Thursday, July 16, 2015

In Praise of Ordinary Jews

Years ago my chavrusah walked into the beis medrash one morning looking sad.

“Why the long face?” I asked.

It seems that over Shabbos, my chavrusah’s family had invited over a guest. My chavrusah’s father was very involved with one of the kiruv yeshivas in town and was constantly bringing over the boys for Shabbos meals. These guests usually told very colorful stories about how they became frum, what life was like before they were frum, what life is like now that they are frum.

Every person forges his own personal path back to Yiddishkeit, but this particular Shabbos, their guest gave an interesting twist to his story—one that disturbed my chavursah greatly. Unlike the classic baal teshuvah, this man had grown up in a frum home, actually a frum home in the very same town in which my chavrusah and I grew up, lived and learned, the very same community that housed the baal tesuvah yeshiva in which he was currently enrolled. He went, as we had, to the local yeshiva and had been frum for the first fifteen years or so of his life.

But as he got older he began to veer away from tradition. It began, as it so often does, with minor indiscretions—sleeping through Shacharis, forgetting to bentch—but eventually mushroomed into something much larger. By the time he was old enough to be on his own, he had moved out of his parent’s house, moved away from the religious community, and started to live the life of a full-blown “shaygetz.”

He was interested in the entertainment business and got some work at a radio station. He knew he hit the bigtime when he was hired to work on the most famous—and most degenerate—morning radio program in America. That show introduced him to the depths of depravity. He drank, gambled, took drugs, and became sexually reckless.

“I was as far from Judaism as a person could be. Even farther—because I had once been religious and abandoned it,” he told his hosts.

But then one fateful day, he woke up. He recognized that he had it all, he did it all, he could do it all again, but it wasn’t enough. All the things he thought would bring him happiness, failed to provide that happiness. Worse, he was miserable.

And so he began his journey back. Eventually, he ended up one of the finest young men in the yeshiva , and because of his background, catching up was easy to do. He was even able to tutor and serve as a role model to others, showing them how to learn gemara, how to understand halachah. He was one of the brightest stars of the yeshiva.

Everyone at my friend’s family’s house was amazed and impressed by his story.

Everyone except my chavrusah, that is. He just got depressed. “Here I am,” he told me, “a twenty-something year old yeshiva bochur. I’ve stayed in yeshiva. I listened to my rabbeim. I’ve learned. I’ve behaved. I never went off the derech. Never took a vacation from religion. But nobody is wowed by me. Nobody is impressed. Nobody wants to hear my story. This guy goes off and does every aveirah a person can think of, and comes back to a hero’s welcome. I behaved, and I get nothing.”

“So you feel like Nemuel,” I said,

“Who?” he asked.


“Who’s Nemuel?,” he repeated.

“That’s my point,” I said. “From Parshas Pinchas. Nemuel.”

“Who is he?”


Nemuel is listed as one of three sons of Aviram, the grandson of Reuvein, son of Yaakov. Nemuel had two brothers. No doubt, you’ve heard of them: Dasan and Aviram.

Ask any yeshiva bochur—better yet, ask any elementary school yeshiva student—Who are Dasan and Aviram? They will tell you. Terrible people. Awful people. Among the worst Jews in history. Moshe’s nemeses. Always challenging, mocking, threatening Moshe Rabbeinu!

But ask, Who is Nemuel? No one knows.

I picture Nemuel as a fine, if average, Jew, encamped in the midbar with the rest of his sheivet, listening attentively whenever Moshe Rabbeinu addresses the people, doing the mitzvos, studying Torah, collecting his mohn, observing the Shabbos.

And yet no one’s heard of him. Sure, the neighbors were aware that he had two shady, good-for-nothing brothers. Perhaps it made shidduchim more difficult for Nemuel’s daughters. Perhaps Nemuel had to work extra hard on his middos and be meticulous in his observance so that no one would think he was “one of them.” Nemuel was no doubt embarrassed by his brothers’ behavior. Maybe he tried to speak to them about it once or twice, to no effect. For Nemuel, life went on. He did the best he could. He struggled just to be “average.”

Recently, the Jewish journal, Klal Perspectives, devoted an entire issue to the challenges of being a “poshutehbaal habayis. But “The Simple Jew is Not Simple,”as Rav Menachem Zupnick titled his essay. The “simple” Jew has a lot on his plate: religious obligations, financial obligations, family time and community commitments all weigh on him and vie for his attention. One would think that anyone who even comes close to this standard would hail himself a hero, even if no one else will.

But that doesn’t seem to happen.

According to several of the author-contributors, this “average” baal habayis—this Nemuel, as it were—feels a sense of underachievement; he feels second-rate. Rav Herschel Welcher contends that “almost uniformly, baalei batim seem to find themselves falling short, and feeling the lesser for it.”

Rav Zupnick agrees:
I find it unimaginably painful when a baal habayis confides in me, in a clearly deflated emotional state, that he is unable to identify anything meaningful that he has done in his life. He observes how he has failed to achieve greatness in Torah and yiras shamayim. He is neither a talmid chacham nor a tsaddik. He can discern in himself no major, tangible achievements in any other realms. His despair is authentic and profound. Though I understand the disappointment he is expressing, I find it almost unbearable to hear of such low self-esteem coming from a person who invariably leads a life saturated with Torah and mitzvos and dominated by and acute awareness of Hashem’s existence. Nothing meaningful in his life???
This attitude must change. The “average” frum Jew has much to be proud of.

“By any objective standard,” the editors write in a preface to the journal,
the observant baal  habayis is a true hero. In fact, he is remarkable in simply retaining a commitment to Torah and mitzvos while navigating the spiritual perils of today’s workplace, and the external social pressure and influences. But that is only the beginning. The baal habayis also confronts overwhelming demands, while addressing his numerous responsibilities. The financial expectations of the Orthodox home far exceed those of others, in light of the expenses of large families, Shabbos, kosher food and Orthodox community home prices, all in addition to the cost of parochial schools, camps and seminaries. As a committed ben Torah, the baal habayis also faces the pressures of finding adequate time for daily Torah study, davening with a minyan and being involved in chesed and community needs (including attending simchas and fundraising evenst). And, of course, there are the all-important, yet very time consuming, obligations as a husband and father.
In Jewish life, then as now, we have our great men and we have our villains, but we also have our Nemuels, the quiet heroes.

Here’s to them.


Anonymous Garnel Ironheart said...

The problem is the contradictory message being sent by the leaders of the Chareidi community.
When it comes to choosing a lifestyle the message is very clear: Learn-don't-earn is the only really Torah-true way to be. Anything else can't be more than second class Jewish living. You can't be a tzadik any other way. You won't even get a shidduch with the right families!
When it comes to supporting that lifestyle the same "first class citizens" show up at my door and suddenly I'm a tzadik despite my having a day job? Boy can those guys bootlick.
So which is it? Am I really a tzadik or am I a dreg that has to be flattered so the real tzadikim can afford to buy dinner for their families?

Fri Jul 17, 10:12:00 AM  
Blogger Neil Harris said...

Had I read this 2 months ago it probably wouldn't have a much meaning as it does to me now, as I approach RH. Thanks.

Tue Sep 08, 03:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Mata Hari said...

Nice article. The people who get mentioned in Tanach, usually do something extraordinary. So in Megillas Rus, the relative who doesn't want to marry Rus because she's from Moav, is not mentioned by name....he's generic. However, Boaz, who bucks the trends, is lauded. There are many other examples. The cookie cutter, follow the crowd people (what most young girls/guys are encouraged to be, to do well in shidduchim), don't get a shout out. However, I do agree with your premise - that frum from birth, shomrei torah umitzvos, are worthy of admiration and respect.

Wed Oct 28, 03:28:00 PM  

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