Confusion and Clarity

“Let there be no hope for the slanderers.”

I have a confession to make. There have been moments, days, and, sometimes, weeks at a time in my life, where I was confused about my religious beliefs. My questions have been some of the most basic foundational ideas of Judaism. I have felt a sense of guilt about those thoughts, but then, something occurred that provided me with powerful encouragement.

When I was twenty-one years old, I was studying in a Yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey. One day, one of the rabbis gave a talk, saying something that may sound preposterous — at least it did to me at the time. He said, “Any student who studies Torah for five minutes is incredible!” Five minutes? Seriously? What is the big deal about being focused on your learning for such a short period of time?

He is a smart man and recognized the number of distractions that exist today. There is such an influx of attention-grabbing amusement and so-called entertainment, that young students are cajoled into activities that take them away from their true focus. Students that swim against the tide and engage in their Jewish development should be commended. They are doing something worthwhile, difficult, and timeless. Educators that understand the multitude of distractions are better equipped to engage their students.

Aside from the distractions of our generation, there are major stumbling blocks as well. We live in a period where so many people are confused about what they believe and why they do so many of the practices that Judaism guides us to do. I have found that many of the questions — even big questions and doubts — are easy to explain. I cannot count how many times a teenager approached me to claim that he is an atheist. Aside from one time (because the conversation was interrupted), every person with whom I have spoken, agreed within two minutes that he was not an atheist, but rather agnostic or ignorant. Many of the distractions are precisely that: distractions. When given some time — even just five minutes to think clearly — significant clarity can be obtained.

Originally eighteen berachos comprised the whole of the Shemoneh Esrei (which literally means eighteen). Shortly after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, in the times of the tenure of Rabban Gamliel, Shmuel HaKatan composed this berachah of Vlamalshinim in response to the threats of the heretical Jewish sects. Despite the demise of those sects against whom it was authored, it remains just as relevant today. “And for the slanderers let there be no hope,” is a plea for Hashem to help us navigate the many distractions that exist today. We ask Hashem to both shield us from values that are contrary to Torah and allow us to gain clarity in our beliefs as Jewish people.

Excerpted with permission from Rabbi Tenenbaum's new book, Three Steps Forward, from Mosaica Press.