This past Friday was a fast day, and after waking up with a mild headache, I sensed I might not have the stamina to make food for Shabbos. My freezer was sadly devoid of anything I could pull out in a pinch, so I went to a nearby restaurant to pick up some eats. As I was deliberating between the chickpea salad and the potato salad, a gust of cold air and the tinkle of a bell signaled a new customer. Some disgruntled muttering and profanity signaled the state of mind of said customer.
“Kosher food makes me sick. I wouldn’t eat this stuff if you paid me.”
I’m cleaning his language up for you (you’re welcome).
Almost involuntary, I turned toward whoever was making such an entrance. He was a tall, stately man, with well-coiffed silver hair and an elegant black overcoat. Perhaps in his seventies, though I’ve never been great at estimating age. He was now standing right next to me.
To no one in particular, he said,
“You people don’t know what you’re missing.”
Upset at the uncouth nature of his remarks, I replied.
“Actually, I do know what I’m missing. I ate treif for years, and now I keep kosher and I love it.”
He had no congruent response to that, and I went on to attempt at engaging him in small talk so he would at least stop swearing for a few minutes. It turned out that he had a friend who ordered food from the store and he was picking it up. The light conversation worked to some degree, but when it was my turn to order, he went back to his colorful recriminations of the Orthodox lifestyle.
It was a bizarre experience, and I found myself wondering, “what can I learn from this?”
Not that I could ever truly know why he was behaving in such a rude fashion, but the first thing that came to mind is that maybe he had had some extremely negative experience with Orthodoxy, or kosher food, that would result in such a visceral reaction. It’s one thing to disapprove of organized religion, or think keeping kosher is a backward practice, or whatever, but it’s another thing to go into a kosher establishment, surrounded by Jews who are buying kosher food, and start cursing about it.
You know? It just reminded me of emotional reaction.
And that made me think about how, when we’re in the middle of a reaction, we don’t always make great choices, and we don’t always react in socially acceptable ways. We all have triggers; we all have buttons that get pushed. And I know that I can look a little ridiculous when I’m reacting to pushed buttons. Who doesn’t?
Something that I have really come to appreciate in my practice of Judaism is the concept that we can rise above our buttons being pushed. We don’t have to live in a world of blind emotional reaction. We can transcend that and live in the present, experiencing our emotions instead of being held hostage by them.
It’s the idea of perfecting one’s middos, or character traits. Some call it mussar.
Basically, Judaism rejects the concept of “That’s just how I am. I’m just angry/jealous/lazy. There’s nothing I can do about it.” No. There is absolutely something you can do about it. It’s not easy, and Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the great authority on mussar stated that it’s easier to learn the entire Talmud that perfect one character trait (translation: it’s pretty hard). But the working on it, the humility that comes with acknowledging our failings, and the self-love that comes with cutting ourselves some slack when we fail, but giving ourselves reasonable goals to achieve? That is invaluable. Like Ruchi Koval has said, the prize is the process.
Am I still sometimes blinded by emotion? Absolutely. Have I seen progress in the areas that I’ve worked on? Thankfully, yes. So even though I’m not exactly Rebbetzin Kanievsky at this point in my life, I know that I am doing what I can to work on myself, and that I am doing so through the long chain of tradition that includes things like keeping kosher. And I wish that I could have told that to the disgruntled customer, that I could have shown him the beauty and meaning I see in the tradition that he was disparaging.
And that kosher food is really very tasty.