Cracking Nuts With Kafka: Being Inspired By Baalei Teshuva

The Talmud says in Brachos (34b): “B’Makom She’Baalei Teshuvah Omdim, Ein tzaddik Gamur Yachol Laamod.” (In the place where the Baal Teshuva stands, even the most righteous among us cannot stand.)

Much has been written, said, and taught about this statement. What I want to share with you is probably nothing new, but I found a way of considering at least one of the ideas derived from it while re-reading a story by Franz Kafka.

“Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” is a complex story loaded with significance. Kafka wrote it on his deathbed a mere two months before dying. The story can be analyzed in various ways, especially with an eye for the author’s view on art and Yiddishkeit.

But I’m not here to give an entire exegesis of this great story. I hope you’ll read it on your own and come to your own conclusions, especially if you’ve studied Kafka, his life, and his absolute timeless significance. The story’s narrator tells of how Josephine sings in a way that the rest of the mouse folk have forgotten, and so her singing supersedes everyone else’s singing, even as they admit hers may not be technically any better than their own. The difference being that Josephine sings with purpose, whereas the rest do so without giving it thought.

As I was reading this story for the umpteenth time, I came upon a passage that I had to read over and again. And again. I found it beautiful. Suddenly, no other words on the page mattered. I saw in these words such simple power, such truth, that I couldn’t ignore it. I saw there, too, a poem.

For those new to the concept, a found poem is created by taking existing text from really anything — stories, articles, captions, other poems — and reforming them as something new, a poem with line breaks, expressing a new meaning separate from the piece from which it was taken.

I retyped the passage and started breaking it into lines, re-seeing it. Diving for that brightness that first attracted me, trying to extract the pearl of meaning that was speaking to me so deeply.

And what is that meaning? Here’s how I see it: the baal teshuva isn’t doing something new or special from the perspective of someone who’s been doing it all her life, who has a mesorah, who has a hashkafic outlook gifted to her from generations. What the earnest baal teshuva is doing, though, is cracking nuts like no other. While so many, including long-time baalei teshuva, fall into the rut of rote, the rookie baal teshuva is on fire, enthusiastic, and excited about every mitzvah.

This is not to hold up the baal teshuva like a hero. No. This is to see the baal teshuva and be lit by her. To reinvigorate the pathetic flame wavering in the heart into a roaring upsurge of fire to consume us with urgency, with desire, and with passion for the everyday challenges and triumphs of being a servant of Gd.

In these times, it’s so easy to be cynical and to let that cynicism affect our devotion, dedication, and discipline. It can be easy to raise our hands up and ask, “What’s the point?”

Oh, dear Jew, when you feel this way, find yourself a baal teshuva. Watch how they sing, even when they don’t know the words or sing off tune. Watch how significant it is just to crack a nut and say a blessing, how they struggle with enunciation. Tell me then about your flame. Tell me then about your fire. Tell me then how you once again found your voice.

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Here is the found poem. I’ve called it Nut Cracking and I hope you enjoy it.

Nut Cracking

Even if hers were only
our usual workaday piping,
there is first of all
this peculiarity
to consider, that here
is someone making
a ceremonial performance
out of doing the usual thing.

To crack a nut is truly no feat,
so no one would ever dare
to collect an audience
in order to entertain it
with nut-cracking.

But if all the same
one does do that
and succeeds in
entertaining the public,
then it cannot be a matter
of simple nut-cracking.

Or it is a matter
of nut-cracking,
but it turns out
that we have
overlooked the art
of cracking nuts

because we were
too skilled in it

and that this
newcomer to it
first shows us
its real nature,
even finding it useful
in making his effects
to be rather less expert
in nut-cracking

than most of us.



Image from Flickr.