July 25, 2024
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July 25, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Questions We Avoid Asking Ourselves

It is told that Rabbi Abraham J. Twersky, zt”l, once felt overwhelmed with his psychiatric practice. Over the course of his career, Rabbi Twersky handled hundreds of incredibly difficult addiction cases for clients in his care and one day he reached a breaking point. A friend suggested that he go to a spa with luxurious amenities, including a wave pool and a mineral bath, which were supposed to be helpful in achieving relaxation. Rav Twersky decided to give it a try.

After his visit, Rabbi Twersky shared: “On the first day at the spa, I was placed in a whirlpool bath in a small cubicle. It was nothing less than paradise. I relaxed in the warm water, whose whirling streams gently relaxed my whole body. I was at peace and there was nothing to disturb that peace. After about five or six very enjoyable minutes, I emerged from the whirlpool, telling the attendant how relaxing the experience had been. To my astonishment he said, ‘You can’t get out yet, sir. The treatment here requires that you stay in the whirlpool for 25 minutes.’ I returned to the tub, but not to an enjoyable experience. Every minute lasted for a painful eternity and after five minutes I could no longer take it. On my second exodus, the attendant informed me that unless I completed the requisite 25 minutes, I could not continue to the next phase of treatment. Not wishing to have spent my money in vain, I returned for 15 minutes of absolute torture.”

Later on, Rav Twersky reflected upon this experience and suggested a reason as to why he could not stand to spend more time in the tub. Rav Twersky realized that when we aren’t distracted, and when our minds are truly free and clear, we start to talk to ourselves about ourselves. It was at that moment of distraction-free relaxation that Rav Twersky found himself asking: “Do I even like myself?”

Rav Twersky originally described this experience in the 1980s when the main forms of entertainment and “distraction” were very limited. Nowadays, we have the entire world and endless distractions at our fingertips! How often are on line waiting to check out or waiting for a friend or colleague that instead of waiting for a minute or two, we revert to our phones? We would rather scroll than the alternative: do nothing. Perhaps, the reason we are so quick to check our phones or distract ourselves in this frivolous way is to avoid thinking too much, which may lead to self-reflection and potentially difficult questions.

What if we did stop scrolling though and found ourselves with clear heads? What if, like Rabbi Twersky, we asked ourselves the difficult question of: “Do I even like myself?” What would we answer? We may identify character flaws and or regrettable mistakes we have made that make us feel less than. This is a very scary thought!

We just read in Parshas Bereishis that Hashem accepted Hevel’s korban of an animal instead of Kayin’s korban of vegetation. Why didn’t Kayin give an animal? Rabbi Shalom Rosner points out that the Sefer Ikaarim says that when Kayin decided to bring a gift to Hashem, he contemplated bringing an animal. Kayin concluded however that there was no difference between man and animal, therefore he couldn’t justify bringing an animal — an equal — as a korban. Kayin’s sin was not recognizing the greatness of man. Even with all our human faults, we possess an innate greatness. Sure, there will be moments in our lives that we may not be doing the best we can. We are and will continue to be imperfect. But man’s greatness lies in his ability to grow and evolve. We are not defined by our actions, but instead by this unique trait to achieve true and lasting change.

The story of Elisha ben Avuyah — one of the great Amoraim of the Gemara — illustrates this perfectly. Elisha ben Avuyah went off the derech and was so problematic, that the Gemara referred to him as Achar (“The Other One”). One day, Achar was with his student, Rabbi Meir, who pleaded that he return to Judaism. Achar responded, “I heard a heavenly voice which said that everyone may return to Hashem, except for Achar!” With that, he decided to leave and never return. The baalei mussar points out though that the heavenly voice did not say that Elisha ben Avuyah could return, but rather that Achar could not! Hashem didn’t want the persona or actions of Achar to return, but very much wanted Elisha ben Avuyah to return. The actions of Achar did not permanently define Elisha ben Avuyah; he could change.

We need to realize that the hard questions aren’t that scary. We are not animals; we have the power and the God-given gift to grow. Our actions do not define who we are. We are all endowed with this gift. Instead of looking at our phones, we can replay our actions of the day in our heads and acknowledge the things we did well that day and the things we could have done better. This reflection time doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. It can be empowering.

This year, yeshiva high schools across America took a strong stance against the damaging effects of cell phones and social media. TABC, my alma mater, and where I currently work as a rebbe, took a seemingly hard line by banning the use (or sight!) of cell phones in any hallways, classrooms, and non-designated areas of the building. Of course, this was initially met with resistance by many of the young men of TABC. Well, what a difference a few weeks makes… Over the course of the early weeks of the school year, I have noticed an exponential amount of increased engagement, social interaction and connection among the student body. Hallways which were sometimes eerily silent other than the sounds of tapping of thumbs on screens are now filled with the sounds of conversation, laughter and high-fives. And in those moments when there is no one else in the around, you can find students sitting quietly and reflecting.

Maybe they are thinking about their next hockey game or an upcoming test, or maybe they are asking themselves the deeper and more difficult questions that inevitably arise along the high school and human journey. Whatever it is; they are embracing those free moments and using them in different and more fulfilling ways than before.


Rabbi Avner is an alumnus as well as rebbe and 11th grade dean at TABC. He is also the teen director at East Hill Synagogue in Englewood. Rabbi Avner is also currently in Wurzweiler School of Social Work, completing a Masters Degree in Social Work.

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