I’m finding it harder to be inspired in my forties than I did in my twenties. Somehow, exploring life’s endless possibilities and grappling with textual and philosophical questions has morphed into conversations about homework, menu planning and budget stretching. At times, I feel like I left my soul in the delivery room during the birth of my first child.
Much ink and digital space have been devoted to exploring ways to find holiness in housework. I recall enjoying a lecture where the speaker suggested one can encounter God in the laundry room. Notwithstanding the truth of this message, it has been hard to implement on a daily basis. My dishes, laundry and bills seem rooted in physicality, and I, still nostalgic for the spirituality I was able to access in my youth.
Enter The Elephant in the Room. The book is a compilation of musings on contemporary life as a Torah Jew, written by Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman of Congregation Ahavas Israel in Passaic, New Jersey, and e-mailed to his congregation and a growing group of online followers. The book is an easy read, written mostly in conversational style. Making a point of discouraging complacency in personal and communal life, Rabbi Eisenman leads the way in confronting unspoken and sometimes uncomfortable realities. Hence the title: The Elephant in the Room.
Rabbi Eisenman has an unusual ability to contemplate and elevate the mundane.
While I was rushing to outfit my children and equip them with school supplies, Rabbi Eisenman was pondering the emotional journey of a six-year-old girl he spotted waiting to begin her first day of school. He wonders about her hopes and worries as she stands fresh-faced on her first day. He cries for the dashed hopes of so many of our growing and grown children, and I am moved. Rather than contemplating whether the tissues and Ziploc baggies will fit into my daughter’s knapsack (maybe she really does need a bigger one?), I think about her emotional experience on the first day, and I am grateful for the opportunity to support her through it.
Rabbi Eisenman can find meaning in an encounter with just about anyone. In the book, he reminds us that if you seek, you shall find. If we stop what we are doing and just look around, there are countless opportunities for humor, pleasure, love, intensity and connection to God.
He relates a story about a trip to the airport. Due to a combination of factors, the rabbi and his son were late getting to the airport. Once there, it became clear that the gate was closed and there seemed to be no chance of getting on the flight. Suddenly the unexpected happened, and a previously hostile airport attendant became cooperative and hurried the rabbi’s son onto the departing flight. “When we let go and realize only He is in charge, only then will the geulah arrive,” was the rabbi’s take-home message from this experience. These words apply to each of our personal geulot from the difficulties we face. If we recognize how little control we have and turn to God with our pains, big and small, then we become vessels that can accept blessings and miracles of all kinds.
A champion for those whose voices are not frequently heard, Rabbi Eisenman makes a case for our community’s responsibility to those whose stories have been silenced— those who have been abused or molested as children. He brings proof from the Oral and Written Torah that the Jewish way to deal with a tragedy of this nature is to cry out publicly and make changes in how we operate as a community, not to hide in silence and shame. Through his candor, he shows the reader that strength comes with openness to one’s own and others’ feelings.
In a somewhat lighter vein, he questions contemporary expressions such as TMI (too much information), reminding us to mind the feelings of those who are looking to us for support. He takes lessons from small children, the common man, and great leaders alike.
Drawing from disparate sources such as the Kotzker Rebbe and Simon and Garfunkel, the rabbi reminds us that the overscheduled lives we live today are in fact a curse—not something we should strive for. He states:
The Kotzker understands the word meheirah, quickly, not as describing the speed by which Hashem will cause you to be lost, but rather as the actual punishment that Hashem will visit upon us. The punishment we will suffer is always being in a state of meheirah—a state of being constantly harried and frenetic. We will always be in a state of feeling “maxed out” and overwhelmed; of being harried and never at peace. . . and that, in and of itself, will be our downfall.
Meheirah may be part of the galus, but that doesn’t mean we have to indulge in it and live it to the fullest. We don’t have to take meheirah and make it into a mitzvah! Let Hashem do what He has to do, and that is enough. As far as we are concerned, “Slow down, you move too fast, you’ve got to make the morning last.”
Rabbi Eisenman comments on current events, trying to deepen our understanding of the world we find ourselves in and integrate it with a Torah perspective. When writing about the brutal murder of Leiby Kletzky, a”h, the rabbi is clearly suffering from a shattering of the assumptions of the world as he knew it. He questions God, struggles mightily to find a way to make some sense of the horror, and concludes that sometimes there are no answers or explanations, and acceptance and subordination to the will of God are all we have.
His willingness to openly articulate questions of faith reminds the reader that facing one’s questions and doubts is an integral part of the development of oneself as a true believer. I am buoyed by this message, and feel hopeful for myself as a Jew even though my sense of nearness to God can waver sometimes.
The Elephant in the Room is an invitation to visit with the rabbi in his study, shul, and community, but mostly in his heart and soul. His openness to the full range of emotions he experiences is refreshing and unique. Humorous commentary on the state of frum culture as well as inspirational anecdotes of leaders past and present await the reader. Find a comfortable chair and enjoy!