I have been sick and away from my blog while I recovered, but I feel like it is such a huge blessing that I was made to slow down and rest before the High Holidays are here. I’m coming out of the fog at just the right time now to finish preparing and I was gifted with an amazingly insightful Tanya class this morning that was so timely and so answered questions I’ve been having.
In this class, we compared the story of Channah and her prayers, which are the example of prayer that Jews follow. Channah was a woman during the prophet Eli’s time who did not have children of her own. She was deeply sorrowful at her lack, to the point where she was barely eating and so she went to the Beis Hamikdash to daven there. When Eli saw her davening, she was crying and swaying and he heard no sound and only her lips were moving. He approached her and essentially asked if she was drunk and she replied that no, she was pouring out her soul and his response was that her prayers would be answered. As the story goes, her prayers were answered and she conceived and bore a son who she named Samuel and dedicated to the service of Hashem and who, of course, went on to greatness. In our class, we dug deeper into Eli’s words, which are a little unusual since if he really believed she was drunk, he simply would have had her removed from the Temple.
Digging deeper, we see that it is more that Eli was asking Channah if she was simply davening from her heart, from her own wants and desires. Her answer is that, no, she is davening from her soul, pouring out her soul.
So…what is the difference?
When we daven for our wants and needs from our soul rather than our heart, following Channah’s example, it isn’t for our own selfish desires, but only so that we should receive those blessings in order to return them to the service of Hashem. When Channah eventually did bear a son, she immediately prepared him and handed him over to the service of Hashem. It’s like a person who davened for great wealth, but only so that they could give it all up to great charity or a person who davened for great health only so that they could run to volunteer to help others. Channah is the perfect example of Jewish prayer not just because of her complete faith that she could trust Hashem to hear her heartfelt prayers and answer them, but also because her ultimate goal was to elevate whatever she was given and return it back to the Creator. She asked to be trusted to do Hashem’s work in the world.
So, to bring this back to the more mundane world I live in…
I have a friend who is struggling in her conversion process. She’s a lovely, kind woman who wishes to be a Jew very badly and the conversion process has been difficult for her to understand. Most often, when I speak with her, she expresses a fear of what the Rabbis think of her. She speaks of, “Oh, I’d better do this, or I’ll get in ‘trouble.'” She has been unable to move to a place where she can walk to shul and yet is frustrated that her conversion process seems to have stalled. She is a mature, lovely older woman, but yet her relationship with Judaism seems to be like a girl wanting to please a stern father and that father is not Hashem, but Rabbis.
I have had trouble articulating what seems amiss with this until today. The most I’ve done is to ask her, when she was particularly frustrated, “Who are you doing this for?”
The class this morning brought into much stronger relief why her words have troubled me so much. I can’t say what her reasons for desiring conversion are, but knowing that she is a good person, I assume that they are sincere, but it really does not seem like her reasons for desiring conversion are for the mitzvos alone. It seems more to be coming from her heart, not her soul. If it was from her soul, then her focus would likely be much more on how she could do more mitzvos or perfect her observance of the mitzvos she is keeping and less on what a Rabbi may or may not think and being in “trouble.”
To be clear, I don’t mean to sound that I’m in judgment of her. In fact, I can see where I was in that place earlier in my own process. I didn’t know exactly “why” I wanted to be Jewish and each year when I was in that space, I probably would have given a different answer depending on what part of Judaism my heart was drawn to. One year, it might have been the beautiful traditions of Judaism. Another, it might have been the warmth of Jewish community. Another year, it might have been the strong, supportive structure that mitzvos make for family life. This morning, learning more about Channah’s prayers, I realized that it’s only in this year that a very deep shift has happened where I can see that those “why’s” I had before were actually more superficial than I originally thought. They weren’t reasons that would sustain me through the really tough times.
What if, I had converted when my reason was beautiful traditions and I happened upon a time when I felt separated from those traditions or they lost their luster for me? What if I’d converted when my reason was the warmth of Jewish community and I wound up in a community that was struggling to show that warmth? Or, what might have happened if my reason for conversion was family life…and my children had grown up and moved far from me or tragedy had struck my family? Each of these reasons resonated more with my heart than my soul, even if they hinted at a much deeper reason that my soul kept bringing me back.
Ultimately, I really think the reason my soul wants conversion is simply…to be able to do more mitzvos. It sounds absurdly simple, but in all honesty, to me that feels like the only reason that makes sense now. I could exist as a non-Jew and find almost everything else in that list in some other way and those desires are all more about making my life more pleasurable. Being able to do more mitzvos, though…comes back to wanting to be trusted to partner with Hashem in a way that is unique to Jews, to come before Him as Channah did, davening from my soul for something, but only so that I can return it back to Him. I’m asking to be trusted to do the Jewish work in this world.
From that perspective, it matters so much less what the Rabbis think than it does that I’m doing my very best to be the best Jew I can be and to keep growing and learning to be better at observing the mitzvos. If I’m doing that, then the Rabbi is no one to fear, but someone who can help me grow and if He is delaying me, it’s for my good so that I will be ready when I finally am obligated. He’s not someone I need to impress…it’s Hashem I need to impress and if I’m focused on that, the Rabbi is someone who is absolutely on my side, trying to help make sure I’m ready for the heavy obligations I’m asking for.
It’s a small but huge shift to me and I think it applies to more than just converts, but could apply to anyone preparing for Rosh Hashanah, to again ask Hashem to be our King and to judge this world worthy of another year. What is our “why” behind this request? Is it from our heart…or are we, like Channah, pouring out our very souls, asking more to be given more opportunities to do His work in this world?