No Pain No (Spiritual) Gain: A Teshuva Lesson From The Day I Thought I’d Die
There was an outbreak, and we were likely exposed. At least that’s how it went in my dream. Since my subconcious appears to be more intrigued by French-Canadian side dishes than it is knowledgable about medical terms, the name of the fake disease I dreamed up was “poutina,” which I’m quite certain is based on “poutine” – something I’ve never eaten, but apparently am curious about.
Though “poutina” is a funny name for a disease, things were quite serious when we thought we might have contracted it. It was not only fatal, those infected by it suffered until their end. (I was reading a Holocaust memoir at the time of the dream; clearly my mind was in a dark place.)
We were all there – my whole family, my parents, my two sisters, and all of their families. We heard a sick child screaming from inside a room as we stood in a hallway, knowing we’d soon be suffering a similar fate. I remember pleading with God that we’d somehow be spared, that there’d be some sort of miracle. But as the situation grew more and more bleak, I started experiencing an emotion even stronger than fear — regret. Shame. Utter disappointment. This was all I had become in life. I would soon be standing before my Maker, and this was all I had to show for myself.
When my eyes opened, and I realized that I was safe and healthy, I said the “modeh ani” prayer – a prayer we say every morning upon opening our eyes thanking God for a new day – with more intensity and meaning than I’ve said it in a while. It was Shabbos Tisha B’Av, a day normally filled with sorrow (Tisha B’Av) that was mitigated by its falling out on Shabbos this year. I don’t know if there’s any significance to having a powerful dream on Shabbos Tisha B’Av, but it certainly felt significant.
While I was thoroughly relieved that my brush with death turned out to be only a dream, the regret I was feeling lingered as my day went on. I couldn’t shake it. How would I stand before God if today really were my last day? How would I measure up if all my deeds were tallied? It’s funny, I’ve been told by people on several occasions that they’re jealous of my “chelek in olam haba” (my portion in the World to Come) because of the people that I’ve been privileged to help return to their Jewish roots. And I’ve had rabbis tell me that every mitzvah I’ve helped another person do becomes part of my merit. Such comments make me extremely uncomfortable. I’ve always told these people that they shouldn’t assume anything about what I have or haven’t earned–no one knows God’s calculations.
But the message I took away from the dream was very clear. Painfully clear. In the World of Truth, things are measured differently than they are in this world. Something we might consider quite commendable might not actually count for too much in God’s eyes. Why not? Well, the sense that I got from the dream is that you don’t earn olam haba from the stuff that comes naturally to you even if it leads to great things. I’ve known about the Talmudic principle “there are three things we must toil for: Torah, the Land of Israel and the World to Come” for years, but its meaning was never so crystallized until the dream.
Despite all the good Jew in the City has accomplished, it’s essentially me taking my hammy/creative side and using it to convey the deep messages from my spiritual side. It’s me to a tee. It’s what I was made for. Yes, I work tirelessly to create new content and respond to questions and comments from readers and fans, and yes, my family and I have sacrificed financially for me to do this. (I’m sure these efforts count for something.) But Jew in the City is who I am. It’s a labor of love. And I don’t think God will be too impressed with me for doing what comes easy to me just because its a worthwhile endeavor. After all, what’s so great about doing what you’re great at?
True greatness in Judaism is going against your natural ways when those ways conflict with Torah values. And that was the shame I felt, about to be exposed in front of my Maker. My laziness, my not keeping my temper in check enough when my kids act up, my not giving people the benefit of the doubt often enough – those shortcomings (among others) are not things most people know about me. And yet, those were the very things I knew I could not hide from God.
If you’re not sweating a bit as you attempt to grow spiritually, chances are you’re not pushing hard enough. Don’t be fooled by impressive results. It’s Elul now – the time of year meant for reflection and self-evaluation – so let’s prepare ourselves to stand before the One who knows the secrets of every heart.