Jewish people who have traversed the Orthodox experience may have followed any number of paths. The most common are those who were born into Orthodoxy and never left, those who converted or became inspired to commit to an Orthodox lifestyle and have only strengthened their commitment over time, those who left Orthodoxy (whether Hasidic, which garners the most media attention, or anywhere else along the spectrum), or those whose spiritual awakening waned over time.
There is a wonderful example in the parsha of downturn in commitment, and how, with proper preparation, people can stay committed and even grow.
One rule was given to the original human occupants of the Garden of Eden: “G-d commanded the human saying, ‘You will eat of all the trees of the garden. And you will not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will become mortal’.” (I translate “will become mortal” because after eating from the tree, Adam lives close to 1,000 years.)
In summary, the whole garden is accessible, except for one specific, named tree.
And yet, when the serpent approaches Chava after goading her about the forbidden tree, she responds, “We may eat of the fruits of the garden. However, of the fruit tree in the garden, G-d ‘don’t eat from it and don’t touch it, lest you die’.”
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This is clearly not an accurate reflection of what Adam had been told; Chava changes a few important details.
One: She implies that they may only eat from some of the trees.
Two: When she mentions that G-d “said” not to eat, she opened the door to the idea that eating from the tree isn’t a big deal, as merely “saying” something isn’t binding (G-d had actually commanded).
Three: In not mentioning the reason for the prohibition (loss of innocence, and the depth of good versus evil), she seemed to suggest that the tree was dangerous or poisonous, and therefore forbidden to touch.
Defining reasons for commandments is risky. Once the reason becomes irrelevant, you’re one step away from declaring a commandment irrelevant. The only reason for every mitzvah is that G-d has commanded it. But the real take-home lesson comes from Chava, who became a super-frummy about the tree rules in her very short lifespan before eating from it.
Had Chava said to the snake, “I can eat from every tree. I can’t eat from one tree. Big deal, I don’t need it anyway. I don’t care for what you say I’m missing,” the history of the world might look very, very different.
Instead, she started making yeshiva-style analogies. I can’t eat this one, but maybe G-d didn’t just mean this one … He meant the trees around it. So if I can’t eat, I won’t even touch it! How quickly did she go from seeing that she could touch it to eating it? About five seconds, thanks to the serpent.
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From taking on too much, to losing everything. How do we get off the roller coaster? I think there are three components to the solution.
The first is KNOWLEDGE.
People drawn to a life of Judaism, frumkeit, people who are sold on the idea that a Torah life is the only authentic life, cannot stop there. Going through motions without knowledge — or when that inspirational figure is no longer nearby — can get stale quickly. And not having the knowledge to back up the life choices makes for too many challenges when questions come along.
I know a man who is heavily involved in learning — he studies, he gives classes, some of his kids went through the Aish system and are involved in kiruv. He became inspired in his twenties and defines himself as a baal teshuvah. Once, I gave a talk in which I presented this question to the crowd: “How long are you going to rely on your baal teshuvah-ness to justify where you are in your Jewish life?”
He said to me afterwards, “You know, I haven’t thought about it. But I’ve been calling myself a baal teshuvah for 40 years. I have to stop making excuses.”
The second ingredient is MODERATION.
It is never a good idea to jump into a new way of life without proper preparation. Some people quit smoking cold turkey, and that is amazing. But most people who go through significant lifestyle changes know that baby steps of adjustment are much easier to maintain.
While there are many Jews who came to observance through the baal teshuvah movement or through conversion whose dedication and commitment are the envy of us all, there are also some who became baalei teshuvah or converted, who years later are not where they were when that transition took place.
This is why the third ingredient to maintaining religiosity is CONSISTENCY. Go to shul daily. Have an unbreakable prep-for-Shabbos routine. Learn some Torah every day.
Knowledge is empowering. It allows for moderation and the ability to be consistent to be in your own hands, at your own pace. It is also best when not demanded or monitored by a community or authority figure.
Our lives are imperfect. That is the human experience. But with knowledge, moderation, and consistency, we can set ourselves on a trajectory of constant growth.
Chava failed. She didn’t have the knowledge she needed, because she was just told something and didn’t seek to understand better.
She had one mitzvah, and she made it much bigger than it was. No moderation. And there was no consistent behavior that could have helped her avoid the serpent’s snare.
Now that we have celebrated Simchas Torah, and are beginning a new cycle with Bereishis, it is a wonderful opportunity commit to increasing knowledge, leading to moderation in practice, and the consistency that helps us grow in slow but manageable steps, so we never remain stagnant in our Jewish journey of life.