Due to technical difficulties, the passengers had been stuck on the Brooklyn bound train for over half an hour. Evening was quickly approaching, creating a problem for the Orthodox men in need of a quorum of ten to recite the afternoon prayers.
One man decided to try and gather a group and had already found nine men by the time he approached the man swaying as he learned from the open Talmud in his lap. He had long sideburns and a black hat along with his black “I’m sorry, but I’m not Jewish” suit. When he was asked if he would join the quorum as the tenth man, he replied in flawless Yiddish that he was unable to. “I’m sorry, but I’m not Jewish” was what he said.
This story was a favorite at many of the Shabbat meals I went to. You see, the teller would explain in admiration, the man was someone who was still studying for his conversion (the Hebrew word is geirus, most often translated as ‘conversion,’ although it means something else entirely. A more proper translation would be ‘becoming a Jew’). Before becoming a Jew he had wanted to first learn everything he could possibly need to know- not merely the how-to’s of daily Orthodox practice, but how to delve into the depths of the Talmud, how to converse in Yiddish, etc. Because, he said (according to legend at least), he wanted to get it right from the beginning.
I’ve met a few people like this myself, people who studied many years before taking the plunge, and while I admire them, even envy them, I could never quite relate to them.
My own approach to becoming a Jew was far less linear. I knew that my soul was Jewish, even though I had been born to a non-Jewish mother, and the East Coast and its promise of yeshivas and Chassidism was always a dream of mine. What helped make it a reality was the sight of a group of Lubavitchers dancing and singing in a Midwestern snowstorm while blessing the new moon, and a seven year girl named Chaya who taught me how to make tea on Shabbat and graciously let me read Baal Shem Tov stories to her for the remainder of that Shabbat afternoon.
When I did finally make it to New York, I tried to go linear. I enrolled full-time in a very special yeshiva (learning institute) for women and I began interviewing rabbis as prospective ‘sponsors’ of my conversion, diligently discussing the pros and cons of each one’s outlook and adherence to Jewish law with the dean of my yeshiva. In the end, I chose the rabbi who eventually organized my conversion without any interview or discussion- simply because when I walked into his shul - the last Orthodox institution in his neighborhood - he was speaking about the Holy City of Hebron, and he was openly weeping. So much for a linear approach.
Still, I do relate to the idea of wanting to get it right from the beginning, and thinking that it’s possible to do so. The first week after my conversion, I woke every morning literally singing Modeh Ani (the morning prayer said upon awakening in which we thank our Creator for He was speaking about the Holy City of Hebron, and he was openly weeping renewing our souls). I said the morning prayers first thing, without getting side tracked by little things that ‘had’ to get done and putting off morning prayer to the last minute that could possibly be deemed ‘morning.’ Nothing seemed challenging or difficult, nothing could mar my absolute awe and joy at finally being a Jew. I wouldn’t have imagined that I would ever dread cleaning for Passover, or spend two hours on the phone with a friend and completely forget to pray the afternoon prayer of Mincha. I certainly didn’t think I would have moments where I felt alone, or angry, or depressed. Not that I thought I was perfect, but I just couldn’t imagine that that intense awareness of and appreciation for each moment would ever wane, even temporarily.
In that initial rush of excitement, I didn’t really get what it means to be a Jew. That finally having a Jewish soul, fully present and accounted for, doesn’t mean that you’ve climbed to a certain place and now you can just rest there doing mitzvahs as they come along. Or that your relationship with G-d suddenly becomes this process of steadily feeling closer, more aware, and more secure.
In reality, nothing is that automatic. Like every relationship, our relationship with G-d is one that requires constant work. Not that from His side the essence of the relationship ever changes - His love for us and faith in us is always there, always strong and never wavering. But from our side, it takes work to maintain that sense of loving and being loved, of being close, and being cared for. Without at least occasional meditation, it’s easy to fall into a sense of estrangement.
The mind and emotions of a Jew are landscapes all their own, and they require conquering and settling. The parallel for this in our national experience is the conquest of the Land of Israel. When Joshua first led the People of Israel into the Land, we had to conquer the seven nations of Canaan already living there. The military conquest lasted seven years, followed by seven years of settling. Yet long after the period of conquest and settling had ended, there were occasional wars with remnants of those nations still living in Israel. These were usually precipitated by periods where, under their influence, the Jews turned to worshipping the idols of the Cananites.
In Chassidic philosophy it is explained that these seven nations correspond to the seven emotional attributes inside each one of us: loving-kindness, might, beauty, victory/endurance, acknowledgment, foundation, and kingship. In addition, there are three nations- corresponding to the intellectual attributes of wisdom, understanding, and knowledg, whose physical territory we will only be able to acquire with the arrival of Moshiach and only after we conquer these lands on a spiritual and emotional level.
These ten intellectual and emotional attributes - the sefirot - make up the inner Land of Israel in every Jew. And just as with the physical Land of Israel, their conquest requires years of struggle. And as you succeed in fighting off the most ungodly forces within, you have to also begin the challenging task of settling your inner landscape- filling it with knowledge of G-d and His Torah, with faith, with the acknowledgement of the all the beauty and goodness that is in you and the world around you. Land as fertile as human imagination and emotion won’t stay idle for long - each spot not claimed for the sake of good will inevitably end up being settled by the negative - and further military conquest becomes necessary.
In that initial rush of excitement, I didn’t really get what it means to be a Jew
And just when we think we’ve conquered all of our inner territory, we might find little pockets of Canaanite settlements still thriving, enticing us to worship their idols of money, power, recognition - taking us prisoner with anxiety and self-doubt.
This is where my very non-linear history actually comes in handy. Having operated more from the heart than the head for 32 years now, I’ve learned how stand up again after falling flat on my face. And while the linear, logical approach has its advantages - Divine Assistance sometimes comes in the guise of emotional bursts that send us flying over obstacles and months of slow, plodding growth - but you have to be willing to let go and allow yourself to be carried sometimes.
At the same time, unless these bursts of inspiration are fully integrated into one’s way of thinking and being, the progress is lost. You may even find yourself catapulted back to a lower place than before. Conversely, the deeper and more real the integration, the more permanent our settlements will be and the closer we come to fully entering the Land.
Before setting out to enter the physical Land of Israel, Joshua gathered the nation for a pep talk and a day of preparation. He warned them of the enormity of the task ahead, but encouraged them with the assurance that great miracles lay ahead as well and that G-d would be assisting them every step of the way - they only needed to begin their task with the humble awareness of this Heavenly assistance and their dependence on it. That day was the Ninth of Nissan - which is also the day that I became a Jew. It makes perfect sense to me - because the day that I became a Jew isn’t the day I reached my spiritual destination. It’s the day that enabled me to start walking.