When Toby Friedman called to ask me to become a Torah mentor for Partners in Torah, my first reaction was one of uncertainty. Essentially, my attitude was encapsulated in the two simple words: Who, me? What did I have to offer that someone else couldn’t do better? Though I’d been blessed with a solid Bais Yaakov education, I was no wise, all-knowing rebbetzin with every answer at my fingertips. I was just a very human being with my share of flaws and inadequacies. Who, me? But there was an even stronger feeling that finally compelled me to accept the challenge.
Years ago, I wrote a poem that was published in the now-defunct Jewish Observer. The poem, entitled “The Traveler and the Princess,” is basically a dialogue between a frum-from-birth woman (the princess) and the seeker after his roots, or ba’al teshuva. In the poem, the traveler returns from his journey with a host of fabulous and colorful stories to pour into the princess’s ear. She is envious. Born with a silver spoon in her mouth, she’s lived her entire life inside the palace walls. She longs for the kind of adventure the traveler is describing.
But he soon shows her the error in her thinking. The whole goal of his travels, he tells the princess, is the exact place where she sits now. His longed-for destination is the palace into which she was lucky enough to have been born. And, in the end, he reminds her, “We both are striding down one road, to satisfy one Will.”
My assigned Partner in Torah would be a woman journeying toward the very place where I’d been fortunate enough to spend my whole life. Shouldn’t I reach out a hand to help her cover the last few yards to the finish line?
I figured it was only right that I take what I’d been given – a thorough and loving grounding in my people’s rich heritage – and pass it on. This was the correct stage of life for transmitting what I’d spent decades absorbing. In other words, it was payback time.
Tammy, my partner, was a revelation. Like the traveler in my poem, she was fired up with the drive to make up for lost time and reach the promised land of full religious observance. From our first meeting, it became my privilege and my pleasure to both witness and facilitate that process.
We were traveling together through a terrain that was unfamiliar to both of us. Tammy had never studied Torah in a structured setting before, and I had never taught in one. We’ve been learning together for about three years now, and it’s been a heady experience – but also a solemn one. Every word we exchange in our weekly meetings is charged with meaning. The things she learns about Torah and the Jewish approach to life have to be powerful enough to carry her through to our next encounter.
As we spend long, earnest sessions applying the content of the text we’re studying to the particulars of our day-to-day lives, the landscape is ever-changing. Sometimes the road feels smooth beneath our feet; other times, hidden rocks loom to trip us up. As I’ve glimpsed the world of Torah through my partner’s fresh eyes, I frequently feel awed. It is a joy to see the way she seizes on each new lesson and tries to incorporate it into her life. Things that I’ve taken for granted because I’ve known them forever suddenly take on new significance, because I’m learning them with someone who’s taking them so seriously.
Life is a journey for all of us, and helping Tammy navigate hers in the light of Torah has immeasurably enhanced my own. Her enthusiasm and dedication to growth remind me of my own need to grow. When she is sad because she feels that she’s fallen short of her spiritual goals, my pep talks are really addressed to both of us. When she glows with the pride of achievement, I bask in her reflected light.
Becoming a Torah mentor has showered on me the multiple joys of giving, of connecting, of transmitting things that are precious to me. It has stretched me in ways that I’d never have believed possible. It has made me, in a sense, responsible for the spiritual well-being of someone who was a total stranger before I met her but who is now an integral part of my mission in life. It has tapped into wellsprings of caring that I never knew existed.
Every traveler is already a princess (or prince), if the goal is a royal one. Likewise, every princess must be a traveler, at the risk of stagnation. My partner in Torah is a worthy and welcome companion through the landscape of life.