Monday, September 7, 2009

Learning humility in my Toronto exile

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

This is one of those posts that will make some of my friends say, "Torczyner, why are you embarrassing yourself in front of millions?" To which I will reply, "Because someone else may need this lesson, too."

A midrash to Parshat Lech Lecha highlights one of the difficulties Avraham and Sarah faced when they left their homeland to enter a new place: They lost their identity as ideologues, as philanthropists, as leaders.

Similarly, a gemara (Rosh HaShanah 16b) enumerates ways to earn atonement, and one of them is שינוי מקום, to change one’s location, to experience exile, so that one enters a new place and fully sheds his old identity (per the Rambam's explanation in Hilchot Teshuvah 2:4 - שגורמת לו להיכנע ולהיות עניו ושפל רוח).

I never really understood what that meant; I never comprehended what it meant to enter a new location and be a complete unknown. I now have some understanding of the exile experience, and of the humbling that comes with it. [Of course, I'm not in exile; I chose this option, and I am grateful for the opportunity. I use the term "exile" here as the Rambam did, to connote re-location to a place where one has none of his old associations.]

During the 2+ weeks since our beit midrash began operation in Toronto, I’ve had several occasions on which someone came into the beit midrash and mistook me for an avrech (one of the younger rabbinical students who participate in our program). One Shabbos someone asked if I might be interested in an assistant rabbi position in a shul. One Sunday morning, someone in shul turned to me and asked, “And who is this boychik?”

I shouldn't be surprised. Because of the nature of my position in the beit midrash – my chief responsibilities are to mentor avrechim and to give shiurim in the broader community – most of my shiurim so far have taken place away from the eyes of the local community. Also, thank Gd, I still look a little young (very little, but I guess it's there).

I shouldn't take offense, either; I’ve never introduced myself by title, and I never particularly cared whether people knew about me.

And yet, to my considerable surprise, these underestimations did bother me in the beginning, the first few times these conversations happened. To my great surprise, I discovered that I was a little too proud of the things I’ve done. I guess I did start to take myself a little too seriously. To have someone assume I should be an assistant was jarring, and, yes, a little insulting.

Looks like I really did need some humbling, an ice-water reality check.

Well, mission accomplished; it took a few days, but I’m cured. I just had to go through the experience a couple of times before I could absorb the lesson. At this point, it’s just amusing to realize that I was once annoyed by it.

Now, whenever I start to take myself too seriously, I’ll have those conversations to remember, to put me back in my place.


  1. At least one of your millions of readers smiled at your account. Ktiva vechatima tova.

  2. You might want to look at Emily Dickinson's poem "I'm Nobody. Who are You?"--the other side of humility.

    Just a question--Why Toronto exile? From what you've written you chose this place to come to--no exile involved. Might make it a tad easier to adjust to your new surroundings if you didn't think of it that way.

  3. Mother in Israel-
    Thanks! כתיבה וחתימה טובה for you as well.

    I didn't mean "exile" in that sense; I meant it only in the sense of relocation to a place where my old associations are gone. I have now edited in a comment to reflect that; this is certainly not an exile in the normal sense.

  4. I first went through this sort of experience when I graduated college & took my first job as a Jr. Programmer in California. I was used to being regarded (in high school and college) as one of the intellectual leaders of my class, often helping those less talented than I was. What a shock to me when the young men hired at the same time I was regarded me as inferior and cute -- not quite their equal.

    Because I'm often mistaken for being 10 to 15 years younger than I am, I still run into people assuming that I am much less experienced or capable than I am. Age has taught me to expect this misunderstanding and not take it so seriously. (Although at times, I do have to watch myself when it happens.)

    Rabbi, don't be too hard on yourself if you end up taking yourself too seriously again & forget this lesson from time to time.

    Also, from my experience, it takes less time for people to really find out who you are than it seems (even when you do nothing overt to make it happen.)

    Good Luck!

  5. Great post. Hang in there and have a great Shabbos Kodesh.

  6. Nicely written. And it is great you have learned from your own experience. Good luck with actually practicing what you have found out.

    Regards, Ella.