regret for things that we don’t think we can do – each person on their own level. One person may feel terrible that he didn’t go to shul on Yom Kippur, but it doesn’t bother him that he doesn’t keep Shabbos – because to him attending shul on Yom Kippur is something that he knows he can do, while keeping Shabbos is something that he can’t imagine; it’s beyond him. Someone else may feel guilty for speaking during davening, but he isn’t heartbroken that he transgresses the issur of bittul Torah many times throughout the day. There are things we don’t even consider possible, so they don’t show up on the hirhur teshuva radar.
So what does get the teshuva bells ringing? Things that we know we can achieve. In fact, anything that we feel a hirhur teshuva for is, by definition, something that we can definitely achieve. We know it – that’s why we feel remorse. It’s a simple truth that if we are remorseful then it’s clearly within our conscious ability to achieve, and therefore, with this knowledge we should feel empowered to overcome the obstacles that we place in front of ourselves to improving. We just need to employ that empowerment and we’re most of the way there – and I’ll tell you what I mean:
A Simple Jew asked me why it was that I left and returned to Lubavitch. It’s hard to answer such a question, because the answer is only going to focus on specific elements, when, in truth, there are always many reasons why things happen or develop – but I’ll try anyway. Life is a journey – no doubt about it – and while we weave in and out of traffic, we’re homeward bound; the question is: Where is home?
I grew up with a Lubavitcher identity – we davened in a Chabad shul; I attended a Chabad Cheder, came to the Rebbe, learned some Chabad Chassidus, etc. But in my teenage years I drifted away from Chabad and joined a different group, becoming a chossid of a different Rebbe. It was around 1990, and for various reasons Lubavitch had lost its appeal to me. I felt this strange feeling that by moving away from Chabad I had joined the rest of Klal Yisroel – probably because in Lubavitch there was a strong “us vs. them” mentality that created a sense of exclusiveness and isolation. In many ways it was like a breath of fresh air, and I still remember the feeling. Everything seemed new and exciting – the different attitudes, pronunciations, minhagim, stories, histories, clothing, ideas, points of view, you name it. I had joined a small group and I enjoyed it. My friends and peers were great there; the community was very appealing and the Rebbe was a very special man – what more could you ask for?!
Time passed and things became stale. I got married and struggled. Sure, the people were great; the Rebbe was special; the community nice. But I couldn’t help but be bothered by this little voice that gave me no rest – it continuously whispered in the recesses of my brain, “Is this all there is? Shouldn’t there be something more? I grew a more demoralized and more cynical as time went on. I moved away and was going about my life very much in tune with a bumper-sticker that I once saw: “Life is what happens while you’re busy doing other things.”
I had fully realized that I was going nowhere; even worse, I didn’t even think I was capable of getting anywhere. I felt that, although I was in my early twenties, I would never be able to “be a contender.” Everyone else seemed to have a better head, everyone else knew more, everyone else was more successful, they were better husbands, they were better people, they were more inspired, they were more ‘tuned in.” Me? Well, I was a living dead man on a road to nowhere.
By this time I had two children. I really had remorse – I didn’t think I was capable of doing anything meaningful with my life in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t wallowing in self-pity or anything like that – I was just out of the running. But one day I said to myself that I have to do something about the situation. I needed to at least try to have a relationship with G-d, and so I made a decision:
I decided to move back to New York and try to get into the fast lane; attend shiurim; daven more often with minyan; try to focus – to give it my all and see where it goes. I undertook to give it a year. For one year I would throw myself full-force into being the best Jew I could be. If by the end of the year I would feel that I was getting somewhere then I’d be a new man. But if at the end of the year I still felt like I had gotten nowhere, and felt no joy or relationship with Hashem, then obviously I wasn’t made of the material to make it and it’s simply not for me.
It wasn’t an easy year. I began with Rosh Hashana, but by Purim I still felt like I was putting in energy with no return. I made sure to stay the course and keep my commitment to try to “hear the music” but I was beginning to think that it wasn’t going to work – soon Pesach was on the horizon. Half a year had passed.
Now, it was about 7 years since I had left Lubavitch. I don’t know if I had even thought about Lubavitch for ages at that point. I was sitting there in my shul next to a friend of mine who liked Chabad and I asked him about something that had come up:
My boss had invited us to eat with his family for Acharon Shel Pesach. But, he said, I should be aware that they don’t eat gebrokhts (matza that comes in contact with a liquid) even on the last day. Now, as far as I knew, everybody ate gebrokhts on Acharon Shel Pesach, so I asked him why, and he said: “Because it’s illogical. If gebrokhts is a problem on Pesach, it should be equally avoided on the last day. So, while my parents and grandparents may have done so, I don’t – as you’re allowed to be stricter than your parents – so we added this chumra on our own.”
It didn’t sit well with me. I knew the general reasons why most people eat gebrokhts on the eighth day, but they weren’t compelling – something bothered me about this added chumra. So, there I was. I mentioned the matter to a friend of mine sitting there in shul, and he reached into his pocket and handed me a sicha from the Lubavitcher Rebbe that he had just been learning about this specific question. Aside from my amazement at this unlikely occurrence, I was excited by the analysis of the matter – and the message that the Rebbe emphasized in it, basically:
On Pesach we are being transformed from slaves to free men, and we begin on the lowest rung - the 49th level of impurity - with the goal of refining ourselves to the point where we can receive the Torah on Shavuos – and being as we are on that low level, we are at great risk of being damaged as we are still as yet unable to refine by leavened products, thus, we abstain from all chometz.
Gebrokhts is an added stringency – lifnei meshuras hadin – signifying our seriousness about avoiding the risk of chometz at this precarious time. However, once we reach Acharon Shel Pesach we have completed the first set of sefira (the sefira of chesed), and we’re out of the most serious danger. Now, while we outside of the land of Israel still must avoid chometz for another day, the risk is far lessened – therefore we eat Kosher L’Pesach food prepared in other people’s homes and lessen many of the added stringencies that were maintained until this point – as we are now more capable of elevating this food – and therefore gebrokhts is not the issue it was. And, what’s more, since we are capable of elevating this food, a sincere person is obligated to take part in this avoda – and not disregard this ability granted to us by G-d in completing our mission in this world.
The sicha hit me just right at the right time, and I was immediately overwhelmed by a deep desire to return to Chabad. From that day on I began to go through sicha after sicha, maamar after maamar and sefer after sefer of Chabad Chassidius. It didn’t take that long and I was a Lubavitcher again (albeit, perhaps not a typical one), and things very quickly began to change for me. I began to enjoy every mitzvah. Worlds opened up for me. A few minutes with a sefer became my greatest pleasure – It was like the lights went on. It was amazing to me that I had once felt so alienated and lost.
That was ages ago, almost 15 years, and while life still has its challenges, the empowerment and joy that Chabad gives me is what keeps me going. And while I know that all is not perfect in Lubavitch, nevertheless, as the saying goes: “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”