By Yonatan Gordon
It’s a question I have asked myself often. That is until last week.
When formulating articles for public consumption, once the article has been written or before motivating myself to begin, I try to think of the benefit. Both the therapeutic benefit to myself for having committed my thoughts to writing, and to the public.
But the question is not whether people will read this, but whether this article will change another as much as it changed me from struggling to write it. It’s hard to write articles like these. Every time it seems like an impossible task. That it would be better to close the computer and go to sleep. But to persevere amidst this inner struggle means two things. The first is that since the yetzer harah (evil inclination) is working hard, then the result, this article, really does need to be written. And secondly, that maybe since the inner struggle was so difficult, then perhaps some of you really needed to read this.
In literature, there is a first-person style called confessional writing whereby the writer searches deep within in order to reveal something personal about themselves. But whereas I endeavor to write these articles from within, I try and limit the personal backdrop behind each piece. The reason for this is that while the act of searching within oneself is integral to the writing experience, my personal details aren’t necessarily something that are relevant to you or that needs to be shared with the world.
This article is about bridging the gap. Of reaching deep within in order to hopefully make a difference out here in the world. But as we will now explain, the process of writing a confessional piece has a few nuances to it.
Confessional vs. Teshuvah
Before progressing further it should be clarified that what the world calls confessional writing, we call the act of teshuvah (returning to God and His Torah). At the moment we don’t feel capable of writing, when we want to close the computer and go to sleep, if our motivation is genuine, then our drive to persevere still should come from a greater power. As long as we view ourselves as the ones who have decided to stay up and write, then this is good, but this is still not yet the level we aspire to. Instead, when we sit down to write amidst the discomfort and scheming of the evil inclination, and then we draw a blank and don’t know how to possibly continue. Then from that moment of giving up on even our most carefully planned thoughts, then true Torah, a true essay can emerge.
Thus if confessional writing is penning about ourselves, teshuvah writing is penning thoughts and Torah that is beyond ourselves. But because of our willingness to inspire another, God helps, and we somehow come up with what to say.
As we began, the first implication of the approach now being presented is that writing from within is therapeutic for the writer. As I wrote in a previous article it is good idea for those that have undergone various trials in life to write on a regular basis. And as mentioned there, from experience, this writings tends to be full of richness and correct intuition. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the writer recounts their trials. Perhaps they will. But from their motivation to persevere through these trials, and come closer to God, their true writing potential is revealed.
Now that an introduction has been given, the rest of this essay will discuss the second implication of confessional, now termed teshuvah, writing. And that is that by means of crushing, of pressing oneself (like an olive press), pure light is revealed from the essence of our being. It is this light can affect widespread change, as in the Chassidic adage, “a little light dispels a great amount of darkness.”
What they didn’t tell you about Dahlia
This brings us to the title of an article from Sherri Mandell last week about the murder of Dahlia Lemkus HY”D. As I was in the area not long before the attack, I also wrote a short piece last week to help work through the experience. But the reason that I thought to bring Sherri Mandell’s article in particular is because it answers the above question. What do I mean?
When we say that “a little light dispels a great amount of darkness,” we also imply the opposite that a “great amount of darkness” can’t stomach even a little bit of light. And so Mrs. Mandell detailed one point of light from Dahlia’s life after another that a certain newspaper couldn’t “stomach” to convey to their audience. While this doesn’t mean that these newspapers don’t have moments of light, in this instance, this is the explanation. That recounting Dahlia’s life, a life murdered al kiddush Hashem, for the sanctification of God’s name, presented what they likely viewed as an “unfair” advantage. If their readership would read even one detail, then there would be no question as to where the light resides. Thus the fact that this paper felt incapable to convey details from her life is a testament to Dahlia’s light-filled effect on the world.
What I have attempted to now provide is what we call a tikkun, a spiritual rectification or backdrop to the story. While it is upsetting that her details were not shared, now hopefully we have an understanding as to why this double-standard exists to begin with. Why they can relate many details about the terrorist, about darkness, but not a beacon of truth. From understanding the spiritual reason for the double-standard and the tikkun, then we can behind to understand how to fix the situation.
If the reason why Dahlia’s personal details were not mentioned is because her life details are pure light—from the accent she used when speaking English, to her artwork (shown in another post here)—then our responsibility now is to recognize the great power inherent in spreading light. As ended another recent article written after the murder of baby Chaya Zissel Braun HY”D, “Let’s all light a candle. It’s really dark here.”
First, to be clear, we should never experience such tragedies again. Moshiach should come today and the true light of each Jew will be revealed to the world in pleasantness.
But while we can’t make calculations about the tragedies themselves, we can talk a little about their lasting legacy to this world. About the power of a Jewish soul, of sanctifying the name of God, and of the inability of secular papers to even go near a small portion of this light.
It is true that the paper Sherri Mandell mentioned has an incorrect journalistic policy. But according to what was now said, the way to spread the light of truthful stories is not by condemning darkness, but by increasing the intensity of the light. Sherri Mandell’s piece helped depict some small portion of Dahlia’s light, and as a result, both her and the other two essays linked to above have also gone viral for good reasons.
This now takes us back to how we began. When is it good to share personal details with the world? As we explained, in the case of someone who was murdered al kiddush Hashem, sanctifying the name of God, then every laugh and smile is good to speak about. And the more voices from those whose lives they touched, the better.
But in our own writing it depends. In general, it is more advisable to only associate with our pure and holy Godly soul and not the failings of our animal soul and evil inclination. So articles about depression, mistakes we’ve made, people we’ve upset along the way, are generally best avoided. Especially in this generation where we need all the encouragement we can get.
This is not to say that speaking about mental illness for instance is not important. But if this is done, the essay should also provide the tikkun, the pathway towards rectifying this trait. For instance, when I wrote about internet addiction, I did so because of the tikkun that was presented, not to share my personal struggles. Likewise, when I wrote about writing during a crowded class, or some of the difficulties faced during outreach, I shared these details because I thought they may be encouraging to read.
To conclude, three stages of psychological and spiritual growth were alluded to when discussing Sherri Mandell’s article. They are, as taught by the Ba’al Shem Tov, submission, separation, and sweetening.
Submission: In our example, submission is to realize that a double standard exists. That Dahlia’s personal details were not recounted. Many headlines, especially among more right-leaning papers, highlight this discrepancy between the way Israel is treated versus the nations of the world.
Separation: Means to separate between the light and darkness. To isolate the light and resolve to leave all darkness behind. This also means to appreciate how the Torah relates to the present headline. To understand what it means to fight terrorism according to the Torah.
Sweetening: To dispel the darkness takes the resolve to sweeten or shine the light of truth and the Torah upon the situation. Thus if a double-standard exists at the beginning, the end result that we all hope for is that one standard will soon exist, the Torah-based standard. While it is not expected that one article should have all the answers, at least some practical steps can be presented.
While it is upsetting that a double-standard exists, as explained above, in addition to calling attention to the double-standard (submission), it is also important to explain the Torah view-point (separation), and offer some practical next steps forward (sweetening). And as the writer has gone through their personal three-step journey while writing, the hope is that both the writer and reader will reside together in a more light-filled world.