Traveling Out of Your Comfort Zone

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Though the word “influencer” has been used in English since the mid-1600s, it has more recently taken on a new meaning.  Though the term can apply to a wide variety of people, influencers, essentially, are people who engage their large social media followings by sharing experiences, knowledge and advice.  Influencers are paid to feature or endorse products, with some making as much as $1 million for a social media post.  Indeed, the Influencer Marketing Industry is set to grow to approximately $21.1 Billion in 2023.


This term has made its way into the Jewish vernacular, including the orthodox community, with those who boast substantial audience often treated like Jewish celebrities. There are some wonderful things that have resulted from this phenomenon, including the sharing of Torah ideas and inspiration, spreading modest fashion trends, promoting kosher recipes, and more, but we must never get confused about who our tradition informs us are the true Jewish influencers.


The Hebrew word for influence is hashpa’ah and those who influence others are mashpi’im.  In Judaism, influence is not determined by social media status, it emanates and flows from being authentic, practicing what one preaches, serving as a role model and example of our values.  The word hashpa’ah, influence, comes from shefa, which means that which flows from the Divine. The greatest influencers in our illustrious history made their difference without ever looking at or caring how viral they had gone.


This week, a group from BRS went on our annual Mevakshim trip to New York and New Jersey to meet with some of our great influencers with the goal of being influenced, challenged, uplifted, and inspired.  You may not have heard of several of them, you won’t find most of them having a large (or any) online following, but make no mistake, they are an enormous source of influence on the Jewish world. 


We began in Lakewood where we met with Rav Yeruchem Olshin, Rav Gershon Ribner, and Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen, and learned with hundreds of ba’al habatim at the extraordinary early morning Kollel Ohr Shmuel at Bais Medrash Lutzk.  We made our way to Yeshiva University where we met with Rav Mayer Twerski, Rav Yaakov Neuberger, Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin and patronized the SOY Seforim Sale.  From there to Monsey, where we davened at the Kever of the holy Ribnitzer Rebbe and Rav Lazer Geldzhaler and then met with Rav Refoel Schorr, Rav YY Jacobson and Rav Ephraim Wachsman. We had breakfast with businessman and Talmid Chacham Reb Dovid Lichtenstein, met with Rav Yisroel Simcha Schorr, and then we went to Brooklyn to meet with Torah V’Daas Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yisroel Reisman.  Our trip concluded at the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Ohel where we farbrenged and davened with Rav Moshe Weinberger. It was a whirlwind and truly special two-plus days.


The rabbonim we met with are incredibly diverse and distinct in their personalities, constituencies, worldviews, personal practices, and advice they offered.  The goal of our trip each year is to expose our group to a tapestry of Torah views, to draw on what resonates from each, to be challenged, inspired and to come back on fire with practical and sustainable commitments. One thing that always amazes and inspires me is seeing people in our group take advice and gain inspiration from someone they may never have heard of a day earlier or someone who leads an institution they could never imagine feeling connected to.


Each person we met with is unique; however, we noticed some common themes that are worth reflecting on:


Torah is our anchor: From the chassidim to the misnagdim, the more yeshivish to the more centrist, all the Rabbonim we met with emphatically emphasized the critical importance of regular, structured, focused Torah learning.  Torah is core and central, it is the anchor that grounds us, it is the compass that helps us navigate, it is the armor that protects us, it is the fire that fuels us.  There must not be a day without Torah learning, regardless of the particular Torah content. 


It was also emphasized that while learning Torah in any form or fashion allows us to tap into what Hashem laid out in his blueprint for the world, there is no better way to immerse yourself in this beautiful experience than in person. While the last few years have created an expectation of remote working, telecommuting, and distance learning, this cannot be viewed as an ideal way to connect to the Boreh Olam. Our time in a full Kollel Boker humming with the sound of a roaring Kol Torah reminded us that coming to the Beis Medrash and attending shiurim and classes in person is the best way to fully enjoy, pay attention, avoid the distractions and pull of multitasking, and absorb the majesty of Hashem's Torah.


Think, Then Speak: A recent article in Time Magazine observes, “We live in a world that doesn’t just encourage overtalking but practically demands it, where success is measured by how much attention we can attract: get a million Twitter followers, become an Instagram influencer, make a viral video, give a TED talk. We are inundated with YouTube, social media, chat apps, streaming services… Yet many of the most powerful and successful people do the exact opposite. Instead of seeking attention, they hold back. When they do speak, they’re careful about what they say.”  


Many or most people think and speak in one motion. Great people pause, think, and only speak when they have thought through and formulated what they are going to say.  The great rabbonim we met with were thoughtful; some paused for uncomfortable lengths (as long as 31 seconds) after a question from someone in our group creating both awkward silence but also providing a refreshing example of thinking before speaking. 


Individualize: People today increasingly make broad and blanket statements, overgeneralizing and espousing a one size fits all philosophy to life.  In responding to a myriad of questions, a common refrain from the rabbonim we met with was that it is hard to give one answer, each case is different, each individual needs to explore what is right for them given their specific circumstances. 


Mindfulness: Many of our distinguished speakers emphasized the importance of focus, of being present, of taking everything one minute, one day, one daf, one tefillah at a time. And this was not simply lip service; without exception, every single one of the rabbonim was fully present with us despite the countless responsibilities, obligations, and “day jobs” we were taking them from. Not a single one of them looked at a phone, a watch, or seemed distracted or unfocused. It was so effortless for them that often we did not even notice. In our world of multitasking, of busyness, of constant distraction, we were given a real life lesson in how to truly engage mindfully and meaningfully and make the people you are with feel like the only thing in the whole world.


Humility and Unpretentious: We came to seek their advice, to hang on their every word, to ask difficult and deeply meaningful questions, and yet, rather than exhibit inflated egos, from the gentle way they spoke, to their kind and generous words about our our group and community, to the hospitality some showed in opening their homes or yeshivas to us, the genuine humility and unpretentiousness of these individuals was obvious and inspiring.  


Many of our speakers were reticent to speak at all about themselves. When I asked one particular gadol what sefarim he learns, he responded with a smile, “Not for now.” This particular person is known for being a massive repository of Torah who probably learns more in a week than many learn in a year, yet he was not comfortable talking about himself or his learning habits. The world is increasingly telling us that everything should be shared, should be public, should be fodder for discussion. It was refreshing to interact with people who live with innate modesty and humility and believe in keeping much about themselves only to themselves.


Pain not platitudes: Our trip came in the midst of our community reeling from the loss of our beloved Esti Moskowitz a”h and our sense of profound pain and grief together with her special parents and family.  Our learning and growth throughout the trip were dedicated in her memory.


We were, and are, struggling with deep theological questions and were anxious to seek counsel from these Torah luminaries. What resonated first was their authentic sense of empathy, of feeling the pain of another. Since most of them do not know the Moskowitz family and were not aware of their loss, we had to provide context, and each time you could feel the tangible air of sadness and empathy wash over the room. Their greatness created a true sense of familial love - our loss immediately was their loss.


In addressing our questions and our grief, nobody shared a platitude or pretended they had the answers to unanswerable questions. There was advice, practical lessons in faith and struggle, and importantly, validation to having questions and feeling confused.


Our trip took place over Rosh Chodesh Adar, the beginning of the happiest month on our calendar, which became another theme in many of our conversations.  One of the greatest things we can do to attain happiness is to be a mevakeish, a searcher of truth and seeker of inspiration. 


We say in davening a pasuk that appears both in Tehillim and Divrei Hayamim: “Yismach lev me'vakshei Hashem. Let the hearts of those who seek Hashem rejoice.” The Chafetz Chaim explains that when one seeks and searches for something, we are not satisfied unless we successfully find or obtain that which we were looking for. However, one who is mevakeish Hashem, seeks Hashem, finds great pleasure and joy from the actual search, regardless of its success. The process itself, the exercise of seeking, searching, and yearning gives great satisfaction. Yismach lev mevakshei Hashem - That is Hashem's promise for the individual who is sincere in his or her quest.


You don’t have to go on a trip or fly-in to be a mevakeish.  You just have to be hungry and driven to grow, and that you can do from anywhere.  If you want happiness this Adar, expose yourself to inspirational people and be open to influence.  Be willing to grow from someone outside your comfort zone. Seek, find, and learn from true influencers.