Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Shlichus by Diffusion

I used to love being a Shabbos guest.

Who doesn't love being served a delicious home-made meal on a little island called "Shabbos" where all weekday stressors dissolve? When I first became observant, Shabbos was more about absorbing the benefits of the environment than it was about helping to create the environment. I just showed up, smiled politely, and made sure to express gratitude to my host.

Then, I went to seminary. For the first time, I wasn't a guest. I was a member. Each girl made the atmosphere by contributing with her unique qualities. We weren't taking anything- we were only giving and receiving. In my mind, that's how it should be. So when the semester ended, I returned home with a resolution. I was going to be more active, more influential. More vocal. Because I knew I had things to share- seminary helped me realize that. The validation, encouragement, and endless compliments I received from my peers regarding my writing and speaking abilities made it clear that I needed to stop being passive. I needed to use my talents to contribute to and elevate my surroundings.

But what I found in the community at home was a bit...disheartening. People weren't all that receptive to what I had to contribute. They just wanted to be my Shluchim, and I was just expected to blend in. To be a guest. They were the givers, I was the taker. And as much as I tried to break out of that mold, I felt like everyone kept forcing me back into it.

My neutral exterior would never have given away what I was feeling on the inside: Internally, I was stamping my feet on the hardwood floor and wildly waving my arms over my head, screaming, "Look! Look what I have to offer you!" I imagined that my hostess would glide across the room and plop a piece of potato kugel on my plate, her face an expressionless mask. "But look at what I have for you," she cooed. In my mind, an unspoken war was rippling between me and my shabbos hosts.

One week, I was granted refuge from my usual Shabbos routine. I caught a train out of Chicago to meet my family. We were vacationing in Door County, a sparsely populated haven of forests nestled on the shore of Wisconsin's peninsula. Around mincha time on Shabbos day, my family took a dinner reservation, whereupon I was left alone in the cabin. Naturally, I made a beeline for the rooftop porch. I spread out a blanket, read my Tehillim and hummed niggunim to a delighted audience of oak trees. I kind of felt like I was in a Baal Shem Tov story: Inhaling the fresh forest air, humbled by the dense silence of the woods. 

I've always possessed a childlike love for nature. Combine that with a cup of solitude, and you've got my ideal Shabbos afternoon. There is something magical about the forest. You can almost feel G-d's breath churning within the trees, His smile warming them into existence. He stretches His arm into their frail branches as if they were gloves. With a surge of G-dly energy and assurance, they grasp for the sky.

photo credit: smithsart.com

Nature is so uncontrived, so unassuming. It speaks only through being. It doesn't impose itself- it has no self. It's just a conveyor for G-dliness. It just is. We're always taught to contemplate nature, in all of its minute details, to arrive at an appreciation of G-d's oneness. But I feel like I don't even have to contemplate. I just feel G-d by diffusion. Just being in the presence of an existence that doesn't think it has an existence is more powerful than any mental contemplation I could do.

That's when I realized that the trees unknowingly personified the answer to my frustration.

Nature has tremendous power over the human psyche. It changes people- You retreat into the forest and come out with a whole new perspective. And yet- nature does nothing. Trees don't thresh their branches around and make a bunch of noise to get someone's attention. And that's precisely what makes them so effective and so magnetic. Nature just embodies the will of its creator. That's the most contagious quality imaginable. 

This is the level of essence. Of humility. It's what we all need to strive for. We're all just guests at G-d's table, endowed with a beautiful mission that we didn't do anything to deserve. Don't focus on the fact that YOU have something to share. First of all, we're not that great. Second, fixation on the self and its actualization distracts from the actualization of G-d's will. Instead, focus on WHAT you have to share and WHY it's important. 

Finally, to be a shliach or shlucha not only means to educate others explicitly, but to influence by diffusion: If your perspective is a G-dly one, it will transmit a clear message to those around you- even as you sit and enjoy your potato kugel.


  1. amazing! keep them coming Ettel. how do we know when our mission is being received and when we might need to redirect our delivery?

  2. Please write a book!