There's a certain kind of discomfort unique to certain kinds of rabbis. Those of us who grew up in secular homes and found our way to Torah observance later in adulthood inevitably did things in our past lives that we would prefer buried and forgotten. And although this may be universal, for the individual whose position demands a public persona of propriety and self-discipline, it can be particularly discomfiting.
One colleague of mine felt compelled to remove a tattoo he had once had inscribed into his flesh in a moment of post-adolescent impetuosity. Many others have worried about past associations coming back to haunt them.
I have my own skeleton in my own closet. And the door of that closet remains open a crack just enough to ensure that some astute student will occasionally notice it.
I still remember the first time one of them did.
It was about halfway through my first year teaching, which happened to be in Budapest, Hungary. The students knew little English, I had little experience, and the school administration had little concept of general discipline. In short, my first stint in education could hardly be described as an overwhelming success.
I don't remember why I had a mob of ninth grade boys surrounding me at my desk that day. Maybe it was between periods, or maybe I had just given up trying for the afternoon. However, after a brief exchange between two students in Hungarian, the one in front of my desk pointed to the one standing behind me and said, "Rabbi Goldson, he has a question."
I looked at him quizzically. "He has a question?"
The boy looked back sheepishly. "I wouldn't ask this, but he wants me to ask it."
I didn't bother asking why the other boy couldn't ask it himself. "Well, what is it?"
"Did you ever wear an earring?"
The long-healed hole in my left earlobe, although barely visible from the front, apparently remained fairly noticeable from behind. My mind raced. Should I lie? Would they believe me if I did? Would I compromise what little authority I had by telling the truth?
Lies are generally a bad idea, partly because they frequently fail and partly because they accustom the liar to untruthfulness. I also lacked a convincing lie to tell. Consequently, I made my decision in about two seconds.
But I didn't give a straight answer. Instead, I told them a story.
Sometime during my senior year in college, with matriculation lurking on the horizon and no visible means of post-graduate support in sight, I had gradually become aware of my own growing contempt for higher education. Wandering about the quad on Earth Day, the school's annual holistic-hippie fair, my friend Keith and I wandered past a jewelry kiosk. I nudged Keith in the side and pointed to a sign: Ear Piercing $10.
"What do you think?" I asked.
"I think," Keith replied, with more wisdom than I, "that we'd better get out of here before you talk me into something I'm going to regret."
We got out of there. But we came back.
I wore the earring for the rest of my college career, as I hitchhiked across America, as I backpacked through Europe, and when I first walked through the front door of an American yeshiva in Jerusalem, unsure why I was there or what I would be learning. The only time my rabbis ever mentioned it was when we learned about the nirtzeh the Jewish slave who chooses to remain in the servitude of his master when offered the opportunity to go free. The Torah commands the judges to take him to a doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl.
"Is that a punishment?" asked one student.
"Not at all," replied the rabbi. "It's meant as a rebuke for not heeding the words of the Torah that are written in the mezuzah upon the doorpost, declaring that G-d wants us to be servants to Him and no other." Then, looking over at me, the rabbi asked: "It doesn't hurt, does it?"
I smiled and shook my head.
Of course, my rabbis were Americans. Israelis were another matter entirely.
As I became slowly convinced of the truth of the Torah, I began gradually accepting its practices. Among the easiest was the commandment to wear tzitzis, the fringed tassels attached to a specially designed undergarment. And you will make for yourselves fringes on the four corners of your garments, commands the Torah (Deuteronomy 22:12). Simple enough. Like most of the young men in yeshiva, I wore my tzitzis hanging out at the sides of my trousers.
Less than a week later, as I stepped into an elevator, a middle-aged secular Israeli gave me a look up and down, then snapped: "Mah zeh what's this?" He waved his hand from my ear to my belt and, without giving me a moment to reply, he said, "You can have this, or you can have that. But," he declared, "you cannot have both!"
On some level I knew he was right, so I gave a little shrug and stood dumb. "I'm sorry," he concluded, "I have to say what I think." Indeed, after a month in Israel I had gotten used to that.
Another month later, the earring was gone and the tzitzis were still waving at my side.
Back in the Budapest classroom, the boy behind me finally spoke up. "Do you think you made the right choice?" he asked.
"I wouldn't I be here if I didn't," I replied. He gave me a grin and shrugged, reminding me a bit of myself years earlier in that elevator.
Relatively speaking, I wasn't that much older than he when I had my ear pierced, supposing that by doing so I could define myself as a counterculture figure, that I would be cool. Interestingly enough, as the world grows ever more secular, amoral, and individualistic, there is no more striking counterculture symbol than the holy strings with which I declare myself a partner in creation. Wherever I go even to the four corners of the earth I have been charged by my Creator with the duty of restoring a world that is "fringed," or unfinished, to a state of perfection.
Now that's cool.
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