These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Two minutes on the clock.

Posted on September 10, 2014 by Suzanne Hutt

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Suz HutThe month of Elul is a wake-up call. As the month before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, it is a chance to do some very serious soul searching and think about what/who/how I want to be in the coming year. We have been discussing this idea in each of my classes – what does Rambam have to say about Elul, what prayers differentiate this month, what are the laws in the Mishna about blowing the shofar, what does it mean to do true repentance – and I am beginning to feel the gravity of this month and the spiritual fulcrum on which I seem to be balanced. In one of my classes a few days ago, Rav Mike put it in the most approachable terms I had ever heard: Imagine you’re playing in a basketball game. Your team is down by a lot and you have two minutes remaining. Elul is that moment in which you look at the scoreboard and decide whether or not you want to win. Now, it doesn’t mean you will win, but it’s about waking up to who you are and what you prioritize. It’s crunch time. It’s a time to ask myself, am I a good person who sometimes does bad things, or a bad person who sometimes does good things?

We as human beings, and I as an individual, have the power of choice, and by choosing to reevaluate my life and look for ways in which I can improve as a human being, I am strengthening my relationship with G-d. Which is why Rosh Hashanah is treated not as a day of mourning, a day to don all black and stand in somber judgment before a disappointed G-d, but rather a celebration of the fact that my sins are not a core part of me but are simply my actions, and that G-d trusts in my ability to make better choices in the future. As Rav Mike explained, Elul is a time to say, “I want for myself what G-d wants for me.” Hearing these words, I was overcome with emotion as I realized that this central concept is one I’ve been struggling with for the past three years, mostly with regards to halacha, Jewish law: What exactly does G-d want for me? And how can I really know?

After class I sat down with my friend, Sarah, and talked some of these feelings out. She raised so many good questions and made me confront the things that I was taking for granted. For example, maybe I know more about my own beliefs than I think I do. And when it comes to halacha, she pointed out that it is rarely “all or nothing.” Everyone struggles with halacha in a different way, she said, and there are 613 mitzvot for a reason – because everyone has different things they find challenging! I realized that there were a lot of things I was thinking about irrationally. For example, I asked her, “What if I’m confronted with a halachic issue and it’s clear to me that one path is the right path, but then I choose something different?” To which the obvious answer is that it would never happen that way! If I have explored an issue in detail and feel strongly that one form of observing that halacha feels right to me, then of course I will choose that path. I then voiced my desire to know for sure if something is right for me or not, and that I don’t want to dismiss certain halachot without really understanding them. To that Sarah said, “It doesn’t seem like you would ever just dismiss anything. That’s why you’re here.”

She’s right. She’s so right that it is mind-blowing to me how much I have been stressing over these feelings for so long. I know I believe in G-d, and I believe that He made me with the power to choose how I live my life. I also have faith in my ability to make good choices. But how do I know what choice is right for me when it comes to Jewish laws and observance? Sarah’s answer to that was clear and concise: choice through knowledge. That’s exactly why I came to Pardes, to acquire more knowledge on Jewish subjects and texts so that I can be confident that I am making informed decisions. So that I can go to the source and see for myself just how nuanced many of these laws are, instead of needing to rely on sub-par English translations or middleman interpreters. Choice through knowledge. When she said it I could feel the ground moving underneath me. Something shifted for me in that moment, and it became clear that I need to stop focusing on the end goal. If it’s my firm belief that we are ever changing and evolving people, why am I so concerned with coming up with a bullet-pointed list of what I believe on every halachic issue right now at the age of 23?

What does G-d really want for me? Maybe what G-d wants is not for me to make a decision in permanent ink about what I will wear, eat, say, and observe for the rest of my life. Maybe what G-d wants is for me to engage with these questions as an ongoing process, a lifelong process. Maybe the wrestling and the questioning is precisely what G-d wants for me, not to ever settle for a fixed mentality, but to keep questioning constantly. Process over product! I should be quick to ask questions, not answer them. It is only my second week at Pardes and already so many new questions have formed in my head. I am beyond grateful to have so many new friends and mentors to share these questions with, so that we may grapple with them together and make the most of this highly auspicious month.