Everyone in Yeshiva has wild Purim stories. Hopefully they involve deep, meaningful conversations between friends, spirited dancing, and insights from a person’s deepest depths. Sometimes, they’ll include waking up on a park bench (hopefully close to Yeshiva) or finding a video on your phone of yourself re-enacting your eighth grade graduation choir.
Much less common, though, is a wild post-Purim story. Here’s one which I witnessed which has a very powerful takeaway.
A number of years ago, when I was a Madrich in an Old City Yeshiva, one of the Rebbeim asked me to give a Va’ad for his Shiur the night after Purim. I decided to bring the guys to the beautiful Old Rova, one of the best-kept secrets of the Rova HaYehudi, to discuss two things as a group: first, some of the funny, memorable stories from the day before. Then, more importantly, the things that guys had learned about themselves over the course of the day. Nichnas Yayin, Yatza Sod; when a person drinks, they have an opportunity to uncover elements of themselves that they weren’t previously aware of (or weren’t comfortable confronting). By talking about it as a group, the goal was to take something potentially significant and save it from becoming simply an ephemeral, fuzzy memory of “that crazy Purim in Yeshiva.”
I opened the Va’ad by framing the conversation I was looking to initiate. We were looking to support each other and build each other up, not help tear each other down. While a person might be disappointed by what they learned about themselves on Purim, our goal was to figure out a way to capitalize on that constructively. That meant that only positive comments were allowed; the space we were looking to make had no room for sarcasm or negative jokes.
The funny memories came fast and furious. A few guys sang a most heartfelt rendition of “Daddy Come Home” by Yeshiva Boys Choir; reviewing the recording afterwards, they were shocked to realize how off-key they had been. Another guy got so upset that the Beis HaMikdash had not yet come down from heaven that he literally kicked a hole in the wall.
The second half of the Va’ad took longer to get going, which was understandable. It’s not easy for guys to share a deep part of themselves with friends, even guys they’ve been living, learning, and growing with for the past year. As more guys chose to speak, the ideas got more personal and the atmosphere turned pensive.
As it was starting to get late, I noticed one guy standing off to the side who hadn’t said anything yet. He had spent not just one, but two days of Purim (the 14th and 15th) drunk and crying. I asked him if he was comfortable sharing what he had been so upset about. He hesitated, but eventually shared that he kept thinking about one thing: Over the course of the year, he had been wasting hours each day on his phone. That itself was upsetting, but not really the issue. The problem was that at different points of the year, he had told himself that he was done and he was going to be more focused on his learning and Yeshiva; each time, it took less than a week to backslide into his old habits. That’s what he was crying about – the wasted time, but more so the fact that he was finally confronting the reality that he was a slave to his phone and couldn’t commit to any real growth. He finished speaking and the group was silent; they really felt for him.
I had been quiet for most of the Va’ad, letting guys speak, maybe asking a question here and there. So I asked him one question: “What are you going to do about it?” I was asking, what strategy can you try now which will actually make an impact? He paused to think, looked at me, looked at his phone, quiet – and suddenly raised his arm and smashed the phone on the stone floor of the Old Rova! Stunned, nobody moved; after a few moments, guys went to pick up the pieces as the guy start sobbing again. (As an aside, he remained without a smartphone for the rest of the year, came back Shana Bet, and then returned to YU).
The Va’ad continued; a few people later, another student rose to speak. He began by addressing his friend who had just smashed his phone: “While I struggled with similar issues over the course of the year, there is no way I could bring myself to do what you just did. That amount of commitment is incredibly inspiring, and I wish I could be that motivated right now.” The guy continued to speak, pulling out his phone as he went. Looking at his phone, he began to challenge himself: “You know, maybe I could do it? Maybe I do want to do this!” We all watched in disbelief as he peeled the case off the phone and raised his hand; he was going for it. Before he let it go, I stopped him: “Are you sure you want to do this?!” He nodded, and that was it – phone number two, out of commission. We ended the Va’ad shortly after that, but the hock continued for days afterwards.
The takeaway from that story has nothing to do with smartphones. Everyone was debating whether those guys did the right thing by smashing their phones; regardless of the objective question, though, the impact that decision had on their mindset and commitment for the rest of the year was undeniable. In the most extreme way, they had translated their Purim inspiration and motivation into action, and it left an indelible impact on the rest of their year.
Purim in Yeshiva is an incredibly powerful day. Guys are sharing Torah, crying, laughing, and being open with themselves and each other in a real way. The Avoda is to take that moment of inspiration and translate it into something practical: What’s the one thing I can do right now to make sure that Purim comes with me into the future, instead of fading into the past? To paraphrase a sharp line from Rav Dovid Bashevkin, don’t let Purim become a “Remember When” – make it into an “Ever Since.”
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