It started on a Shabbat morning about 20 years ago. My wife was pregnant with our first child and I was getting fidgety. Suddenly life became more serious than my Saturday morning workout on the basketball court. How in the world was I going to be a father? With all due respect to my parents, I wanted to transmit something more of value to my children but I didn’t know what.
I had driven past the little synagogue near our house many times, but this time something made me pause and take a good look as the people were coming out after morning services. It was a spectacular spring day, and wearing their Shabbat best, there was an air of holiness amongst them. As I passed by, my sweaty shorts, tee shirt and sneakers somehow seemed to lack something.
Something hit me…maybe it was a truck. I swerved off the road.
There wasn’t a truck in sight but I was in no shape to drive. ..my head was spinning and I began sobbing deeply…and had no idea what was happening to me. I took some deep breaths and tried to calm myself down; it was then that I remembered.
When I was 5 years old, my mother, may she rest in peace, had a close friend, Doris, whose husband was the president of our Reform synagogue. Doris had a son, David, who I liked very much. One day David took me into his father’s home-office to show me something. David’s father was kind and warm and his presence somehow filled the otherwise dark and stuffy office. There were accounting books and folders of paper all over… even on the chairs. David took down from a shelf two black prayer books and two nylon yarmulkes and handed me mine. It was understood that we were going to pray now. Neither of us could read yet, but that didn’t matter. We invented our own language; it was some type of made-up Hebrew. Suddenly something ineffable and powerful came over us… it got stronger and stronger….more and more intense…until we worked ourselves into a frenzy of shaking, jumping and literally screaming to Hashem at the top of our lungs. It was unquestionably the most sublime and ecstatic experience of my life. When we were finished, I closed the prayer book, put it back on the shelf and forgot about Hashem for the next thirty years.
As I came back to myself on that Shabbat morning on the side of the road; I thought about whether there was something in that synagogue for me. After all I am a Jew and I seemed to be falling apart. Who knows maybe there would be some wisdom in the ways of my Ancestors that would still my gnawing anxiety that therapy had been unable to reach. Would learning more about my religion help me with my fear of responsibility and parenting? I wasn’t sure, but I was going to find out.
The following Shabbat, I parked my car three blocks away and walked the rest. I shyly eased my way into the Synagogue, a stranger amongst a vibrant swarm of men women and children. Little smiling kids with colorful yarmulkes were happily running around while their parents stood and prayed - it was a stark contrast to the sterile decorum of my memories of Temple.
Then, another unusual thing happened .The Rabbi got up and seemed to be looking at me; and when he began speaking he seemed to be speaking to me. He said, “Hashem needs all of us, especially after the Holocaust. The Baal-Teshuva movement will help us to reconstruct what we lost. You must welcome them with open arms.”
Feeling welcomed I made an appointment with the Rabbi, who also had a master’s degree in Psychology. I asked him how I could build my self-esteem according to the Torah. He said that in our culture and in our profession too much emphasis is put on "self-improvement.” He told me that the best way to have more esteem would be to actually do esteem-able things for other people. It was a simple answer that made a lot of sense.
The Rabbi continued: “If you want more self-esteem you must give yourself to something…to belong to something bigger than yourself. He gave me an example: “By enlisting in the army a young man may feel the power and importance that he ascribes to the army. He feels good when he puts on his uniform because he feels connected to something which is much more powerful than him.
The Rabbi confessed that he also had been down the psychotherapy route, but that it wasn’t until he surrendered his ego to Hashem and began his service in Hashem’s army that he developed a real core of self- confidence and inner peace. I asked him how I could find G-d in my life and he told me that someone once asked the same question to the Kutzker Rebbe, of saintly memory, and the Rebbe answered that you can find G-d anywhere that you let Him in. I desperately wanted to know how to do that.
That night I spoke to my wife. We were married for two years, at the time. I shared my concerns about fatherhood with her and told her all about my swerving off the road, my long-forgotten memory, the Rabbi’s speech in Shul and my appointment with him.
Then I begged her to give this new way of life a chance.
She needed time, but before long, we started our Torah-observant lives together. It was the greatest gift that anyone has ever given me. Hashem later helped me to repay some of my debt to my wife. He Blessed her with a better husband, three beautiful children and her own very strong Emunah. Later on, she told me about a promise that she had made to a Rabbi as a child, which when she thought about it helped her to understand her side of the journey we were on.
Emuna is like a magnifying glass that expands our view of Hashem’s overall plan. When we look at anything through the lens of Emuna, our problems always look smaller or non-existent in contrast to Hashem’s overall plan.
Whenever something is bothering me I try to remember that I have a better lens though which to view the problem than I am currently using. When I do this sincerely, it has never failed. I inevitably see myself and my troubles as just a small particle in G-d’s overall plan. It makes me feel better right away. There’s a Yiddish folk saying: “Don’t tell Hashem how big your problems are; tell your problems how big Hashem is!”
Twenty years have gone by since I swerved off the road. I must admit that being a good father takes a lot more wisdom that being a good therapist. Anyone who has teenagers in the house can attest to the challenges of living with constantly changing moods.
When my Emuna battery is low I futilely attempt to deal with whatever it is through the force of my authority as a parent. However when my Emuna is charged up and strong, I am actually now able to step to the side, and somehow, as if with Spiritual judo, Hashem keeps flipping things back in good directions.
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Zev Ballen, LCSW has been a practicing psychotherapist for 32 years. He is licensed in Israel and the State of New York. Zev has the endorsements of prominent Gadolei Yisrael such as the Nikolsburger Rebba, Shlita, Reb Yitzchok Fagelstock, Shlita, The Kasaner Rebbe of Forshay, Shlita, Rav Shalom Arush, Shlita, and Rabbi Lazer Brody, Shlita. He resides with his family in Jerusalem where he learns in Rav Arush’s Kollel and maintains a part-time practice. You can write to Zev Ballen at: firstname.lastname@example.org call him at: 845-362-8600 (US line) or 054-840-9499 (Israeli line).