July 17, 2024
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July 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Samuel Haft

Chapter 1

My story begins back in 2012, as I was finishing a degree in accounting at Lander College. I was learning with my chavrusa, and after a few hours I began to feel my voice getting tired. We paused for a bit and resumed learning afterward, and I didn’t think much of it.

But as time went on, I began experiencing voice fatigue more and more, with all my chavrusas. I would have to either take a break or ask that they do all the reading so I could rest my voice.

I had always loved singing in synagogue and the Shabbos table, and now I couldn’t sing as well as I used to.

“It looks like Hashem is taking away my singing voice so that I’ll have to start actually paying attention to the words,” I joked.

At first, I thought I was simply suffering from a winter cold, but as time went on, things escalated to the point where it hurt to say anything. When learning with my chavrusas became impossible, I knew I had an issue.

Soon things got worse. My voice was so vulnerable that if I overused it at any point during the day, I would need to rest it for three days to recover. And it affected me in so many ways, big and little. Sometimes people wouldn’t hear me well, and I’d simply agree with them rather than have to answer them. When I asked the gas station attendant for $25 worth of gas, and he said, “I didn’t hear you, did you say 35 dollars of gas?” I just nodded; it was easier that way.

“I’d like the chicken burger,” I’d tell a waiter when going out to eat, but when he repeated, “Did you say the beef burger?” I’d just resign myself to that.

Of course, my lack of voice went much further than just affecting my gastronomical options. I never knew in advance if I’d be up to a visit from a friend or going out on a date. A few times people hit or scraped my car (nothing major, thankfully), but I just waved it off; the alternative—a long discussion and an exchange of phone numbers and insurance information—was beyond my abilities.

Between 2013 and 2015, the problem came and went. After graduating, I’d taken a job as a CPA, where I managed to get by; fortunately, the work didn’t require too much speaking to people. I wasn’t able to socialize much, but I could still have a 20-minute phone conversation or a one-hour face-to-face conversation.

I consulted doctor after doctor—I must have gone to 20 different ones over the years—but no one could get to the source of my problem. “It’s a vocal cord issue,” said one doctor. But the medicine he prescribed didn’t help. “Allergy-related,” said another, but the meds he prescribed didn’t help either. “It might be psychological,” said a third, but the psychologist I saw at his urging was also a dead end.

I didn’t stop there. I visited many speech therapists, hoping they would have the answer, but none of them were able to fix the problem long term. In 2017, I met a dentist who believed the problem was due to a jaw misalignment that affected my nervous system, and that the braces and retainer I wore growing up may have wreaked havoc with my body that would take years to undo now. (It may be that the braces were not done properly, or that my body just didn’t react well to them.) He seems to have come closest to truly understanding the root of the issue. Since starting his protocol, wearing an orthotic on my bottom teeth that the dentist adjusts every few months to move the jaw into better alignment, I’ve begun feeling stronger and better overall, and I’ve been working with him ever since.

As the situation progressed, I found myself unable to speak for more than a few minutes, which was obviously terribly disruptive and destructive to my personal and professional life. My embarrassment at being unable to respond to people who addressed me led me to start avoiding people. Even when friends and family would text me, I ignored them. I simply couldn’t relate to others who weren’t suffering; I felt that we spoke different languages.

When I went to synagogue, I would closet myself in the women’s section so that I would remain unnoticed and could avoid speaking to anyone. At work, I’d avoid my colleagues and find ways to get around assignments that required a lot of speaking. I would avoid entering a crowded elevator with people I knew, preferring to wait for it to empty or at least to hold people I didn’t know (and didn’t have to speak to).

As a 24-year-old, I wanted to date, but the voice issue made it so challenging. I had to keep dates short because my voice would give out. Unless I had a really exceptional first date, I wouldn’t be motivated to go out a second time. A number of times I became so frustrated that I couldn’t express myself properly, it ruined the whole experience for me.

I once made the mistake of attending a speed dating event in New Jersey. There were probably about 25 women there, and the idea was to spend two or three minutes with each one before moving on to the next person. I made it past the first woman, but by the time I got to the second one I literally couldn’t speak anymore. The poor woman saw I was struggling, so I had to tell her, “I just can’t do this anymore,” and leave. Today when I think back on it, it’s kind of comical that I wasn’t able to last even five minutes, but at the time I was mortified.

 

Chapter 2

My vocal challenge hit me unawares, but in retrospect, I can see that my childhood and upbringing had prepared me with the endurance I’d need to face this trial. Even as a child, I’d forged the strength of character to insist on getting where I wanted to go.

I grew up in a Modern Orthodox family in Woodmere, New York, a middle child with three sisters. A popular, athletic kid who achieved high marks, I attended Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and
Rockaway (HAFTR) elementary school and then Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School (DRS).

Before high school I didn’t learn much Gemara or have any particular rebbi, so DRS gave me my first exposure to this approach to learning Torah. As ninth grade progressed, I found myself drawn more deeply to religion. My mind had begun to mature, and I began to think more deeply about the big questions: Does God exist, and if so, how do we serve Him? What is the proper way to live?

It was the first time I began questioning my life and trying to identify the source of happiness. Exposed to American media such as television, Hollywood movies and People magazine, I saw that secular society revolved largely around seeking pleasure and the “good life.” Yet I also perceived that the achievement of such “good life” goals like status and popularity were uncomfortably out of my control.

Within the framework of Judaism, on the other hand, my goals were much more attainable simply through exercising my own willpower and effort. I was the one who determined how much time and effort to put into praying, learning Torah and performing other mitzvos, and this gave me a handle on my success.

This epiphany, coupled with an exposure to real learning when I studied with an older high school student who was a serious learner, led me to become much more religious. When ninth grade ended for the summer, I would ride my bike every day to shul to learn by myself or with a chavrusa, and I really enjoyed it. I was supposed to spend that summer in Los Angeles with my grandparents, which would have almost certainly led me to hang out with the wrong type of crowd, but at the last minute I changed my plans and decided to attend the NCSY Kollel, a learning program for Modern Orthodox teenagers that solidified my new religious direction.

After a year in DRS, my high school trajectory was unexpectedly interrupted. One day, while sitting in the car with my father, he brought up a startling idea.

“Now that I sold my business, your mother and I were thinking of moving to Israel,” he said. “You know it’s something we always wanted to do. But we don’t want to go if it will make you unhappy. What do you think?”

“Actually I would be open to it,” I responded. “I’m more religious now than most of my crowd at school, and it would be easier to start at a new school that’s closer to the level I’m at.”

My father flew with me to Israel to check out high schools, and I wavered between two schools, one more modern and the other more yeshiva-style. When I got home though, I met “by chance” a Chofetz Chaim talmid who introduced me to his yeshiva—my first experience of a “real” yeshiva. That propelled me to choose the more right-leaning Nehora high school in Mevo Choron, with my parents’ support.

We stayed in Israel for just a year and returned to Woodmere when I was 16 and entering 11th grade. By this point I was a serious Torah student who needed a serious yeshiva. I enrolled in Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, where I was very much an anomaly because the vast majority of my peers had come from ultra-Orthodox backgrounds, but I was happy just to be pursuing my own truth and happiness and didn’t care much if I stood out as different.

When I went back to Israel at age 18 to continue my learning in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, I found myself back among guys like me—people who had grown up in Modern Orthodox homes but were serious about learning. I had the good fortune to learn under Rav Menachem Mendel Blachman, who left a very deep impression on me. He is famously demanding of his students, and in my two years there, he taught me how to think and gave me the confidence that I had the ability to think things out on my own.

His talmidim need a thick skin to handle his sometimes-brusque manner, which he adopts for the purpose of chinuch, but I loved the challenge. (He himself likes to say, “I’m a poodle at home, but a Rottweiler in yeshiva!”) In fact, the few times I was able to win an argument against him were life-changing. They infused me with self-confidence and the faith that I really can think deeply and logically.

After two years in Israel, I enrolled in Lander College in Queens, with a major in accounting. Here, as at Kerem B’Yavneh, I was among my own kind, other young men who had grown up in more Modern Orthodox homes yet had veered toward deeper levels of observance. My path forward seemed clear and straightforward. I would be graduating college in September of 2012, qualified as a CPA, and I would start to date.

Then, out of the blue, I started losing my voice.

 

Chapter 3

After years of struggling with the loss of my voice in New York, I needed a change. When I was told that perhaps a warmer climate would help the problem, my family suggested I move to California, near my grandparents in Los Angeles. As I’d never liked the pressured pace of New York or the cold winters, I easily acceded. In the summer of 2015, I transferred jobs and moved.

I was hoping my condition would improve, but not only did it not, but I also developed other medical conditions such as IBS and some gum recession, unusual for someone my age. Doctors weren’t sure if these were related to my voice issue or not, although surely my mental stress must have left me more vulnerable to developing physical disorders.

On the marriage front, things weren’t going so easily either. I tried some long-distance dating through Skype. Once I met a woman three times and thought things were good enough to continue, and the shadchan proposed that I fly out to meet her.

“I don’t know if I can do that,” I said. “I’ve been dealing with this voice issue.”

The shadchan didn’t take it well.

“Well, if you don’t feel you can handle that, maybe you should take a break from dating altogether!” she responded.

It was a bitter pill to swallow, but by 2016, at age 27, I concluded that my dating life would have to be put on hold indefinitely until my voice issue was resolved.

By now I had been dealing with voice loss for four years. As the years passed with no resolution in sight, I began to despair. I was terribly lonely and cut off, even spending Shabbosos and Yamim Tovim in isolation, davening in the ezras nashim on weekdays to avoid contact with people, and sometimes walking a few miles away during Yom Tov to a shul where everyone spoke Persian. At one point I was eating Shabbos lunch in a shul that offered a large kiddush with challah, but I’d go only at the very end, when the crowd had left and the janitor had begun cleaning up. It turned out I wasn’t the only one who waited. I was joined by a few homeless people, with whom I felt a kinship, since we were all cut off from “normal” society.

My family was deeply concerned for me.

“How can we help?” they asked.

But what could they do? They couldn’t give me a voice, and they were just as clueless as I was. People had good intentions, and many tried to communicate by texting, but I was so tired of not having a voice that I lost interest and sent only very brief responses.

The two years from 2016 to 2018 found me suffering literally in silence. Drained by isolation, I reached a psychological breaking point. I can’t say I was suicidal, but I definitely would have felt relieved to go to bed and not wake up the next morning. During the first four years in New York, I thought the problem was temporary, and that gave me hope and the mental fortitude to keep going. But as time dragged on with no solution in sight, I became like a boxer in a ring who has been punched so many times, he loses the will to get off the mat.

We’re all social creatures who need contact with other humans. My Hebrew name is Yaakov, and I often thought of the pasuk “Vayivaser Yaakov levado” (Bereishis 32:25), describing how Yaakov was left alone, wrestling with a malach. My inability to communicate left me bereft of human contact, and I was becoming terribly lonely. The isolation and pain in my life so outweighed the positive, I felt little motivation to wake up in the mornings.

I continued to work, because I knew that going to work was the only way I was going to survive. Simply staying home in that mental state would have been dangerous.

Somehow we human beings are wired to keep going even under the most trying circumstances—my 95-year-old grandfather, may he be well, survived the Holocaust. Yet I knew my situation was untenable. I had to find a path forward or perish spiritually and emotionally. Fortunately, I had always been a truth-seeker and a deep thinker. Desperate to find answers, I began to delve into Jewish and secular sources to figure out how I could be happy in my imposed silence. I listened to TED talks about philosophies like stoicism; I read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” and Rabbi Akiva Tatz’s “Letter to a Buddhist Jew.” I started to learn Shas again, starting from the beginning, and read volumes of Torah hashkafa such as the Chovos Halevavos, Rambam Hilchos De’os, Mesilas Yesharim, Derech Hashem, Tanya, Michtav M’Eliyahu, Rav Aharon Feldman, Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen and more.

It’s one thing to theorize and pontificate about happiness when it’s an abstract issue, and another to dive into the topic because it’s your own life that’s on the line. I was desperate for answers.

Yamim Tovim were extremely challenging, because I spent them alone and couldn’t pass the time listening to podcasts or classes; a three-day holiday seemed interminable. Ultimately, I realized they were beneficial, because the time I spent home alone allowed me to delve deep into my thoughts.

And then, during one three-day Shavuos, I arrived at a paradigm shift that changed my entire view of happiness.

 

Chapter 4

That Shavuos morning I davened at home, and after I finished, I went for a walk. It was a gorgeous day, sunny, and as I walked, I thought, “This is crazy, but I feel pretty content!”

Even in the midst of all that silence of the three-day chag, I realized, I was also not suffering the emotional pain that comes when the pursuit of pleasure is thwarted.

“Who’s to say the life I’m living is a bad one?” I asked myself.

I had been relying on the secular definition of happiness, which characterizes happiness as pleasure where one’s goal in life is to maximize all experiences that bring pleasure. According to this worldview, fun, comfort, excitement, financial success, status, popularity, and so on are the things we strive to attain. As my lack of a voice precluded me from attaining most of these things, I could not be happy according to this school of thought.

My sudden clarity enlightened me: Taking myself out of the running for goals like status, popularity and fun also meant I was spared the kind of anxiety, worry, frustration and dissatisfaction that are the consequences of valuing these goals and failing to achieve them. Retreating from goals that are, ultimately, only superficial forms of happiness, meant that I suffered no disappointment when they didn’t come through for me. There is an emotional cost to pursuing pleasure—it always comes with strings attached—and that cost is emotional suffering in the form of anxiety, disappointment and emptiness.

Which life is better?” I asked myself. Is it better to live life on an emotional roller coaster, experiencing the highs of fun, comfort and excitement along with the lows of anxiety, worry and disappointment? Perhaps it is better to eschew that volatility and pursue a more emotionally neutral life of serenity, contentment, and peace of mind (in Talmudic language, yishuv hadaas or menuchas hanefesh). For me, a serene life is better than a life spent frantically chasing emotional highs and physical pleasures. By defining happiness differently—as a life of balanced serenity and avodas Hashem—I could be eligible for happiness.

Even without a voice, even being cut off from most people, I could find my own path to happiness and emotional health.

Most people want to maximize pleasure and minimize effort. From my new point of view, the goal became completely inverted: to maximize effort and minimize pleasure. Effort now becomes valuable, while pleasure is merely a fortuitous, but not guaranteed, by-product.

I began to analyze all areas of life according to this new criterion. Take marriage, for example. If my goal is to get married, I won’t be happy until I find a mate. But if I’m focused on mental equilibrium and striving to serve God and others, I can be happy even if I do not marry.

Maybe I can stop worrying about not getting married,” I told myself.

We have very little control over what happens to us in life. We can put in our best efforts, but in the end it is only God who determines if our efforts bear fruit. There are attractive, kind people who never find a spouse while unexceptional people do; some athletes fall ill while some smokers live long lives; smart people lose fortunes whereas others become rich simply by being in the right place at the right time. It is surely futile to invest ourselves emotionally in pursuing goals that are often not dependent on our own efforts. By striving for mental equilibrium and a life of effort and service, we bypass reliance on external circumstances to make us happy.

Once I made that paradigm shift, my life changed. Little by little, I was able to stop worrying about whether I’ll recover fully, or if I’ll be able to hang out with friends or marry and have children. I focused on maximizing learning and service rather than pleasure per se. I replaced my old diet of pizza, burgers and cookies with sprouted wheat bread and vegetables and chicken, exercised more, and reduced my once-voracious consumption of music in favor of shiurim and reviewing my learning.

Realizing I was still eligible for happiness under my new definition felt like a rebirth. Even before losing my voice, I had always had a goal of figuring out what was meaningful in life and what constitutes happiness. Now I felt a great sense of accomplishment knowing I had gained so much clarity and achieved this new level of understanding.

 

Chapter 5

I became very absorbed with working through these ideas, and starting in 2018, when I first conceived them, I began many email exchanges with friends and rabbis. I went back to Jewish sources, and found that my theory is actually the Jewish approach to happiness. Pirkei Avos states that the wealthy man is the one who is content with his lot, regardless of his circumstances. (The Alei Shur elaborates on this in “Happiness From a Torah Perspective.)

I was encouraged when I received haskamos from such distinguished rabbanim as Rav Blachman; Rav Yechiel Perr, ztz”l; Rav Moshe Brown; Rav Mordechai Willig; and Rav Akiva Tatz. I even heard from some of them, “This piece of Torah has been somewhat lost due to the heavy influence of secular values, but you should revive it.”

My parents had once spoken to a kabbalist about my situation, who told them, “Rest easy, he is going to save lives.” None of us had any clue what that meant then, except that perhaps my ideas could help people with depression and emotional problems. But when I showed my ideas to Rav Blachman, he commented, “They are pikuach nefesh tziburi,” and I realized I could also help people who are struggling spiritually.

Yes, sometimes we do need to give ourselves breaks and indulge in pleasurable activities just to rest and refresh. But like the basketball player who drinks Gatorade on the side so he can get back on the court with renewed vigor, a bochur who has been spending many hours learning might need to rest his brain by listening to music, or a mother might need to relax with a cup of tea and a novel after finally getting her children settled for the night. In all these cases, the recharging plays second fiddle to the primary goal.

My isolation has given me the perspective to see what really matters and what really makes us happy. My original impetus to become more religious—the realization that worldly pleasures aren’t under my control, but spiritual fulfillment always is—turned into a full-fledged, well-developed hashkafa as a result of my personal trials.

People say, “You’ve been in isolation so long, I feel so bad for you!”

But I respond by saying (writing, really), “Just the opposite—I feel bad for you, in a way, because your attachment to the pursuit of pleasure takes you out of This World and the Next!”

I feel a little like Yosef Hatzaddik, l’havdil, who told his brothers, “Don’t worry, I was sent on this difficult path so I can now offer you support.”

I know that personal accounts often finish with a happy ending, tied up in a bow. Mine doesn’t. I don’t know what the future holds in store. I pray to HKB’H that my voice will be restored completely, that I’ll get married and have children, and live an otherwise “normal” life. But I know that even without these things, I am still eligible for the greatest life in This world—one of serenity and self-development—and the greatest life in the Next World.

This article originally appeared in print in the Mishpacha Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

If anyone is interested in discussing the article further, the author can be reached at [email protected]

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