At one point, I even believed that it didn’t matter if I married a Jew because my kids would be Jews and I’d raise them with the Jewish stuff I found personally meaningful, so who cared who the father was?
I came to Eretz Yisrael for the first time with a traditional-secular summer program and absolutely fell in love with the Land.
Though I never considered myself spiritual, I felt a beautiful tranquility at the Kotel and kept coming back for more. The program also made us keep some semblance of Shabbat. That, combined with the Israeli Shabbat atmosphere, sparked within me the need to seek out a shomer Shabbat lifestyle, which led me to the frum community.
Following the Torahdik Road
It wasn’t anybody’s fault as many people possess emuna on only the most superficial level without even realizing it, making it impossible to pass it on to others.
So when it came to emuna, I was basically presented with two role models.
Role model #1: The simple Jews who believed that Hashem runs everything and who are quite generous, giving freely to tzedakah and yeshivot and the like.
- They truly believe that tzedakah and acts of chessed, like visiting the sick, bring them bracha.
- And they certainly did talk to Hashem whenever they had a problem, though it seemed to consist exclusively of complaints and embittered requests.
But that was still far above what I and most of the people I knew were doing.
The problem was that many of these simple people (but not all!) seemed pretty unhappy. They also frequently transgressed some very serious and fairly obvious prohibitions. Spreading rumors, slandering, hating others, inciting machloket, behaving with petty immaturity, and the like were standard by many of these people.
To confuse things even more, I kept hearing about how much we should admire the emuna of these same simple people. (I realized later that it was their deceased parents and ancestors who were the truly God-fearing and self-sacrificing simple Jews I’d heard so much about.)
Of course, their religious beliefs and their willingness to speak directly to Hashem were spot-on and far more elevated than those of the oh-so educated traditional-secular Jews with whom I’d grown up, but outside of their basic belief in Hashem and their dedication to certain mitzvot, many of these simple Jews were simply not people to emulate (although one could still admire their good points as described above).
Role Model #2: Then there were the Jews who constantly chirped, “Just have emuna!” or “Just daven!”
- If they ever saw you struggling with an issue, they tried to cut you off as soon as they could with one or both of these phrases, often accompanied by a smile and chuckle that implied you were a bit of a nitwit.
- They never lent a listening ear nor a shoulder to cry on (so to speak), and rarely offered any meaningful help; they just chirped.
I couldn’t help noticing that they also often had some pretty serious problems in their own lives which they handled by pasting on a beautific smile and relegating even the most pressing problems to the status of spilled milk, playfully mocking anyone who took the issues more seriously.
They said Tehillim and some even spoke to Hashem (a couple of sentences here and there, as far as I could tell), while keeping everything very superficial.
I couldn’t help getting the impression that they more interested in finding a hashkafah that justified their chosen state of denial, and a declaration of emuna simply fit the bill.
A very few gave lip service to searching for Hashem’s message in it all, but gave no sign of actually doing so. They reminded me of little girls who enjoy playing house and stumbling around in a pair of Mommy’s old pumps and shaitel...except the emuna-chirpers sincerely didn’t seem to know they were pretending.
So I thought that emuna meant either that I’d be generous but kind of depressed with bad middot OR that I’d be lazy, superficial, and delusional.
But I didn't want to be either one.
Going through the Motions of Gratitude and Emuna
Plus, I would hear a lot about seeing the good in everything and feeling grateful, but every time I felt inspired to get all appreciative (“Changing diapers is geshmack! Think of all the childless women who yearn to perform this tedious and yucky chore!”), I’d always come crashing down shortly after, leaving me with a kind of spiritual PTSD that meant I couldn’t pick myself back up because I so dreaded the inevitable smash and burn.
Furthermore, the benefits of gratitude and appreciation were rarely explained, just that it was something you were supposed to do.
I was getting lengthy and profound explanations about the benefits and truths inherent in Shabbat, kashrut, netilat yadayim, and the Creation of the Universe as written in Beresheit...but when it came to the Jewish fundamentals of emuna and gratitude to Hashem, it seemed like there was no deeper understanding or compelling reason for them – except to quip that internalizing such concepts would make me a happier person.
(And as I described, it did for a very short while...until the smash and burn, making me feel even worse than before.)
Emuna – It’s the Real Thing
At one point, I read Gate of Trust in Duties of the Heart, and that helped a lot. But I was too stuck to really internalize the concepts.
Finally, after a lot of resistance, I forced myself to read Garden of Emuna.
“Only a paragraph a day,” I promised myself so I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed.
But to my surprise, I couldn’t stick to just a paragraph. The book was answering every single one of my reservations! All the things I never wanted to admit to anyone were addressed – and resolved – in this one little book.
Now I understood why so many of the romanticized simple people seemed so miserable: Connecting with Hashem consists of three parts (praise/gratitude, self-introspection/confession, and requests) and they were only doing the last part.
And I also finally understood why the second group was such a turn-off:
- First of all, they gave only lip service to accepting Hashem’s Judgements and chirping, “Baruch Hashem!” It wasn't deep or meaningful - or real (as far as I could tell).
- Secondly, while they made requests, there was almost no cheshbon hanefesh. Ultimately, they couldn’t deal with their own pain or questions, so they couldn’t deal with anyone else’s either.
And at long last, I understood why simply having "a positive attitude!" or just randomly forcing myself to be more appreciative wasn’t working: I needed to be plugged in first.
Needless to say, pushing buttons and turning dials on a radio does nothing if it’s not plugged in.
Now that I finally had the whole truth whomped in my face, I realized what I ultimately needed to do.
A Spiritual Awakening - Take 2
You break free, but gosh, all those little shards hurt like the dickens while you're doing it.
Getting a Glimpse
In His great Kindness, Hashem then sent me a few dreams which were clearly glimpses of past lives. And even though I didn’t (and still don’t) have the whole picture, I finally understood a smidgen of why I’d had to go through certain painful events and why other things had never (and still haven’t and may never) worked out, no matter how hard I’d tried.
And I got a taste of Hashem’s tremendous Grace in allowing a one-time mitzvah in an otherwise barren former gilgul to be the window into getting yet another chance in this lifetime to get it all right. Or realizing that in His great Generosity, He had previously given me all the things I lacked and craved so badly in this life – but I’d wasted those gifts or used them wrongly in past lives. Those wonderful gifts had ended up becoming stumbling blocks.
Depriving me of them now wasn’t punishment, but merely a removal of stumbling blocks in order to facilitate my way to the victory I’d missed several times before. Hashem gives us a LOT of chances, but eventually, you end up on your last. So this lifetime was now more grueling, but also less likely to end in failure.
And at this point, I divide my life between before I read Garden of Emuna and after I read Garden of Emuna.
Tending the Garden
And I wanted to share my new-found knowledge with everyone and engage in lots of exploratory discussions, but couldn’t because fellow frummies either mocked me or found me extremely irritating (just like when I become frum in the secular world!). This was quite painful and disheartening, but it taught me some valuable lessons and paved the way toward meeting like-minded people from whom I could learn.
After reading Garden of Education and applying the principles, I saw how even the most unsolvable chinuch problems were either now solved or at least improved, and I got rid of all my other chinuch books. The emuna method both demanded more effort yet was simpler than any other method I’d ever tried.
Although I was told that I was burying my head in the sand, it was obvious that facing head-on the ugliest parts of yourself only because you know that’s best for your child demands more courage and grit then all the running around to different experts, lectures, and schools (which I’d been doing before – with hardly any result, except feeling exhausted and beaten).
Now that I’m going through Garden of Gratitude, I understand more that true gratitude is not a superficial or lazy. Real gratitude is work!
And now I’m grateful for all those role models of false emuna because they were so repellent (especially the well-meaning chirpers) that they kept me from taking the easy way out and forced me to hold out for the real thing. If I hadn’t kept searching, I never would have found it.
Obviously, I am not a baalat bitachon and emuna, and I still fall on my face (even though it’s not the smash-and-burn of yore).
But words can’t express the tremendous relief of finally being pointed in the right direction.