Breaking the Comfort Barrier
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Breaking the Comfort Barrier

Breaking the Comfort Barrier

Forget the holiday hike. A real spiritual path is steep and challenging.

by

"There are only two kinds of Jews in the world." The rabbi was addressing a group of thirty Canadian teenagers on a roof in Jerusalem's Old City. "Those who are moving forward and those who aren't."

His words resonated with me. Some 30 years before, as a college student, I had abandoned the Judaism I was raised on, because I considered it totally static. I set out in search of a spiritual path. A path, by definition, takes you somewhere.

After 17 years immersed in Eastern religions, I attended a lecture by Rabbi Dovid Din, of blessed memory. He said that halacha, or Torah law, came from the root word meaning, "to walk, to go." "Halacha is a path," he asserted. "You move along it."

That revelation hit me like a thunderbolt. If Torah was really a dynamic spiritual path, I was willing to take my first tentative steps along it.

SHEDDING OUR OLD SKIN

In fact, the metaphor of a path is not quite correct. I can traverse thousands of miles of path, amass a 100,000 frequent-flyer miles, and still be the same person as when I set out, albeit a little wiser and a little travel weary. On a real spiritual path, it is the person, not the scenery, which changes. I know I am "moving forward" if I am not the same person I was a year ago. A spiritual odometer tracks inner changes, not outer mileage.

I know I am "moving forward" if I am not the same person I was a year ago.

Many paths are level and straight. A real spiritual path is steep and occasionally has sudden turns. The Torah term for change is tshuva, which means "returning," that is, changing directions. One's values, actions, and priorities experience a radical shift. One who treads the path in comfort is on a holiday hike, not a spiritual path.

And herein lies the rub. Human beings are not snakes. Snakes shed their skins painlessly as they grow. When humans grow, they must shed some aspect of their former selves. This demands a painful renunciation, a renunciation of a little bit of who I was last week, of the comfortable skin I am used to calling myself.

For example, if a person with a volatile temper aspires to be less angry, she must change her knee-jerk reaction to events that set her off. In the process of overcoming this negative trait, she must speak and act differently than she was used to doing her whole life. Such effort to break habitual patterns requires not only hard work, but also the desire to be different, to shed the familiar fiery persona.

For a human being to really grow spiritually, he or she must break the comfort barrier.

This can be frightening, and at times exhilarating.

JUMPING INTO THE ABYSS

During my 15th year of living in a Hindu-style ashram, a spiritual community in the woods of Massachusetts, I was given a two-month leave of absence. I spent the time studying Torah with a rabbi in New York, and at some point decided to commit myself to observing the mitzvoth of the Torah.

The only problem was that I had no intention of leaving the ashram, where I worked full time as the Guru's personal secretary and the ashram administrator. I headed the publishing department, was in charge of the investments, and taught Vedanta during the Guru's frequent absences. The ashram not only set the parameters for my spiritual path, but also for my whole life. I had no other home, friends, or career. To leave the ashram was unthinkable.

My unflappable rabbi was not fazed. Returning from a speaking engagement in Vermont, he detoured with me to my Guru's private retreat house on Cape Cod. During a one-hour conversation with her, he laid out all the requirements of a Torah-observant Jew. My Guru, totally unwilling to lose me, agreed to them all. She would build me my own cabin with my own kosher kitchen. Saturday would be my day off. As for the idol worship taking place in the inner shrine, I would be exempt from shrine duty forever.

I felt relieved as I drove the rabbi back to New York. I could be a Torah-observant Jew without having to lose anything I held dear.

When it was time to fly back to the ashram, I felt as torn as if I were on the Inquisitioner's rack.

I extended my two-month leave of absence for another two months and went to study Torah in Jerusalem for the summer. When it was time to fly back to the ashram, I felt as torn as if I were on the Inquisitioner's rack. My will was to return to my familiar life at the ashram, where I enjoyed a certain status, prestige, and security. God's will was for me to practice Torah in Jerusalem, where I was a thirty-seven-year-old neophyte, ignorant of the basics which every six-year-old child here could expound on.

I had no money, no job prospects (imagine my resume: 1970-1985 ashram secretary), and no health insurance. I also had no assurance that I would find someone to marry. I had met many prettier women who had been here for years who were still single.

The words from Nikos Kazantzakis's novel, Saint Francis, kept reverberating in my mind. Francis visits an old holyman and asks, "What is the path?" The holyman replies: "It's not a path. It's an abyss. Jump."

I jumped.

Two-and-a-half years later, when my brother visited me, my husband, and our baby daughter in Jerusalem, he said to me: "You're like a cat. You jump from the top of tall buildings and always land on your feet."

I corrected him: "I land in God's arms."

THE COPERNICAN REVOLUTION

This is not to say that a person who aspires to grow in Judaism must change every aspect of his or her life. Only one change is necessary, but it is absolutely essential: An aspirant must take himself or herself out of the director's seat, and put God there.

In every large and small decision, the Divine will, rather than one's own will, must be the deciding factor.

Of course, for those of us raised on secular humanism, this requires a Copernican revolution. We have been conditioned to believe that the individual is the center of the universe. To abdicate my will to anyone, even or especially God, is the ultimate heresy in the religion of secular humanism.

We have been conditioned to believe that the individual is the center of the universe.

National Review editor David Klinghoffer, in his articulate and thought-provoking book, The Lord Will Gather Me In, writes about his visit, as an adult, with the Reform rabbi at the synagogue where he grew up. Klinghoffer, struggling with the same issue, was seeking to clarify the Reform position on the obligatory nature of Torah. The rabbi explained: " . . .the choice to obey the Torah or not is based on what I find meaningful and relevant. The Reform movement interprets Jewish tradition to say that the Covenant allows for informed individual choice." Klinghoffer sums it up: "In other words, Reform means doing what you want."

But growing -- in any spiritual path -- entails sometimes, or often, doing what you don't want. This is the comfort barrier which must be broken en route to any serious spiritual growth.

For a Jew who believes God revealed His will in the Torah, this means:

  • Swallowing a clever wisecrack you were about to make about a co-worker, even though your listeners would have thought you were tremendously witty.
  • Going to a friend's wedding and not eating any of the non-kosher food, including at the Viennese dessert table.
  • Visiting your mother on her birthday, even though you had complimentary tickets to a great concert.
  • Getting up 45 minutes earlier in the morning in order to pray.
  • Walking back two blocks to return to the cashier at Walmarts the extra $5 bill she accidentally gave you as change, even though you need the money more than Walmarts does.
  • Not killing a mosquito which is buzzing around your head all Shabbos night.
  • Giving a smile and a gracious "Good Morning" to your neighbor who always studiously ignores you.

Every day, sometimes every hour, poses challenges and opportunities for growth. For religious and non-religious Jews alike, the imperative is to take the next step, beyond one's comfort zone. Complacency is the opposite of Judaism.

TSHUVA AGAIN

The imperative to grow and change applies to all of us, including those who have been Torah observant for decades, or who were born into observant families. Tshuva, the process of turning around, is incumbent upon every Jew, every day.

The Mishna says: "Do tshuva the day before you die." Since obviously no one knows which day he will die, the implication is that one should do tshuva every day.

I remember a Yom Kippur about four years after I had become a baalat tshuva, that is, left the ashram and started living a Torah observant life in Jerusalem. The whole theme of Yom Kippur is to do tshuva, to change our ways, so that God can grant us the gift of atonement. That Yom Kippur I suddenly woke up and realized that I had to do tshuva again! I had been coasting, resting on my laurels after the great exertion of changing my whole lifestyle. I had already done tshuva, I felt, so what were these 400 pages of the Yom Kippur service all about? I was comfortable in my new life style.

Suddenly I experienced that same queasy feeling as my first day in college, when I realized -- after working like a Trojan for four years of high school so that I would get admitted to a top university -- that now I had to start studying hard all over again so I could get into a top grad school. Standing there in synagogue that Yom Kippur, I realized that the struggle to be better, kinder, more patient, more accepting of God's will, is never ending. The path has its plateaus, but its endpoint recedes like the horizon.

COURAGE AND CONSISTENCY

A story is told about William James, who was a Professor of Psychology at Harvard almost a century ago. At the end of one of James's public lectures, a man from the audience approached him.

"Professor James," the man began. "I was a student of yours ten years ago, and I heard you lecture on the exact same subject. But what you said tonight totally contradicted what you said then."

"My good man," James replied. "Do you think I've been standing still?"

"False consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

Growing requires the courage to reexamine our assumptions and values, to admit that who we are today is not the best that we can be, and sometimes to expose ourselves to the charge of contradicting our own positions and tenets. As George Bernard Shaw said, "False consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

Everyone of us must grow, change, push ourselves to become a better person and a better Jew than we were last week. In these difficult times, we can afford to have only one kind of Jew: the kind who is moving forward.

For Sara Yoheved Rigler's FREE WEBINAR FOR SINGLE WOMEN, go to http://www.sararigler.com/ie/ladder8242014.php.

Published: February 17, 2001


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Visitor Comments: 23

(23) Chana Zelasko, March 7, 2005 12:00 AM

I identify with you

I have read several of your articles, and I find them very interesting. I think one main reason is that we are about the same age. I graduated from college about the same year you did. I remember the atmosphere that was prevalent in those years. I read Breaking the Comfort Barrier several times. I knew exactly what you were talking about when you described that "queasy feeling your first day of college." I remember thinking "Ugh! Another 4 years of this?" I was never an outstanding student. No matter how well I did, it seemed there was always somebody better. When I became religious, I saw that Judaism views this entirely differently. You are only competing with yourself. If today you controlled your anger better than yesterday, that in itself is an achievement. Nobody can take it away from you. Hashem loves everyone for who they are, but He wants us to continue to grow. Everytime we change for the better it gives Naches to the A-lmighty. Judaism is a very communal religion, but it is also very individual. I look forward to reading more of your outstanding articles.

(22) suzan b, March 2, 2005 12:00 AM

We must keep learning and practicing and going forward

Beautiful article. We all have something that we could improve on and we should all learn and go forward

(21) Andy, March 1, 2005 12:00 AM

Inspiring essay minus reform critique

I enjoyed reading the essay and agree with your comments. Could have done without the reform bashing as I suspect reform Judaism is less about doing whatever one wants and more about denying that all the words of Torah are to be taken literally as the voice/mind/will of God and therefore I believe that reform Jews are not clear exactly what God wants. For example don't murder,steal, commit adultery. Do give 10% of income to needy,visit the sick,remember that we were strangers in Egypt and to love your neighbor as yourself are probably observed as seriously maybe more so ,or not by reform as by orthodox. Commandments dealing with the Sabbath,homosexuality,the wayward son,momzerim,sacrificial system and rebuilding of the temple are I think not accepted by reform Jews as the will of God. I don't think that means they have the right to do whatever they want. Might is right ideology is not I think a belief of reform Jewry. Maybe one of their Rabbis or informed laymen will respond to this essay.

(20) sarah zinman, March 1, 2005 12:00 AM

response to amazing article

This article, Breaking the Comfort Barrier, by Sara Rigler is one of the best testimonials I have ever read by a Baale Teshuvah, and I have read MANY. I am one myself but have had many bad experiences that have turned me toward disallusionment and complacency, so I was thrilled to find an article that spoke to me on a deep level. The "jump" quote was very powerful. As was "landing in G-d's arms". Wonderful. Thank you. I pray that my feet can become unstuck that I too may once again "jump".

(19) Basya Perlman, February 28, 2005 12:00 AM

Response to "Scared!"

Dear "Scared",
You asked: But, can you offer advice when breaking out of your comfort zone involves giving discomfort to others . . ie. family that is not religious?
If I had to give a short answer, I would say -- with patience and tact.
The real answer is a bit longer, though not very different. First of all, realize that, whatever advice you receive, *you* have to work this out with *your* family. This is a very important point. Others can give you advice and suggestions. That is terrific. But you are a unique individual and your family members are unique and your relationships are unique. Tailor your handling of things to your unique situation someone wise and sensitive who knows you can be very helpful here, being a bit more objective than you.)
That said, here are some guidelines.
First, your main obligation in this world is to do what G-d wants of you. This is true even if it conflicts with what other people (even your parents) want of you. However, G-d does not want you to be careless about the needs and feelings of others. In short, don't stunt your growth because it will be uncomfortable for other people. However, do everything you can, within the bounds of halacha, your personal abilities, and your relationships to minimize the discomfort for others.
Exactly how to do this depends on your individual circumstances, as I mentioned above. A lot depends upon two things which you did not specify -- who the people are (you will have different issues with a husband or a wife or parents or siblings... and what they are uncomfortable with. So I can not really offer much specific advice.
What I can say is this. Move forward. Tread your path of growth but tread carefully. A person who is becoming observant often goes through a very awkward phase at the beginning. This probably happens because we are at that stage uncomfortable and uncertain and somewhat insecure! Try to minimize this and to shield your family members from the awkwardness. Some
ways to do this are: Take some time to go away from home to learn and grow. This has two advantages: the distance shields your family from
your initial struggles, and you have focused time to learn, allowing you to have more information available to you when you do return to interact with your family
- Consider slow growth -- become comfortable with one change and then move on to the next
- Try to learn a lot and have the guidance of a rabbi or other knowledgeable mentor. Thus you can spare your family the over-strictness which sometimes comes from ignorance (if you have clear halachic guidelines, for example, you can sometimes be more lenient in kashrus in your parents' home. A new ba'al teshuva will often do the opposite, lacking this clear halachic knowledge. This can be very stressful for the family and can give a bad impression of frum peope in general.
- Have patience with yourself and your family!
-As appropriate to your family and your relationships, consider explaining what you are doing, why you are different, etc.
- Treat your family members with respect. This sounds obvious, but the thrill of finding truth and the exhilaration of making changes in your life for religious/spiritual reasons can lead you to some subtle and small feelings of contempt for
those who don't have the strengh of character to make the changes you did, or for those who just don't see the truths which to you seem self-evident.
Hatzlocha raba!
Basya

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