First: A reader has started a new website, Mi Yodeya, posting questions and answers about Judaism on a Wiki-style site. The site just opened for business last week, and is particularly interesting for the types of questions it has gathered - Did Rav Moshe Feinstein pronounce his last name “Feinstain” or “Feinsteen”? and Kosher accommodations in out-of-the-way US places are two recent examples.
Almost two years ago (I actually mentioned it in my post here), my Rebbetzin recommended Marilynne Robinson's Gilead to me as a book with both great writing and a compelling story. I never got past the opening chapters; Death is a major theme in the book, and I shy away from that topic when I can. But yesterday I finished my current reading and decided to pick it up again.
I'm glad I did; the words of the book's narrator, an aging preacher, resonate with my own experience. In particular, an incident on pages 5-6 grabs me, both for its writing and for its authenticity:
The preacher talks about walking past two young men and seeing them laughing at some joke. As he nears, they stop laughing. He says to himself, I felt like telling them, I appreciate a joke as much as anybody. There have been many occasions in my life when I have wanted to say that. But it's not a thing people are willing to accept. They want you to be a little bit apart.
Very true - but even more true is the piece on the next page:
That's the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There's a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn't really expect to find it, either.
This has certainly been my experience; the same people who won't make an inappropriate joke within my earshot will tell me about experiences that reflect on them in a far worse light, or will divulge inner feelings and doubts and struggles, personal pain and loss, that are far closer to the reality of their souls than some email humor.
It is, as Robinson writes, a remarkable thing. Here's my own take:
Telling a 'dirty' joke is lighthearted fun, and is not a serious source of temptation; it simply says I am corrupt. In divulging personal weakness, though, I can portray myself as struggling, working to perfect myself or to overcome a challenge.
There is no shame in telling the rabbi I am having trouble dealing with an addiction, if the message is that I am trying to deal with it.
Shades of מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח at the Pesach Seder; we don't mind portraying ourselves as fallen heroes, so long as we can add that we are picking ourselves up and aiming for glory.