The Real Me

I wrote this about 15 years ago as I was surfacing from a deep, black hole of self denial and confusion.  This last Friday I used it as an opening for a Ner L’elef class that I teach.  So many of the members of the class felt it connected to a similar experience in their lives that it made me think that it may be valuable to share- here it goes:

Someone that hasn’t experienced the feeling of absolute alienation that baalei teshuva experience, cannot empathize with the intensity of the emotional pain of feeling completely estranged from anything familiar, and perhaps mostly, from one’s self.

The alienation was, in my own experience, intensified by the fact that the self I grew up as, and what defined me in every facet of my life, had now become forbidden territory. It’s not that I no longer knew myself, it’s that I had been denied access to ME!

Let me try to explain how that process occurred. I became inspired. In that phase of inspiration, everything was magical, every dvar Torah was sweeter then honey, every Shabbos meal an explosion in harmony and every davening a heartfelt connection to the Creator. All of a sudden everything in life was absolutely clear, and all that wasn’t Torah by default was wrong, empty and meaningless.

It was a stage of absolutes, black and white. All Torah and anything associated with Torah was snow white. Every Rabbi a saint and every frum child a cherub. Torah was the panacea that presented utopia here and now.

At that point I leapt in. Everything else became secondary, my passion for Torah was all consuming and all my spare time was spent devouring everything which could be described as Torah. I was amazed how my friends were oblivious to the revelation of that which was so blindingly clear!

I think it was then that I rejoiced in throwing out my old life. It was a part of the Evil Empire that had stolen earthly paradise from me. With glee I rushed to throw everything which had made me – me – overboard. No need for all that extra luggage, I was free to be a whole new person!

The obvious next step was to travel to that idyllic place where the pious become saints, yeshiva. Off I rushed to the Holy Land to pursue my Holy endeavor.

I landed with a bit of a bang. Everything was so BLACK, so intense. The first rays of reality started to pierce my fantasy world, yet the first subtle beginnings of the process of loss of self had begun.

But I quickly managed to block out those initial interruptions in my dream. I settled down and thirstily drank in the many Rabbis’ vitriolic diatribes describing the blatant evils of ‘the world out there’ and painting the perfect picture of the glorious ‘us’.

I loved it.  ‘More’ screamed that insecure self. I ditched my life; I threw away the old me. ‘Yeah’ cheered the Rabbis, ‘that dirty perverted excuse for existence, good riddance’. They encouraged my efforts, spurred me on, ‘throw out more’, they said, ‘leave no trace of the Evil Empire within, chalilah, be pure!’

So I called in the removal crew and shipped out the rest of me, (or so I thought!) And now I could rejoice in the new me. I had the hat, my jacket was sable black and shirt a snow-white fleece.

I looked at the frum people around me as paragons of humanity, no faults could there be within their shining lives, ‘yeah’, rallied the Rabbis, ‘perfection and purity.’

And then I returned home after my yearlong stint. My hat stayed glued to my head. I was astonished; my old world stood almost where I had left it.  I was convinced that it too must have vanished like the rest of my life. That encounter left me slightly shaken. And deep deep down a small almost inaudible voice called out to me, ‘Are you there Perry, are you still there?’ ‘Silence!’ came the reprimand, ‘Perry has gone, he was taken away by the removal van, you can call me Peretz.’

But the voice would not remain silent, in a quiet moment he would call out, sometimes a soft scream other times I could barely even hear a voice, it was only a feeling.

But then I returned to my sanctuary, and the Rabbis chided the ‘voice’, Oh yes, it’s called the Yetzer Hora. You have to fight him. ‘Silence’ I would now scream in righteous indignation, ‘you have no right to speak, pestering voice, you are but an illusion, and I will not hear your screams, neither listen to your call. I will be a tzaddik and not fall prey to your cunning manipulations!’

I fought on. I would not budge nor acknowledge that part of me that had been decreed taboo. My path was that of perfection. I fought and fought, struggled and strove on, until I had convinced myself that the voice was no longer there. He had gone, I had crossed the bridge of change and the path of the pious lay before me.

And all this time from the sidelines, the Rabbis cheered.  At every victory, they celebrated the demise of the Evil opponent. I became enveloped in my new persona but it was only ‘cloud” of change, a thin wispy layer that has no real substance. Between the gaps in the clouds I saw a world, a person and a life – and it terrified me. Because the world was mine, the person me, and the life mine.

The power of the shock shook me until I crumbled as a shattered vessel on the Holy ground upon which I stood. And all that was left of me was the person I had fought to destroy. Myself. He hadn’t gone anywhere. All those battles I thought I’d won, all those struggles in which I thought I had triumphed were all illusionary. The old, perhaps REAL me had not budged. He was still there unchanged – and angry. ‘Why did you leave me behind’, he screamed. ‘You never let me share in your journey, you kept me outside and silenced my cry to join in your quest. Well now you will pay the price. Because I am the only life you have, the only personality. You can’t leave me behind anymore than you can your mouth or your ears. You can pretend I don’t exist, but I’ll always be there.’

I sat there crying. ‘But you are the Yetzer Hora, you are the evil one. You embody everything I have rejected, why have you come to haunt me?’ ‘No!’ screamed I, ‘not evil, but you, if you want to bring me into the world of Torah, don’t be afraid, I’m happy to come along. But please don’t leave me outside. I realise that I will have to change. I’m willing to adapt, but please involve me, don’t ignore me, don’t discard me. Because if you discard me, you will be discarding yourself.’

So I tried to start picking up those broken shards and slowly put the pieces together. Hashem sent me a teacher who gave me the confidence to build and the power to accept.

I was deaf by now to the other Rabbis chanting, ‘kill him, maim him, destroy him’.  I knew I had to build the vessel. I needed time, I needed patience, and I needed to share those years of change with the closest thing in the world to me – myself.

So at first it was uncomfortable. The relationship was stiff and formal. I hardly trusted him and him me. But we made progress, we talked, he’d ask me, ‘why do you this?’ I would shake my head, shrug and say ‘I dunno’, ‘well, I want to know’ and together we would search for answers and when we found them, together we would rejoice.

Our relationship blossomed and I understood more and more. Torah began to touch me to the core, like it had never done before. And then I don’t know exactly when it happened, it was a process, an imperceptible change, but I suddenly realised there were no longer two of us, I was ME!

I danced, I rejoiced, I sang until my voice was hoarse and my eyes were dry from tears of joy. And I hugged the Torah that was now a part of me, and I sang out to Hashem from the core of my being. I felt the blissful joy of experiencing REALITY and not the artificially produced ‘frum speak’ ersatz reality that had been sold to my naive soul.

The struggles of course, have not disappeared. Still I struggle, I fail and I triumph. There is pain, sometimes intense, and joy. But the struggle is real and the person involved is me. There is no imposter stealing away the crown of living from my head. And sometimes it’s much harder to fit the real me into Torah, so it takes patience and cunning but at the end of it, win or lose, I’m living my own life.

And now I cry for all those out there that still are playing a game of hide and seek with their real selves, too eager to shut them out.  And live out a scripted role, for which they never auditioned and never got the part. And on judgement day who will answer for the life they failed to live?