A family friend came to Israel in a way that is almost unprecedented.
Jesse was born to a family that could be described as either traditional or Orthodox, depending on the elasticity of one's lexicon. Candles were a definite part of the scheme of things. Buying at the almost-definitely kosher butcher was de rigueur, even though the same cuts were at least 10 percent more expensive there than they were at the local A&P. Pesach included reading the Haggadah, as well as a family get-together. The kids belonged to religious youth groups and went to kosher camps.
The amount of personal self-sacrifice this required is inestimable to those of us who have had the benefit of growing up in the kind of home where saying one eats only kosher is similar to saying one doesn't practice cannibalism. Jesse's family was by far the most observant, non-rabbinical family in a hundred-mile radius of their Southern domicile.
He found himself breathless and exhausted, swallowing mouthfuls of seawater.
One of the most meaningful and deepest experiences of Jesse's youth was his camaraderie with the sea. When he looked at its infinity, what he saw was something of what Rabbi Chaim Vital saw when his mentor, the Ari, took him to swim in the Kinneret in order to open his heart to the nature of endlessness. The magnetism that the Gulf of Mexico held could not be put into words; it came from a place within him where words are limiting rather than defining.
The accident took place during university vacation. The sailboat Jesse was on capsized. In far less time than he would have anticipated from the safe haven of solid earth, he found himself breathless and exhausted, swallowing mouthfuls of seawater.
This can't be real competed in his mind with: This is really all there is. This is the end.
As his inner and outer eyes met, he took one more glance at the infinite stretch of water and said, "God, save me. I'll go to Israel and study Your Torah." The words had barely moved from his mind to his mouth when the rope thrown from a vessel approaching whispered its presence to him.
He did not come to Israel until half a decade had passed.
As soon as he was safe and dry, he made a simple yet subtle addition to his original vow: "as soon as I can."
When I asked him how this could possibly have happened, he told the truth. He never made a conscious decision not to keep his vow. His enormous sensitivity and integrity would never allow him that luxury. What he told me was that subconsciously, as soon as he was safe and dry, he made a simple addition to his original declaration. The addition was both subtle and silent.
It took him close to five years to see through the clouds of self-deception that almost completely shrouded the words of the addition: "as soon as I can."
BLOCKING OUR BETTER SELVES
No one decides to live a life in which nothing of consequence happens. No one votes against self-transformation.
There are three ways we block ourselves from our better selves. The first one is the fact that we are so mesmerized by the material world to the point that we stop searching for anything more. One of the words for "fool" in Hebrew is pesi. Its literal meaning is "one who is seduced." The ability to be enraptured by the world's beauty and variety and to be deceived by its richness is no doubt one of the reasons we are at times so spiritually dead. We deny ourselves life and bury the pain of meaninglessness under more layers of consumerism.
The second is the power of escapism. We can live vicariously. We can escape from lives in which the sweetness of genuine achievement is absent by many means.
A number of years ago, a fad called Rubik's cube was in vogue. It involved bringing geometrically designed revolving squares on a cube into a specific design. I was rather good at it, and, while demonstrating my prowess at the aforementioned to my colleagues during a work break, I was distressed to hear one of them ask me how much time I had invested in the attainment of this skill.
There is a dark side to us in which the empowerment of destruction is enormously attractive.
The third blockage is the allure of doing that which is depraved. There is a dark side to us in which the empowerment of destruction is enormously attractive. Since children are more transparent than adults (and in far less control), we observe this on occasion more readily with them. We see the smile on the five-year-old's face when he takes away the infant's toy. We see the barely disguised pleasure little girls sometimes display when excluding someone from their group. Children are innocent. They make no choice against their better selves; their better selves are in the process of development. When adults respond to life in this manner, it reflects the tragedy of the corruption of spiritual energy.
IF IT'S SO EASY, HOW COME IT'S SO HARD?
God wants to free us from the entrapments we have set up for ourselves. When our blockages are strongest, He will send us messages that can force us into acknowledging who we really are and how foolish our little games are. For Jesse, the message was his nearly fatal encounter with the sea. We all have encounters with our frailty and mortality.
The ultimate decision of how we want to live our lives must come from ourselves. God's supreme act of goodness is His willingness to be fair and to give us the ability to change. No achievement can match self-change, and no treasure is as valuable.
By giving us the opportunity to do teshuvah, to repent, what the Almighty has done is to give each person not just the capacity to sanctify the world and bring it to Him as an offering, but to sanctify himself. This comes as a result of our being willing to elevate our very souls and effect change on the deepest levels of our identity. In order for this to happen, there must be a basic belief in our own capacity for goodness.
Our ability to see through our failings and find ourselves at the deepest level is that which makes us whole. God is connected to us through our souls. That connection, unlike His glory, isn’t a garment He wears to make Himself known to us, but His very essence. It is that connection that draws us back to Him no matter how much distance and time there is between us.
That is what brought Jesse to Jerusalem after five years of oblivion. May the Almighty awaken it in all of us.
Excerpted from "This Way Up: Torah Essays on Spiritual Growth" by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, published by Feldheim, in conjunction with English Hamodea. Click here to purchase a copy.