I’m laying in bed. It’s dark, so dark. I can hear Mom and Dad downstairs talking, their soft voices the only thing that make me feel safe. Them and my blanket. I pull it up stronger.
I don’t want to look at my toys or anything with a face in my room, like pictures. I know, I think I know, that they won’t come to life and start talking to me, but what if they do? There’s no proof that this life is all a big trick and whatever I thought was real wasn’t really real.
That’s what’s scary: what’s real? Don’t look at the toys, they may be realer than I think. But also maybe some things aren’t real. Life, what if every night I fall asleep and wake up as a different person. There’s no way I could tell! No way! It doesn’t matter what Mom and Dad tell me, they wouldn’t know either. No one would.
And what if it’s every moment? If all our thoughts and our memories are from the past then being in a body would make no difference. Maybe a second ago I was in another world? What if the other world I’m about to enter is hell? What if I get tortured?
And, anyway, it’s going to happen one day, right? I’m going to die, and then I’ll be somewhere else. And what is death anyway? Is it the end? Am I going to spend eternity not existing, oh my gosh, I can’t imagine? But what if there is something? Wouldn’t living forever be even worse? How would I be able to handle eternity, going on day after day and still not knowing, not understanding this universe I’m in? How could that possibly better than not existing? And what is existing, anyway? It makes no sense that I exist. That anything exists. What is this? What is this is? I know how the universe was created, but what does that mean, what is a freaking universe even doing existing? But what would non-existence be like? That makes even less sense. But what if I die and then I don’t exist, and then forever… forever… not existing.
Oh my God, I can’t stand it anymore, my hands are shaking and sweaty, my breath is going in and out inandout inandout, oh my god oh my god ohmygod.
I’m downstairs, I’m looking at my parents who are sitting looking at me with confused expressions. Did I have a nightmare? No, I thought about death again. Oh, Elad, it’s okay, that’s so far away. But I don’t know that. Oh, Elad. But will I ever understand it? There’s just no way to understand it, Elad, the best thing to do is not to think about it.
I sit in the room with them for a bit, in the comfort of light, where edges are solid and life makes sense and parents know everything. I breathe. Breathe. Breathe. And I stop thinking.
“Okay, so you said you wanted to learn something spiritual, right? Well, I have the perfect thing. It’s called the Tanya and it’s the foundation of all Chabad Chassidus. I think you’re really going to like it.”
I don’t really want to be here, but he’s bugged me so many times, I just had to say yes.
I say sure and we sit down together. He only has one copy so we sit by side and he reads it to me, explaining as we go along.
We start by reading from the very beginning, the first lines that start off the book quoting a line saying, “For it is exceedingly near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do.” The rabbi explains what “it” is, in Jew-y language; but I get it, somehow, right away. It sounds just like that line in the Tao te Ching:
Thus the Master travels all day
without leaving home.
However splendid the views,
she stays serenely in herself.
And I feel like, okay, maybe this is fine, maybe there’s something to this.
It says other things that I start to fall in love with. Stuff like that we’re literally a part of God.
I’m starting to get this feeling of excitement. I’m… I’m happy. No, it’s more. I’m floating. I’m up in the air. I’m not totally in my body, I’m somewhere higher.
And soon, we’re talking about this special soul Jews have. And I’m suddenly overcome with this truth, hit so hard. I start to fly from how powerful it all is..
I walk out of the short meeting with this rabbi into the street, look around at the palm trees, the students walking by, relaxed and calm, and it all seems to be pulsating with this living energy. Even colors seem more vivid.
Yes, yes, I’m a Jew, it’s amazing, why didn’t I realize it before, how amazing it is?
I walk around some more, I go to the center of campus, not really knowing what to do with myself. Even when I studied Taoism, I never felt this. I just want to absorb it, to keep flying, to float over everything and finally see it in all its beauty.
But as I keep walking, I notice something, like a hand tickling me lightly, in the back of my mind. I ignore it.
But the more I walk, the more I fall to earth, the less vibrant everything seems, and the lessons start to fall away. The voice gets louder and louder. There’s something wrong.
And I look back at those students, those people who just seemed so different than me for a brief moment, and I realize, “Oh my God… how could I have thought I’m different than them? Better?! No, no, no.”
And suddenly I look back at what just happened. I just got brainwashed, I just got tricked. Those words are dangerous. Flying isn’t good, it’s what crazy religious people do. I’m not crazy, I’m not religious, and I don’t think a Jew or anyone else is different. It’s maybe the one thing I know for sure, and yet here I was, somehow believing it right away.
And I feel my hands shake and get sweaty. My heart races. My breathing gets shallow. What just happened?! What just happened?! How could I let this happen? No, no, no.
And I take a deep breath, a strong breath, and I get control of myself. I turn my logic back on. I say to myself, Elad, you will never go study that again. You will never allow yourself to believe something so wrong ever again. Stop thinking about it, just stop, it’s over. If you go down this road, if you let them suck you in, you’ll give up the most fundamental things you believe in. They’re dangerous, and that was scary. Run.
And so I stop. I stop thinking about what I just learned. I stop thinking about what it was like to fly. I stop thinking about what it means to be Jewish. I stop thinking.
“I’m going to be poor.”
“That’s okay,” she says in this soft, sweet voice.
This makes no sense to me.
“I’m going to be a writer, you know? I can’t… I mean, we’ll always be poor.”
“That’s okay. I don’t believe in doing things for the money. What matters to me is living the life I’m meant to live.”
This is our first talk after we decided that, hey, maybe we should date.
I got back from Israel, and I happened to be in Chicago in the same city as her. We were only friends, only friends, only friends, I kept telling myself. But then I asked her to hang out, and she said she doesn’t do that, she’s more religious now. So, she said, why don’t we go on a date.
Don’t date, that’s what my rabbi in yeshiva told me no more than 2 months ago. You’re not ready.
She’s the only one I’d consider. Her. Every time we spoke last year, it was like getting lost in an ocean, any direction was the right one, everywhere was clear and open and full of mystery.
“It’s really important to me, this creativity stuff,” I say. I’m trying to push her. Does she really get it? That I’m a weirdo? That it’s going to be a mess to be married to me?
“Me too! I want to make my painting a part of the Jewish world, you know?”
Every word she says is like a sponge that absorbs mine. Poor? Money isn’t the point. Writing? Pursue your dreams. Creativity? Me too.
By the end all I can say is, “Okay… okay… I’ve got to think about this. It’s my first time doing this Hasidic dating thing… I just need to think.”
We hang up. I start pacing around the room and thinking. First thought that hits my mind, “I might actually marry this woman.”
And then I start to think about that. Marry? I was just… it was just an idea before. Now it’s real. It has a face, a beautiful face, and a name. It has thoughts and dreams and beliefs.
And now, I get it, why my rabbi warned me. Somehow the whole “for life” thing never hit me before. It was all a game, a fantasy, an imagined reality. How on earth do you imagine marriage?
But now it was entering my mind. Every day with this woman. No way out. Children. What if I regret it? What if it’s wrong? What if I’m wrong? There’s no way to escape except through the worst thing ever.
Forever. Forever. Forever. Eternity.
And I realize my hands are sweating. My breathing is shallow. In and out, in and out, inandout. I can’t…
I stop. I take a deep breath.
Some part of my brain processes something. Somethings. Deep, deep inside me.
And I think.
Elad, remember your other freakouts? Remember what happened?
Death. You were scared out of your mind. You didn’t know how to handle the state of the universe, of existing.
You shoved it down and tried not to think about it, but it would come out in different ways, in the way you couldn’t fly on planes or your insomnia. You couldn’t let go of control, could you?
And what ended up happening? You died. You had a near death experience, you got as close as you could to actually dying, and you survived.
Remember the other freakout, Elad?
The Tanya. Chabad. Judaism. You refused to think about it.
A year later, you went to the Chabad house again. You talked all night with the rabbi, and you enjoyed it so much. And you started going every Shabbat. And then you went to Israel. And then you believed in it. The Tanya is your favorite book.
What if… what if… freakouts aren’t bad? What if they’re a sign of something. What if there is no way to avoid what you’re freaking out about, what if it’s more that your soul is so enflamed by the power of these moments that it scares you and you want to run away from what it could all mean?
What if… this is meant to be?
Freakouts 1, 2, and 3: confronted
I call her back the next day.
“Okay, let’s try it. Let’s go for it.”
A few days later we go on a sushi date. We laugh the whole time, and we talk about all the ideas of Chassidus that I love so much. We talk about creativity. I’m in love already.
Then we get married.
Then we have a daughter named Tanya.
We move to Crown Heights, the home of Chabad.
Then I start a blog about death, and I start going to these things called Death Cafes, where people spend the whole time just talking about death.
One day, I’m sitting with Rivka at home, and she tells me about how she freaked out after after our first call. She says she was overcome by something, and she was so afraid. She describes exactly what I want through.
And that’s when I know, that’s when I know for sure: God speaks to us. Sometimes louder, sometimes quieter. Some of us freak out when it happens, mostly because we are scared of how true it all is, how real.
And maybe that’s what scares most of us: that this could all be more than a game, that some things are meant to be, and truths are unavoidable. And maybe that’s why we have to chase down our fears, and especially our freakouts.
Because in the darkness of our fears lies the truths that are beyond our mortal understanding. They are the pathways to our destiny.
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