Work seems to be going OK and my mood has been better this week. I don’t seem to be making as many mistakes as earlier in the week and so far my boss hasn’t complained about my speed, although I’m going slower than I would like. I’m shaking again, though, when I talk to my boss. Shaking is something that hasn’t been a huge problem for a while. I shake when I get nervous, probably connected with medication side-effects, but I go long periods of not being troubled by it at all and then it can suddenly come out of nowhere. My gut instinct is that I was so worried that my boss at this job would be like my boss at my previous job (critical and temperamental) that it led to anxiety and shaking. Then, once it’s started, I begin to worry about shaking when I go into a social situation and my anxiety about shaking triggers the shaking itself and I become trapped by my own nervous system (nervous in both senses of the word).
The main thing I want to blog about today is something I read. I’ve been reading Halakhic Morality: Essays on Ethics and Masorah by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Rav Soloveitchik (as he is known) is a major figure in twentieth century Orthodox Judaism, a major communal figure and a major thinker. The book is a selection of previously unpublished essays and lectures on Jewish ethics. The final chapter, titled Religious Styles, deals with the need to develop a unique personal religious style. Rav Soloveitchik says that there is the halakhah, Jewish law, which is binding on all Jews in the same way and can be formally taught. But there is also religious style, the way a person fulfils the commandments, which a person has to develop for himself, based on observing his or her parents and teachers. One can keep all the mitzvot (commandments) punctiliously and still be a bad person if one has a bad style, for instance if one is short-tempered, rude, gluttonous and so on.
This was interesting to me, because I struggle to find my own religious style and to work out where I fit in the frum (religious) community, and it chimes with my understanding of the teachings of the Kotzker Rebbe a century earlier, which stress individuality. But then the Rav says,
“Sometimes we walk into shul [synagogue] on Rosh ha-Shanah [Jewish New Year] and we are as cold as if we had just come out of a deep freeze. We want to ignite a fire, to warm up our personality. It happens to everybody; it happens to me too. I do not think then about the philosophy of Rosh ha-Shanah and the concepts of malkhuyot, zikhronot, and shofarot [kingship, remembrance and the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn trumpet, the three core concepts of the day’s prayers]. No matter how wonderful and beautiful they are, how fascinating intellectually they may be, they will not light a fire. One cannot arouse a person by philosophizing.
All I have to do is recollect the tune my grandfather R. Hayyim used while reciting U-Vekhen Ten Pahdekha [part of the Rosh Hashanah prayers] – that’s all! Suddenly a fire is ignited, my heart begins to warm up and I begin to feel the sanctity of the day.” (pp. 198-199)
I find this interesting, as this is the problem I have been wrestling with in the run up to Rosh Hashanah (starting Sunday night), so it seemed strange to reach this chapter just now when I’ve been reading this book on and off for months. I also feel cold about the coming Yom Tovim, but I don’t know how to warm myself. To be honest, I have probably needed warming up for some years. Unlike the Rav, I do not come from a famous rabbinic dynasty to have examples of ‘warm’ Jews from my ancestors. To make matters worse, I have a lot of anger and resentment against HaShem (God) to work through and I don’t know how to do it. Nor do I know what my unique religious style would be. But I’m glad to know that it’s not just me who struggles.
In a somewhat related way, the assistant rabbi was talking in shiur (religious class) tonight about the need to connect with HaShem and other people in an authentic way, not just out of ego (so we can feel good that we condescend to help others) or to get rewarded. He said we should find one middah (character trait) that is naturally well-developed in us, something that comes easily to us, and use that to help others altruistically at this time of year so that we will connect with the world in a genuinely altruistic, God-centred way and deserve a good new year.
I don’t know that I have even one good middah. I can’t think of any good deed or mitzvah (commandment) that comes easily to me. In the latest of his weekly parasha essays, Rabbi Lord Sacks says “The world is waiting for you” but I don’t know what I am expected to do. The only thing I can think of where I connect to people in a genuinely altruistic way, doing it for other people rather than to get something for myself, is when I interact with people online, on my blog and other people’s blogs, where I genuinely like to connect and help with advice or support about mental illness. But if that’s my mission in life, it rather implies that I will always be depressed.
I wish I could tell if I am a good person and a good Jew. E. told me recently that she thinks that in secular terms, I would be a good person. Which I guess is good, but I’m not sure if it’s good enough. I mean, part of the reason I’m frum is that I find the secular Western ethic lacking in many ways and the Jewish ethic to be more meaningful and more fully thought through and in a way actually more humanistic, more attuned to human nature, more aware of its pitfalls and more able to avoid them, but also in some ways more accepting of it. Somehow it feels that the active good I do is very little, and my goodness, such as it is, is mostly avoiding the bad. Which is good, at least up to a point. “Turn from evil and do good” says Tehillim (Psalms) (34.15). Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz is said to have spent twenty-one years improving himself by following this dictum: seven years removing evil from himself; another seven years finding the good; and a third set of seven years inculcating the good into himself. Still, I feel that if I started becoming frum when I was twelve, I’ve had well over my twenty-one years by now and I’m far from good.
The world might be waiting for me, but I don’t know what it is waiting for me to do.