Suede Chukkas

By Moshe Schonbrun

Even if you’re not a die-hard fan of fall, chances are good that you know someone who is. They can be spotted wearing sweaters, sipping lattes, and going off tangents about the vibrant foliage and breezy evenings. A massive autumn aficionado myself, I excitedly donned a new pair of sleek suede chukkas this past Shabbos. Brown booted and reveling in the red, purple, burnt orange and yellow leaves strewn over the sidewalks; I stood outside conversing with a few friends after shul ended. A Kemp Mill feature, two large shuls, with diverging congregants, share a massive playground. Children and adults of all ages were out enjoying the weather, Shabbos, and community. Unbeknownst to me, a tiny toddler was crawling in my direction until suddenly, fingers covered with chewed cracker slob met soft Italian suede. The stain will probably never come out.

I was reminded of a story about my mother-in-law, who is truly one of my role models in life. (She is the most humble and easygoing person while also being incredibly refined, spiritual, and kind). We were traveling in for a family simcha, and hours later, we arrived bearing evidence of the journey- markers, unicorn glitter, and pretzels merging in chaos. My daughter, excited out of her mind to see her Babie, rushed toward her and literally leaped into her arms. The perfectly done shaitel was pulled, the blouse was no longer white, but mom was smiling ear to ear unfazed. 

Life is about having glitter in your hair, if that is what it takes to give your grandchild a full-throttled hug. The Gemara in Shabbos (114) criticizes a Talmid Chachom with a stain on his clothing. The Kotzker Rebbe points out that “stain” is specifically worded in the singular form. Emerging from a muddy road, if there is only one stain, it must be that the person was too careful about the externality of their appearance. The thousands of unwanted colors on walls and clothing that accumulate daily in our communities are a testament to what we cherish most.

For centuries, philosophers have grappled with the “paradox of tragedy”. We sometimes welcome sorrow, yet the rest of the time will do anything to avoid it. We’ll listen tearfully to Ribo’s Halev Sheli and Shwekey’s Riboin, and take solace in a cold and rainy day. A theory attributed to Aristotle explains that it is a cathartic way for a person to unravel their personal emotional entanglements. Contemporary neuroscientists Matthew Sachs and Antonio Damasio have demonstrated through research that sad music helps us achieve homeostasis. (For example, babies in intensive care units who listen to mournful lullabies have been proven to have better breathing, heart rates, and feeding patterns than infants who’ve heard other music.)

In her recent book ‘Bittersweet’, author Susan Cain explains the phenomenon with a simple unifying theory: “We don’t actually welcome tragedy per se. What we like are sad and beautiful things-the bitter together with the sweet. What we love is elegiac poetry, seaside cities shrouded in fog, spires reaching through the clouds. In other words: We like art forms that express our longing for union, and for a more perfect and beautiful world. When we feel strangely thrilled by sorrow, it’s the yearning for love that we’re experiencing-fragile, fleeting, evanescent, precious, transcendent love.”

The culture we live in normalizes sunshine and positivity. Ask a friend or relative how their day is going, and the likely response will be along the lines of “Great”, “Good”, “Baruch Hashem”, etc. The concept that longing and lacking can be sacred and elevating seems foreign. Yet for centuries, the greatest Torah sages and thinkers have tried to give a voice to the state of “yearning”. Rav Nosson quotes Rebbe Nachman: “The essential sanctity of a Jew, and the essence of his or her Divine service, is their holy desire and yearning”.The Baal HaTanya (31) writes that “the beginning of all healing is yearning”.

Yearning is not passive or gloomy- it is an active state and a mindset. Nor is it simply a quest to achieve or to reach a goal that can be satisfied and completed. Rav Itche Meir Morgenstern once explained that yearning for Torah eventually transforms into the Torah of yearning. We are yearning to yearn, to be at peace with the fog and our ever-present hopes to break through it. (In a deeper sense, this perhaps is the quintessential description of the state of galus and ‘tzipiya liyeshua’; the longing for the day when all will be whole). Cultivating a mindset of yearning can allow us to truly treasure the rainy chol hamoed trip, the dreams and aspirations of our personal and collective journeys, and the stains on our suede boots.

A deeply valued content contributor for Meaningful Minute, Moshe is a husband, father, and espresso enthusiast. He is Executive Director at Avenues Recovery of Maryland, a residential addiction treatment center, and co-founder of The 13th Gate, an innovative platform for contemporary spiritual engagement in Silver Spring, MD. A talmid of Rabbi Meir Stern and Rabbi Asher Arielli, Moshe previously served as Rabbi at the University of Arizona in Tucson and the University of Maryland in College Park. He is the artist behind @farbreng_ink and the Chavrusa Podcast.

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