Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Watch your back

 "...והסר שטן מלפנינו ומאחרינו"

I finally have a better conceptualization of this request from the weekday evening services, to remove Satan from before us and from behind us. Sometimes we can pass a test, or do a good deed, only to later regret the fact that we were able to perform the mitzvah. That is another weapon in the Evil Inclination's assault on us, to strip away the merits by causing us to rethink our position.

A few months ago, I had an important interview for one of the prospective doctoral programs I wanted to attend. I prepared myself, groomed myself properly, printed out several copies of my resume on quality paper, and prayed very hard that at the very least I should make a kiddush HaShem. As part of the interview process, we met with several faculty members for half-hour, one-to-one sessions. I had anticipated the possibility that I might be selected to meet with one of the female professors, and knew that they would most likely offer their hands in greeting at the beginning of the session.

I had done the research, and while I was aware of the fact that there are reliable leniencies within halacha, among a broad and varied debate among poskim, I decided (as a value judgment) to employ a tactful approach to refusing her handshake. My concern was twofold, informed by an "inner" perspective on the significance of physical contact with members of the opposite sex and my hesitance to embark on a "slippery slope" - you can't only shake "once"; if you start making exceptions, it becomes increasingly more difficult to stop each subsequent time.

Sure enough, one of my interviewers was a nice woman who took my refusal in stride. While those few moments may have set the balance of the meeting off initially, I think that ultimately it was a fairly positive meeting.

For those who are unfamiliar with the application process, it's a very competitive field to break into; while hundreds may apply to a single program, usually a cohort of fewer than ten students are invited to join. With that in mind, I made alternate plans and applied to several Masters programs as well, in an effort to do the appropriate hishtadlut and have something to fall back on in the likely event that I wouldn't be accepted. On a cognitive/attitudinal level, I prepared myself for the possibility as well, and although I was disappointed when I received rejections from the doctoral programs, I think that I accepted it with a certain amount of equanimity (a trait I am trying to work on in general), and turned to finalizing my plans for alternate schooling.

Of course, a short while later a little voice in the back of my mind began chiding me for my "inflexibility" concerning the matter of shaking hands with women. "You insulted the interviewer. You made her feel stupid, worthless," the voice would say, "what a chillul HaShem! She probably thinks religious Jews are chauvinists now."

If I tried to push the thought away -after my very tactful, carefully worded refusal, I don't think there's any need to be concerned about bruised egos, especially in this "enlightened" "open-minded" culture where people trip over themselves trying to give everyone space to express their identities - the voice took a new approach: "This is called being a chassid shoteh - there's plenty of room to rely on a leniency, especially considering the fact that this can come to a loss of parnassah!"

Again with the equanimity - I am trying to have trust that parnassah comes from God, and nothing changes that. After carefully considering the matter and discussing it with my wife and an older mentor, we decided that this would not be a breach of hishtadlut, so I carefully ignored this little voice that was trying to make me second guess myself, and regret a decision I made concerning this challenge.

But I learned firsthand that the latter type of approach of the Satan was in some ways even more compelling!

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