I’m sorry I can’t make it to classes anymore. I still feel that an observant Jewish life is the right way to go, but I personally can’t handle it. Whatever I do, I feel it’s not enough. There’s always something I left out or something I didn’t do properly. I feel like Judaism has boxed me in, and I want to leave the box.


When you told me that you wanted to make your kitchen kosher, I told you, “Let’s go step by step. First, start buying only kosher foods and keeping your meat and milk separate. Once you’re comfortable with that, in a few months, we’ll see what has to be done in the kitchen.” You wanted to invite people over to your house to serve them a kosher Shabbat meal. I told you to hang in there a few months until it feels right.

When you told me that you had begun keeping Shabbat and wanted to learn all the details, I told you to slow down. “First get comfortable with the basics,” I said. “After you’re doing that for a while, we’ll pick up some more.” You told me other people were saying that you were doing things wrong. I told you, “Tell them that right now you’re working on basics, and eventually you’ll get to the details as well.”

The same with the way you dress, the prayers you say each day, the amount you study each day—I tried with all these things and more to get you to pace yourself, to move forward deliberately and steadily. Why? Because I didn’t want you to box yourself in.

No, not a box, but stiff, heavy clothes; like a novice hiker, every hiking gadget imaginable dangling from an enormous backpack slung over layers of the latest in hiking apparel—and almost incapable of inching forward.

I understand why you did things this way. You see others trucking along with all their mitzvah gear with apparent ease. You’re excited, and in your enthusiasm you don’t see why you should be any lower on the ladder than them. Perhaps you also don’t see why you can’t be even higher than them.

First off, let me tell you something about ladders: When it comes to keeping Torah, ladder altitude is irrelevant. It’s not how high you are, but in what direction you are moving. The guy at the top slipping down is lower than the guy who just grabbed hold of the first rung up.

There’s a line in the Talmud that “G‑d doesn’t scheme against His creatures.”1 He’s not out to get you. He asks from you that which you are capable of achieving right now, according to where you’re at in your life right now. You’re not measured up against Moses or Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai or the Baal Shem Tov. You’re measured by your own capabilities as you stand, and nothing more.

You’ll say, “But the guy at the bottom isn’t keeping everything he’s supposed to keep! Take a look in the Code of Jewish Law! He’s downright sinning!”

It’s not true. As long as he’s moving upward, at his pace, and he’s got the basics under his belt, he’s a righteous Jew doing all G‑d expects from him. It’s only when he starts to rush that he can lose that status—because by rushing, he places all he has accomplished so far in jeopardy.

It’s actually a halacha: A Jew is not allowed to possess leavened bread on Passover. What if he discovers in the middle of Passover that he has some leavened bread in his house? Every moment that he is not busy getting rid of that bread, he is breaking Passover. But as long as he is involved in isolating the bread and destroying it, everything is okay.

The same in your case: As long as you are on your way up, taking on whatever you are ready for step by step, you’re okay, 100%. In fact, you’re higher up than the guy who has been doing this his whole life, has every detail under his belt, and hasn’t moved upward for two days straight. He too has to be ever moving upward, with steps at least as big as yours each day.

Secondly, let’s distinguish between aspirations and expectations. Always aspire for more than you can achieve. If you’re a vault jumper, aim for the highest; if you’re a speed racer, aim for the fastest. If you’re a Jew, aim to be as magnificent as Abraham your father, as pure as Sarah your mother. That’s good, that’s healthy, that’s the way you move forward. What’s unhealthy is when you start to expect those things of yourself, when you kick yourself for not being there. The aspirations are good; the expectations are pure ego.

When you want your GPS to navigate you somewhere, the first thing it needs to know is where you are right now. You are here right now. You, with all your baggage; your habits good and bad, your life experiences and the attitudes they fostered; the memories that will never be washed from your mind for better and for worse; your skills and talents that must all be used now in the right direction; your wondrous imagination that can be harnessed to create beautiful things for everyone to benefit; you with all the limitations that come with life on planet earth as a human being.

There are days when you can fly high. There are days when you’re allowed to say, “Hey, I’m up, I’m dressed.” When you know where you are, who you are, and how small you really are, then every step forward is a major leap. Even the slip-ups become part of the ascent—because you say, “I know who I am, and there’s no surprise that I’m going to mess up once in a while. Now let me learn from that and get back on the ladder.”

Celebrate every mitzvah you do, and none of them will feel like a box. The Creator of the Universe will celebrate with you. That’s all He really wants from you—to do those mitzvahs with joy, with life, with your entire being. And that’s the way you move forward, by celebrating every incremental advance like a toddler celebrates his first steps, the way you felt when you first rode your bike without training wheels. What’s the point in amassing mitzvahs like a dealer shark buying up the market, if none of them become part of who you are, like a good shoe molds itself to your sole? It’s that savoring, that celebration, that’s how all this sinks into your bones. That’s how you gain ownership of your new way of life, so that you can build from it a beautiful home and family.

Then there are no boxes, only more and more cause for celebration.

Let’s work out together a reasonable plan. We’ll work out what you should be doing right now, and what you should not be doing—yet. Let’s talk basics: basic rules of Shabbat, basic kosher eating, basic issues between husband and wife. Let’s start all over again, this time for real.

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