It was after the first lockdown. We had been back in shul for a few weeks, when a familiar face showed up. Alfred is an observant fellow and was previously a regular attendee. Like so many others, he was hesitant to return to the synagogue, fearing the spread of coronavirus in any indoor space. But eventually, he arrived to commemorate his mother’s yahrzeit. Looking very nervous, he sat in the back row, hoping to pass unnoticed. But then the gabbai caught sight of him, and in a loud bellow, he declared, “Yaamod Avraham ben Yitzchak shlishi!”
Alfred made his way clumsily up to the bimah trying not to stumble over the one-way floor markings. At the bimah, he confusedly waited for directions as to where to stand and when to make the bracha. He later mentioned that it was his most awkward aliyah since his bar mitzvah. Somehow everyone else – who had been coming already for close to a month – knew the drill. From his perspective, however, he finally understood what first-timers deal with when they attend shul. The experience felt like an entirely new religion.
תַנְיָא, רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר מִשּׁוּם רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר: רַבִּים שֶׁבֵּרְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ לְעַצְמָן, מַה שֶּׁבֵּרְרוּ בֵּרְרוּ. אִינִי?! וְהָאָמַר רַב גִּידֵּל אָמַר רַב: וְהוּא שֶׁאָבְדָה לָהֶן דֶּרֶךְ בְּאוֹתוֹ שָׂדֶה.
Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer: In a situation where the public selected a path for themselves in a private field, the path that they selected, they selected. Is that so? But didn’t Rav Giddel quote Rav: This applies only if they had misplaced a path in that field (prior to the privatization of the property there was already a public path whose exact location was lost).
The Gemara discusses whether you are allowed to traverse a path through private land, and concludes that the circumstances would permit such behaviour when there used to be a public path, but the path was lost or forgotten over time.
It is very challenging to chart a path through new territory, especially when you lack a compass and are surrounded by darkness. But when you know that you’ve been down this path before, you just need to steady yourself and get your bearings. It begins to feel like dusting off your old bike and getting back on.
The most familiar tasks can seem daunting when the situation shifts a degree or two out of their regular pattern. And so arriving in shul and having to learn a whole new system can be off-putting even to the most veteran minyanaires. It’s tempting to say ‘Wake me up when this is all over. I refuse to feel like a stranger in my own shul as I don’t even know where to stand for an aliya.’
But it’s that attitude that deters us from growing spiritually generally. How many of us have tried new Torah classes, all fired up and enthusiastic, only to arrive and feel completely lost? It’s not easy to enter unfamiliar territory, such as in-depth Gemara or Jewish philosophy shiur, when we have never previously had the opportunity. It’s far simpler to open up your favourite parsha go-to book.
But you needn’t feel overwhelmed and lose interest. The path you’ve begun to tread is not as foreign as it seems. You’ve traversed this field before.
We have a tradition that an angel enters the womb and teaches the fetus the entire Torah. Prior to the baby’s birth, it forgets everything it has learned. But if it is destined to forget all the learning, what is the purpose of the angel’s lessons? The answer, our Sages explain, is that it is far easier to learn something the second time than the first. When this baby eventually tackles the subject, it won’t be the first encounter. The material will be vaguely familiar and thus not feel insurmountable.
It’s been a while and life has taken over. And so you’ve just forgotten where the path is. But if you persevere, the territory will start to feel vaguely familiar once again. The more you forge ahead and tackle the challenge, the more comfortable you will begin to feel with the journey.
Anything of value in life takes effort. You wouldn’t quit if you encountered a professional or physical challenge that appeared almost insurmountable. You would figure out how to master and overcome the challenge until you reached a point where you wondered why the matter ever seemed daunting at all.
Beatie Deutsch is the fastest woman in Israel. Winner of the Tiberius marathon, she completed the race in 2:42. But she is no ordinary runner. Standing at a mere 4’11”, the Orthodox mother of five competes in a headscarf, skirt and sleeves. She wasn’t always quite as fast. She tells the story of trying to keep up with her toddlers as they ran across the park, and feeling breathless and exhausted after only a few hundred metres. It was then that she decided that she would have to make some lifestyle changes. She began waking up at 5:00 each morning and heading out for a run. Before she knew it, she was so fired up that she registered for her very first marathon. She didn’t do too bad, especially considering she was 7 months pregnant with their fifth child!
Most people who take up running quit after a few attempts. They can’t maintain the daily regime, claiming to find it boring. But ask any avid runner what drives them to get up each morning and lace up their sneakers. They’ll tell you that they find it exhilarating. At the same time, they’ll also acknowledge that it wasn’t always like that. The first few months were grueling. It was an effort to get out of bed and they felt exhausted before they reached the end of their street. But they pressed on, and eventually they reached a place of physical and mental elation.
For many, the story of their Torah journey sounds pretty similar. Those who quit claim to find it uninteresting and ultimately not worth the effort and investment. But if you can get past that first hump, you’ll find that Torah is the most exhilarating experience imaginable. It won’t happen overnight. But it will happen, slowly but surely. The more you apply yourself, the more familiar the territory will become. And you’ll begin to wonder how you could ever have found Torah learning boring.
Torah is the most valuable pursuit in the world. So, of course, it’s going to take concerted effort to master. But you can do it if you put your mind to it, commit to giving it your very best shot, and remember that you’ve been here before. May you never quit in your quest to become a Torah Jew!