The Torah’s returning light
I grew up and learned in a cheder in Bnei Brak, then went to yeshiva katana for gifted students, as it was called, and then attended yeshiva gadola in Jerusalem. After I got married, I lived in Eilat for a while, and today I’m back in Bnei Brak.
I’ve been married for 15 years already, and I have 8 sweet children. And their mother – my wife – only God really knows what she’s had to go through, with me. Thank God, she already forgave me, I hope with all of her heart.
The maelstrom began when I was still learning in kollel. I always knew that I had a yetzer hara. And I always knew and believed that if I learned Torah enthusiastically, then the light of the Torah would nullify my yetzer hara.
And that’s really what happened – until that one summertime. I was learning tractate Yevamot, and for some reason I just couldn’t learn anymore. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it’s because Yevamot reminded me of yeshiva, when I found learning that tractate difficult and exhausting.
Whatever it was, I found myself spending more and more time by the kollel’s coffee machine. And just for the record, it’s not because the learning bored me.
I always used to give myself a nice lunch-break at 12 noon, for around half an hour or so, but before then, I used to knuckle down and really study. I wasn’t the star learner of the neighbourhood, I was more the sociable type, but when I learned, I learned properly.
But that summertime, I got much more lax, and it then very quickly he showed up. My yetzer hara.
I’m not going to share all the details, because I don’t want to give anyone else any ideas, just like you wouldn’t share a step-by-step guide on how to easily commit suicide – because really, we’re talking about the same sort of thing.
The only difference is that killing yourself sounds a lot more frightening than getting the password for your neighbor’s WiFi connection, and wasting whole nights in front of the computer, and making excuses to your wife that you’re writing deep chiddushim on the Torah…
That’s the sort of suicide attempt that could sound kind of interesting. And really, it was interesting. But it was still suicide…
I didn’t care that people were telling me in kollel that I was slacking off. Really, everyone knew it was summertime, and I’d been studying Yevamos, etc. So really, there weren’t any complaints.
But what did start to bother me is that my wife was becoming more distant from me. Or I was starting to distance myself from her. Or maybe, both things are true.
I didn’t have any more energy to be with my kids. I just wanted to escape, to run away from all the day-to-day stuff until night time…when I could be with the screen. In the day, I used to say to myself: ‘who will give me back the night?” – that’s really how it was.
I found myself starting to hate doing even the most basic halachot, something that I never thought could ever happen. For example, I used to say my blessings before I ate, but now I started to feel like I was being a complete hypocrite, and that I was a rasha pretending to be a Tzaddik.
Somewhere deep inside, I was crying out all the time about what was happening – I had such big internal protests going on.
I used to tell myself ‘I don’t want this!!’ Usually, that would happen just after I’d done some terrible sin. But then it would vanish. I’d manage to shut it up, and banish it from sight. But it was always there.
I didn’t let those guilt feelings make me sad, but the guilt feelings were always there, in the background, and how. So, this is how I came to be sitting in the beach on Friday – (don’t worry, the mehadrin separate beach.
All my immorality was going on in my computer and in my imagination, to my great shame, I didn’t need an ‘immoral’ beach to do what I was doing) – licking some ice-lolly that I’d just bought from some young guy, and I was reading the Torah pamphlet that he was giving away to anyone who bought a lolly…
That pamphlet reminded me about everything I’d rebelled against, I suddenly heard the well-oiled voices telling me to stay away from these types of rabbis, and that all they talked about was fantasy and illusion, and that they just invented stuff.
But now, I was sitting by the beach instead of sitting in kollel, and I was in Gehinnom and not yeshiva. So they could all get lost! I was going to carry on reading what I wanted!
It was a Breslov pamphlet, written by Rav Eliezer Schick, z’tl, the Tzaddik of Yavniel. It bore the title: ‘You are not a failure’, and I really wanted to read it, because I felt like a huge failure – a ‘super-failure’, even.
And if there was such a thing as having a talent for squandering your gifts, then I had it – both the talent, and the gifts I’d wasted.
To cut a long story short, reading that pamphlet was the beginning of understanding that despite the fact that I’d fallen to the de
epest depths, for as long as was still alive, I could shake myself free from all that dirt and rise up again, a new person.
What gave me a lot of chizzuk was the idea that this pamphlet was being given out to chilonim at the crossroads, which told me it also held true for people who hadn’t really started working on overcoming their lusts at all, and that it was also helping people who were far more sunk in immorality than I was.
Yet despite all that, we were all being told that there was hope, and that everything was just klipot that had got stuck to our souls, and that really, the soul was always shining out underneath and that it was impossible to extinguish it.
At some stage, I travelled up to Yavniel, and I went and read the whole of the Sefer Tehillim by Rav Schick’s grave. He’d promised that this was a segula to find your marriage partner, and I felt that even though I was already married, I needed help to find my marriage partner again, and to find true shalom bayit.
On the way out, one of the people who distribute the pamphlets grabbed me, and he wanted to give me another one. I asked him how many more pamphlets he had, and I was sure he was going to tell me 20 or 30. He told me he had 16,000 of them…
To cut to the chase, I bought a few books there called Otzar HaKuntresim, or the ‘Treasure of the Pamphlets’, and for the last couple of months I’ve been reading one pamphlet a day from them.
One of the pamphlets was called ‘The path of learning’. I really wanted to skip it, because who could teach someone like me anything about how to learn? I knew how to learn. But because the bookmark was there, I decided to read ‘The path of learning’ after all.
It was brought down there that Rebbe Nachman wrote that we need to learn quickly, and to study and understand quickly, without dwelling on things too much. He had a lot of ideas about how to do this, and you can go look that up yourself.
It didn’t make sense to me, that this was the way to I should be learning. But then I got given a brainwave from shemayim that just like all these pamphlets had been written for me, and that they were all speaking to a broken person who was clutching at straws, in order to try and strengthen him and to give him his belief in Yiddishkeit back, so then too this way of learning must have been written especially for me.
Because at this stage, I really wasn’t able to learn in-depth anyway, so what’s the worst that could happen?
I set aside one hour a day, from 12.15pm until the time for mincha at 1.15pm, and during that time I read through mishnayot. Another verse, and another masechet, I read it like I was reading Tehillim, although with a bit more understanding. My friends at kollel thought that I must have some yahrtzeit, or something, that I was under pressure to finish reading all the mishnayot for.
But really, I wasn’t under any pressure, and the reason I was doing what I was doing was the opposite of remembering the dead. Instead of continuing to die a bit every day, I was coming back to life.
After I’d finished reading the mishnayot a couple of times, I realized I could probably now try studying some gemara without feeling like I was crawling out of my skin. I started learning tractate Brachot, really quickly, reading and understanding without day-dreaming or dwelling on things too much, and without looking at all the commentators. I’d only look if there something I really didn’t understand.
And this is how I came to finish the whole of tractate Brachot, and then afterwards tractate Shabbat and tractate Eruvin, and today, I’m close to completing Shas for the third time.
I’m not here to tell you that this is the way we need to learn. I’m praying and asking Hashem for the merit to also understand and know all the commentators, to, in-depth. But what I do know is that in that place that I found myself in, I needed a lot of mercy for my brain to grasp anything. And if you’ve been through this yourself, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.
When the brain isn’t purified, it can’t grasp the holy Torah in the same way as a ‘pure’ mind. But instead of falling into complete despair, the way I did, and to just keep saying ‘one day maybe it’ll change, and I’ll have the merit of learning Torah again’, Hashem, in His magnificent kindness, showed me the practical way I could purify my mind.
So, here’s where we got to: Today, I’m learning plenty of Torah, my mind is relaxed, and I don’t feel like I’m in a prison I need to escape from. My wife is happy when she sees me now, and every time I set out for the beit midrash she blesses me with a big smile on her face, and gives me the strength I need to continue.
I get up for Chatzot every night, and then learn until the sunrise minyan. After the morning prayers and eating a bite of food, I sleep for an hour and a half, and immediately after waking up, with God’s help, I carry on learning until mincha – maariv time.
Every day, I pray with enthusiasm, and I’m shouting about this now because back on those days, I didn’t even want to pray at all. And when I did pray, I was really on mouthing the words, my mind was somewhere else entirely.
And back then, my heart wasn’t even really alive.
Suddenly, my kids got their father back and my wife got her husband back. Even though she never really knew that her husband had ‘gone missing’ in those days, she certainly still felt it. And me? I got a new heart, that beats and is alive.
Translated and taken from: ‘There’s no hope?’ by Rabbi Yitzhak Gabbai: 052-712-1377.