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 subconscious appears to be more intrigued by French-Canadian side dishes than it is knowledgable of medical terms, the name of the fake disease I concocted was “poutina,” which I’m quite certain is based on “poutine” – something I’ve never eaten, but apparently am curious about after seeing a Facebook friend posting about it.

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? 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. We will not earn our portion in Olam Haba by breezing through life.

Despite all the good I’ve accomplished through Jew in the City, 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. I’m not saying this is totally worthless.) 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 it’s 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. According to Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers) The gibor (the strong one) is the one who mastery over his whims and baser desires. 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 yourself 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.

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  • Avatar photo Bazmeh says on August 24, 2012

    Your post has a beautiful message, a message of re-evaluation of who we are, the mitzvot that come easily to us, and those that we struggle with or (G-d forbid) our areas of chet (sin). The challenge lies in both the methodology in detection, acceptance, and determination to overturn and improve upon those weak areas.

    Speaking to the dream a bit: My grandfather, who is a very learned man in his own right (may he live 120 years), said it is never good to judge a dream as good or bad. This is not to belittle the certain dread that you felt in this nightmare, but he always told me that the best thing to do when having a lingering, unsettling dream is give tzedakah. Give tzedakah and it is all for good, a great message most of the year, but especially in Elul.

    May Hashem give you and your family bracha, parnissa tova, chaim tovim, mazel, besorot tovot, and all the blessings that family can enjoy in the coming year. May you be sealed in the Book of Life – and continue with your good works!

    • Avatar photo Allison says on August 26, 2012

      Thank you, Bazmeh! And amen!

  • Avatar photo Bazmeh says on August 24, 2012

    By the way, how about dreams from the Jewish point of view to explore in their own right, in a blog or video? I have had very powerful dreams myself in my life, which have proven to give me lots of comfort (not trying to sound New Agey, but I feel it is definitely true when they say that dreams are a fractional representation of the world of Emet [truth]).

  • Avatar photo Lisa Troth says on August 24, 2012

    I don”t think you are correct. I think that Hashem will judge you on everything you do. If you had this gift and it came easy to you and you never shared it then hashem would feel you betrayed and didn’t live up to your full potential

    • Avatar photo Allison says on August 24, 2012

      I don’t think you get nothing for the stuff that comes easy. It’s more of a l’fum tzara agra (according to the struggle is the reward) message I’m trying to get across. I DO think I’m supposed to be doing what I’m doing. I just don’t think it counts for too much because it comes to easily so me.

  • Avatar photo Kathy Kaplan OAM says on August 24, 2012

    Rabbi Zusha said: “When I die and come before the heavenly court, if they ask me, ‘Zusha, why were you not Abraham?’ I’ll say that I didn’t have Abraham’s intellectual abilities. If they say, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ I’ll say I didn’t have Moses’ leadership abilities. For every such question, I’ll have an answer. But if they say, ‘Zusha, why were you not Zusha?’ for that, I’ll have no answer.”

    I understand this lesson to mean that using the gifts G-d gave us DOES count. I really like Lisa’s thought that we betray G-d when we don’t.

    The challenge, I guess, is to also FIND, recognise and use those gifts G-d gave us that are, so to speak, ‘hidden’ from our generally superficial views of ourselves.

  • Avatar photo Lark says on August 25, 2012

    Does God bless a virtuoso with talent for no reason? A mother with a gentle touch for no child to feel? For the beauty in this world He created to be lost as though we were all blind or deaf? Why then do we have ears, and eyes, and brains?

    It’s just as likely you were blessed with your ‘gift of gab’ exactly in order to be able to effectively share your journey.

    One only need accept the gift humbley and with gratitude for the opportunity and rejoice in that gift.

  • Avatar photo Allison says on August 26, 2012

    Thank you for your comments, Kathy and Lark. I agree that I only need to live up to “me” and I agree that I was blessed with certain strengths in order to use them. But this is how I see it – doing JITC is part of my purpose in this world. I can’t NOT do it. But what’s more impressive – when a person who’s naturally great at English glides through the class and gets the easy A’s? Or when that same person who’s horrible at math works and works until she can finally get a B? In the world we live in, most people value the A in English more. It’s sounds impressive – you might get an award for it. But the Torah perspective values the B more because it required more effort, even if the end result wasn’t as great.

    I wrote this because for myself, and probably many readers, there are things we excel at naturally and we could God forbid see those accomplishments and think “hey, look how great I’m doing,” and not feel as concerned about dealing with other parts of ourselves that need work.

    I’m not saying that my work with JITC is worth nothing – my family and I have sacrificed for it, particularly in the monetary sense. But I can’t let the success that I’m having with it let me lose focus on the other parts of me that need fixing.

    It’s like exercising – at first you do a certain exercise and it’s really easy, doesn’t burn at all. And then the personal trainer tells you, “no, do it like this.” And you adjust your body and suddenly the exercise is a LOT harder. Does the original way produce any results? Yes – some. But not nearly as much the results produced when the exercise is harder.

  • Avatar photo Shorty says on August 26, 2012

    I have to disagree with you on some of your post. H” will judge you favourable, even though JITC comes easy and fun to you, you are doing a Kiddush H” – Honouring His Name by spreading words of Torah. You are bringing other Jewish closer to Torah, and showing the beauty of Judaism to others.

    • Avatar photo Allison says on August 26, 2012

      Thanks for your comment, Shorty. Like I said, I don’t think I’m getting *no* credit for what I’m doing. I think the most meritorious parts of what I’m doing are connected to the things that I’ve sacrificed most for. And there have been sacrifices for JITC.

      But we’re told that we’re supposed to toil for three things: Torah learning, the Land of Israel and the World to Come.

      So I simply don’t believe that if success is coming easily that it can have as much of value as something (even with less impressive results) that requires more struggle.

  • Avatar photo Rena says on August 26, 2012

    Very important and timely message and oddly comforting to me. Just got the news that a dear friend has passed away after forging a valiant battle. She was a very growthful and spiritual person, always studying, yearning and learning to know and do more, to connect to G-d, Torah wisdom and live a more meaningful and fulfilling life. This lady was truly inspiring and I am privileged to have been her friend.

  • Avatar photo Ali B says on August 28, 2012

    I heard a saying once, difficulties in life are put there by G-d as rocks in our life’s path. Thus we work harder to get round them and we are improved as a result, in our practice of many things, but also our practice of the spiritual in times of hardship. With this new understanding we are improved to go forwards.

  • Avatar photo Ze'ev says on August 28, 2012

    Courageous, real, brave, and honest post. Much respect for this one. Makes me think of Elul as kind of a slap of some cold water to the face…Being shaken out of complacency and false ego-massaging ideas of who we are or what we have accomplished and facing up to the difficult truths we all too often sweep under the rug the rest of the year. I like what you said about it not being about what comes naturally to us. It’s about the progress and work we put in addressing our areas of struggle. This post reminds me of perek lamed beis of Tanya (well worth checking out if you haven’t already) and Avraham’s test at the akeida. Until then all his tests were not so difficult for him. However, the last test pushed him to the limit. His main avoda was serving G-d through the midda of chesed. Being told to sacrifice his own son whom he loved was the total polar opposite of his kind, loving, and warm nature. He passed with flying colors. It’s not suprising we invoke the akeida each day and also in Tachanun and basically whenever we want Hashem to judge us favorably.

  • Avatar photo Chana says on August 30, 2012

    Hi Allison!
    Thank you so much for this post. It is raw, and honest, and definitely speaks to me. I struggle with this sometimes — I totally, totally understand what you are saying (and I agree). But as a (future, iy’H) giyoret, I take a lot of comfort in the things that do come naturally because it kind-of reassures me that I am on the right path and that I really am just REdiscovering a part of me that was already there, I just had to tap into it and release it. Is that crazy?! Haha.
    Yashar koach for ALL the amazing work you do, however easy it may seem. 🙂

  • Avatar photo Rivka Malka says on September 3, 2012

    I just reccomended JITC to the participants in the Torah org that I run and I decided to come and spend a little time here myself. The first thing I clicked on was this post and it didn’t just speak to me, it screamed to me!
    I always tell others about constantly counting up their mitzvos, as Rebbi Nachman says, but for myself – my truth is much more like you described it. We do what comes naturally – its good but its not what should get the biggest applause. The biggets applause is in my private life. If I do what’s hard for me there. I thank you for sharing here – and its a funny thing – b/c this chizuk that you put out here really will be a tremendous merit for you IH in the upcoming yeatr. Thank you!

    • Avatar photo Allison says on September 5, 2012

      Thanks, Rivka Malka! Good to know I’m not alone! 🙂

  • Avatar photo Kate says on September 5, 2012

    I have to say, this is the first time I have been turned off by JITC’s message. One of the things that attracted me to Judaism was the focus on this beautiful world that G-d created and how we can partner with G-d to fulfill His intentions for this world. Constantly sweating about the afterlife reminds me too much of my former religion. I understand your point about no pain/no gain, because we absolutely must take on challenges to become better people and Jews. I guess I just wish the message was conveyed without such a sense of shame. It is possible to take a desire to succeed too far – one illustration that comes to mind is a Rabbi in the Talmud (his name escapes me) declaring that it would be better to not have parents at all, so impossible was it to fulfill the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents. As a mother, would you want your children to feel so inadequate that they would say such a thing? I hope not. So we must know that G-d has unconditional love and unfathomable mercy for us. He gave us the gift of these mitzvot to connect to Him and live good lives, not to beat ourselves up over them. Be aware of your weaknesses, yes, but also be proud of your strengths. It takes a balance.

    • Avatar photo Allison says on September 5, 2012

      Thanks for your comment, Kate. I’m sorry to have turned you off! Let me clarify something – I *do* feel that I am fulfilling my life’s mission with my work with JITC. I do believe that I am partnering with Hashem as I do it. And as I’ve written about before http://www.jewinthecity.com/2012/05/pepsi-wants-you-to-livefornow-does-judaism-believe-in-living-for-this-world-or-for-heaven/ Judaism is NOT a religion that focuses on earning heaven.

      We DO believe in balance. This dream came on the cusp of Elul – a time of introspection. It felt a little like a wake up call to me. Perhaps I had gotten too complacent. When people are pouring compliments on you all the time it’s hard to not believe them! It was a reminder for me and I wanted to pass the message on to my readers, if you’re succeeding in spiritual matters that come easily to you, don’t be fooled and assume you’re made in the shade. Life ultimately should be about pushing ourselves to go beyond what comes naturally and easily to us.

      In terms of the shame – thank God – it wasn’t my time to go when I had the dream. But the sense of shame was that – look – I had all this time and all these opportunities and I didn’t try as hard as I could have. It invigorated me to work harder. I believe that Hashem is both fair and yet has high expectations. He doesn’t want perfection – just dedication.

      • Avatar photo Kate says on September 5, 2012

        Thank you for the clarification! I admire you for balancing the (well-deserved) admiration you receive with introspection. I definitely love that the most important Jewish holidays are not all about presents or even food, but about challenging ourselves and self-growth. Based on your comment above, I think I better understand your point and I agree.


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