The Long, Straight Road Of Orthodoxy

There’s a street they’ve constructed.

This street is a clear path, one that has signs and markings to make sure you don’t crash into anything, don’t cause any traffic jams, don’t make trouble.

You see this street, well-paved and perfectly laid out, and you think, “This is the way to go.”

What else would you think?  There’s a destination and there’s a path to get there.  Go.

And so you do.

You go to yeshiva.  It’s smooth there, that road, because it’s what helps you even start to know what you’re doing, know how to pray, how to learn, how to grow.

Maybe it’s the excitement of starting on the road, of having such incredible guides, of even knowing there’s a destination, that excites you about that moment.  It’s when the horizon never looked more promising, never more perfect.

Next step in the road: move to a community.

This is when you question the road for the first time.  It all made so much sense earlier on.  Now, here you are and you’re trying to get married and you’re trying to get a job and you’re truly starting to connect with the people who grew up this way for the first time.

The guides aren’t with you anymore, now there are new ones, and it seems like they have a different agenda.  Whereas before the agenda was about the beauty of the beliefs, these guides seem to be more interested in the road they’ve paved, making sure you follow its rules and not veering in the wrong direction.  You can’t help but feel they think you can’t even drive.

You also start seeing that the road wasn’t completely built with you in mind.  Some people, the ones with names or money or whatever, seem to have access to the express lanes, riding along happily and merrily.  You notice a friend or two get pulled over for not behaving, you see them decide they’d rather get off the road than deal with this.  But your guide says it’s their fault for not following the rules of the road.

As you move along, maybe getting married, maybe having children, maybe finding a job within the community, you find yourself better able to handle it all, better able to see where you’re going and why, and you’re thankful to your new guides for showing you how to live this Jewish life, how to live it right.

But again, you start to notice things you didn’t see before.  Along the road are other paths.  And they also have people like you, maybe even people you know.  Their roads seems rougher, and they seem to be having trouble staying on the paths they’re on, but they also seem to be smiling and enjoying themselves.  You wonder what’s going on here, and you talk to your guide about it.

“They’re not on the road,” he says, “They think they are.  Because they see ours alongside it, and they think they’re attached.  But they don’t realize that you can’t stay on a path like that without losing control at some point.  They don’t have the signs and the rules and the police and the infrastructure and the straight lines we do.  You can’t be safe on a path like theirs.  You can’t be sure you’ll reach your destination unless you have a well-maintained road to get there.”

Sure enough, you start to see some accidents happen there on those paths.  You see people running into each other, or forgetting where their path was, or stopping and sitting to have picnics instead of focusing on their destination.  You see some paths that seemed like they were directed at the same destination as yours suddenly veer off in new directions, to new places, with clearly different destinations.

And you have a newfound confidence in your guide.  After all, now it’s not just you on the road.  You’ve got your spouse and children on board.  Maybe another time you would’ve explored the dusty trails nearby, but you can’t afford to take the chance of getting in an accident and hurting your children.  You do it for the children.  You do it for the family.

You focus on the road in front of you.  On your family, on your job, on following the laws and the rules of the road.

For a little while, it feels calm, it feels safe, it feels good.

But you keep looking over to your side, looking at the side roads. You can’t help but wonder what would draw people to a road that puts them in danger, that means they may never get to their destinations.

Soon your children start seeing them too.  They point and ask why those people on the side seem to be having so much fun.  You ask your guide what to do, and he says to put the shades up, to hide your kids from it.

So you do.  You stop letting them look over there, even as you keep glancing.  But they keep getting peeks, and so you have to put more shade up, more and more, and soon it’s hard for you to see where you’re going.  It starts to feel dark in the car, starts to feel like there’s nothing to see except the road in front of you.

Your kids sit in darkness. Safe.  Comfortable.  But it’s just so dark.

You speak to your guide.  He says the shades were for you too.  Can’t you see, can’t you see that there’s nothing to see there but road blocks and accidents and people who can’t control themselves?  Can’t you see that the side roads can only lead to going off roads altogether?

He knew you were tempted, which is why he told you to focus ahead, focus on the road and its rules and its destination, and only drive alongside the others that think this way, and make sure you don’t peek because your kids will see you peeking and what then?

As you focus intently on the road ahead of you, you start to see things you haven’t seen before, things that somehow didn’t seem clear when you first started this journey.

You see how some people are so focused on driving forward, their shades so dark, that they get into horrific accidents. They get into huge pileups where they slam into the others around them because they are so blind to what’s happening.  As you see these accidents happen in front of you, you realize how some people follow the rules so carefully that even when there’s a pileup in front of them, they refuse to veer to the side or to stop, and they just drive right into the crash they can see in front of them.  When you pull over to help them, your guide tells you to get back into the car and keep driving, that if your car stops too long, you’ll put yourself in danger.  It was their fault, he says.  You can’t help but wonder how he can blame them when they’re following the rules.

You notice some other disturbing sights.  One day, you’re driving along and you see a car that’s driving straight as a young man in his teens leans out.  He’s yelling at his parents that he wants to see what’s on the other side of the shade.  They’re yelling at him to get back in.  He refuses, he asks them to pull over and allow him to walk over to the side roads himself.  He loves them, he says, but he needs to see what’s over there.

“You’ll be hurt!” they yell, “Get back in!”

But he keeps leaning, and he says, “I’m going no matter what! I have to see, I have to see!”

The parents know what the rules are, that the police will pull them over if they stop or especially if they’re caught helping their son leave the road.

So they keep driving, and they keep yelling at him to get back in.

But he refuses, he just keeps leaning.

And you watch in horror as he falls out.  The car was going full speed, the parents refusing to even slow down while he was leaning and so he falls with a thud, his body breaking, blood coming out of his wounds, spraying onto the ground with each thud.  Amazingly, he gets up. Swaying, confused, and in pain, he drags himself to the side of the road.  Another car that’s coming by refuses to break the rules and so it blindsides him and he goes flying, sent closer to the edge of the road.  A man with a beard sticks his head out of the window and yells, “Why did you make me do that?!”

The boy is still alive but you see that the scars on his body will never heal.  When he finally jumps over the guardrail of the road, he just lays down and breathes hard.  A group of people come over to aid him.  They yell at the drivers on the other side, and the drivers yell back at them for tempting him to join them.

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There are some other disturbing sites.  Police seem to be popping up more, and for offenses that you were never taught in yeshiva.

You see an older woman get pulled over repeatedly.  You ask her why they pulled her over.  She tells you that they were just concerned about her because she’s driving alone. She’s been driving alone for a while.  They don’t want her to drive alone, it’s just not a good way to drive on these roads, and so they keep asking her to find someone, why isn’t she finding someone, can’t she just compromise and find a someone that works better for her?

She sighs and she says she knows they mean well, they’re not arresting her.  But somehow it still feels that way.

You start to see a lot more of these rules that were never on the books being enforced.  After the accident with the boy, they say that all shades need to be preemptively put up before kids get bad ideas.  People without shades get pulled over.  People going too close to the edge of the road get sent straight to jail.

You finally can’t take it anymore.  You tell your guide that you think something is wrong, something is broken about this road.

“I agree with you that those were horrible things!  And that the police have been too active.  I agree, and it’s horrible,” he says.

You feel relieved. Maybe he will help do something about it.  He’ll speak to someone, he’ll help make changes.

But instead he says, “But what’s the alternative?  The side roads?  You see how it is over there, people get into worse accidents!  People stop driving!  They have picnics!  They turn around even!”

You try explaining that you want to stay on the road.  This isn’t about those other roads, it’s about this one.

“But it is, can’t you see?  If we make too big of a fuss about this road, people will start questioning it.  They’ll start wondering if it’s a better idea to go on the side roads.  They’ll start building exits!”

But people are getting hurt, can’t he see that?

“Of course I see it! It breaks my heart.  It truly does.  But more people will get hurt if they go on the side roads.  We have no other option.”

You bring up seeing that boy bloody on the street.  You can’t get the image out of your mind.  Why couldn’t you have done more for him, you wonder aloud.

“Ugh, what a tragedy.  A tragedy.  Look, I’ll make some calls.  We’ll do something.  I promise.  We just can’t make it public.  We can’t risk it.”

You feel a bit calmer.  A bit more steady.  He sees that and smiles.

“Look, I think it’s incredible that you care so much.  You’re special.  You see things differently because you came from the other streets.  I’m proud of you.  But you know what the best way to live is?  Focus on the street in front of you.  If you start focusing too much outside, if you look at the accidents people get into, you’re more bound to get in your own.  It’s a fact of life that people get into accidents.  No rules can completely prevent that.  So if you let it get you down too much, if you stop and try to fix the road and the rules too much, then you’re never going to make it to the destination, even if you stay on the road.  Do you understand?  Focus inward.  Into your car.  Stay in the shades.  Look ahead.  Get to where you’re going.”

You nod.  You get back in your car, you look at your smiling children, their eyes gleaming with the innocence of not having seen what you’ve seen.  They are excited to keep going.  Your spouse looks over you with a reassuring smile.  Do we stay on the road?

You’re not sure.  You’re not sure, because something inside of you tells you that something is wrong in all of this, that you’re seeing things in a confusing way.  Something’s not right.

Not sure what to do, you start driving ahead, but you decide to take off some shades.  It’s just gotten too dark in here, so dark you can hardly see your children.

As the shades come down, the sun flows in like a golden dream, pouring all around you.  The children look so beautiful.  Oh, that spouse.

You want to drive more slowly, you want to be able to turn around every now and then to see them.  You hear some honking around you.  Your guide is giving you a call, but you decide not to pick it up.

You don’t realize it, but you’re drifting to the side of the road.  There’s more light there.

My gosh, it’s all so beautiful, everything around you.  You take down more shades.  You want to see!

But as the inside of your car gets more beautiful, you realize you’re also able to see the ugliness outside.

You see more and more, you see them, you see the people in the cars around you with the shades, their faces grim and focused and forward.  They seem so unhappy.

The guide has left you a text message.  He reached out to the family, and they promised to take their son back home.  A happy ending, he says.  You wonder if the son even wanted to come home.

You see a school bus next to you.  Its shades are drawn tight.  But you can see some shadows, and you could swear you see a child crying.  Another is in the back, and you see the outline of an adult standing behind him and moving rhythmically. 

You’ve had enough.  You pull over.  You take a deep breath.  You look at the side road next to you, so close you could touch it.

Behind you, you hear the blazing sound of a police car.  You hear cars honking.  People yelling.  Calling you a traitor.  Some make it seem like they may ram you.  The police car does nothing, simply pulls alongside you.

You wipe some tears from your eyes.  You look behind you, at your children.  They have these smiles, these looks of trust.  Wherever you go, they will be happy because they trust you will take them in the right direction.

Your spouse holds your hand.  Grips it tight.

“You know what you need to do.”

You move your hands to the wheel.  You turn it.  You hit the gas.  And you drive onto a side road.