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Rabbi Bentzion Twerski

Klal Perspectives, Spring 2012 Symposium on Connectedness

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

Is Serving Hashem Still a “Jewish” Ideal?

THE CHAZAN BEGINS TO SING a beautiful, heartfelt melody of Lecho Dodi. While several musically inclined congregants join the singing, the majority are engrossed in Parsha sheets or are peering deeply into a sefer. In fact, the more “true Bnai Torah” in the room, the more open seforim will be seen. Have you observed this in your shul?

Is learning Torah a problem? Heaven forbid! Does this practice speak of a larger problem in our Yiddishkeit? It sure does!

I recall davening in Bobov one Friday night, when I was still a bochur (single). At that time, my great uncle, the Bobover Rav, zt”l, was still in excellent health. During Lecho Dodi, he came upon a chossid learning, and, reaching from behind him, closed the sefer. Not realizing who had invaded his space, the chossid jumped up, ready to challenge the intrusion – and was greeted with the Bobover Rav’s words, “zman Torah l’chud, zman tefilah l’chud;” there is a time to learn, and there is a time to daven.

I recall this incident as illustrating the Bobover Rav’s understanding of a fundamental lack of balance in the practice of our Yiddishkeit. Almost 300 years ago, the talmidei Baal Shem Tov described a generation unable to find feeling and fulfillment in tefilah or mitzvos. These giants of spirit despaired for their generation – a generation of Torah scholars who were only able to relate to the intellectual pursuit of Torah study, such that service of the heart was relegated to the generally uneducated masses. In response, the talmidei Baal Shem launched a movement designed to expose the majesty and depth of Torah study, tefilah and mitzvah fulfillment, and to make this majesty accessible to all Jews, regardless of their level of formal Torah education.

History repeats itself. The only difference between then and now is that in our day, we know – at least deep in our hearts – that we should be yearning though we are not, singing, when we do not. We realize that we have surrendered to laziness – or worse yet to apathy – in all too many areas of Jewish life. Yet, how can we expect anything of the masses when so many of our leaders themselves have succumbed to the same indifference with regard to their avodah?

These attitudes are so pervasive that they are institutionalized. It is quite common for minyonim in all segments of the Torah world to have imposed time limits, making it virtually impossible to have a true avodah experience. A baal tefilah who extends the davening time by even a few minutes will not be asked to lead the davening again.

And though we might readily admit our difficulty in elevating our tefilah to an appropriate level, we must acknowledge the need to strengthen the seriousness and passion that we bring to our observance of other mitzvos, as well. Perhaps a significant cause of our disconnect with mitzvos is the absence of “hachana l’mitzvah” (preparation for the mitzvah). Perhaps the thought and energy in preparing to perform a mitzvah is the exact exercise necessary to create the mind-set and energy that allow us to actually feel the mitzvah experience. Today, such preparations are no longer necessary, and thus not pursued, and our connection to mitzvos suffers. It has gotten to the point where virtually every mitzvah item can be purchased – from pop-up sukkahs to pop-off olive-oil Chanukah candles, pre–tied tzitzis to pre-baked challos and matzos – and, the list goes on and on. How many still take pride in dirtying their hands in the baking of matzos or grating the horseradish for the seder? What sort of satisfaction can we expect from mitzvos when our investment in them is practically non-existent?

Baruch Hashem, Torah learning has become a central dimension of our Yiddishkeit. The number of people learning Torah, regardless of background, is astounding. Yet, many forget that without integrating avodah into our daily regimen there can be no mitzvah of limud HaTorah. It is no wonder that Chazal strongly condemn those who learn Torah without an emphasis on yiras shomayim (e.g., Yuma 72b). Our chachomim understood that Torah study unaccompanied by a focus on connecting to HKBH leads to wholesale abandonment of all aspects of avodah (service), including limud HaTorah (learning Torah) itself. There have even been examples in history of the Jewish people of brilliant Torah scholars delighting in the give and take of pilpul haTorah (Talmudic analysis) – on Shabbos while puffing away on a cigar.

To be very candid, there must first be an acknowledgment of the problem before any available solutions can be accessed. As long as we deceive ourselves that Torah study alone is adequate, we will not have any reason to change. The moment we are willing to confront our emptiness with an honest admission of our lack of balance, we can begin to take steps in the right direction.

Avodah means to serve. Avodah also means hard work. Avodah requires preparation and toil. Even if we decided to commit to changing our attitudes towards avodah, it is extremely hard to find time for serious preparation. There are no shortcuts. Yet it will be one of the most rewarding investments of time we will ever make.

Let us look at ideas and solutions offered by those who have had success and who lived with tremendous passion, vibrancy and excitement in their avodah. This process begins with a fundamental understanding and awareness that Torah study, tefilah and mitzvah performance represent an awesome privilege. The very fact that a mortal human being can “serve” the Infinite Creator offers a “mind-blowing” perspective. An obvious benefit of “the privilege perspective” is the added desire to perform as much of the preparation for a mitzvah as we can with our own hands. Preparation is not an issue of necessity; rather, it is a vital manifestation of our excitement about the amazing opportunity we have to serve Hashem!

The most successful medium to ignite the passion we seek is to join a chevra, a supportive group of mivakshim (seekers), who offer much encouragement and occasional rebuke, all of which helps each individual in the group grow and flourish. Each of us can identify these souls in our circle of influence and invite them to create a vaad (group) wherein we commit to invigorate one another, and inspire each other to reach for deeper, more meaningful avodah.

Similarly, we must choose, if possible, a serious and balanced place to daven, where passion and excitement toward tefilah and mitzvos create a contagious atmosphere for consistent and enthusiastic insights toward a “holistic” approach in avodas Hashem. If our weekdays are just too rushed, we must utilize Shabbos and Yom Tov to their fullest to allow our neshomos to experience the connection for which it is so starved.

Perhaps the most valuable resource at our disposable is the wealth of avodah-geared divrei Torah we can learn in order to prepare for these amazing encounters with our Creator. Individuals must find the unique flavor that meets their individual taste. Oftentimes, this involves trial and error. What’s more, our tastes will evolve over time, requiring different and more developed guidance as we grow and develop. Seforim such as Nesivos Shalom, Ohr Gedalyahu, and Shem Mishmuel are but a few examples of seforim that have appealed to thousands of searchers and have inspired growth in avodah. The list of quality hashkafic material, now available in English, can keep us interested and fascinated literally for a lifetime.

Every mitzvah has a wealth of literature written about how to fulfill it in both halacha and hashkofo. When one learns the halachos in preparation for each mitzvah, the experiential rewards are immeasurable. I have found insights in seforim written hundreds of years ago that are so penetrating and relevant – that are addressing challenges that are so timely – that it seems they were written expressly for our generation alone, offering us guidance about where we should be headed and how we should get there.

This is especially true in the case of tefilah. If we had benefited from the many seforim helping us to understand that tefilah is a vehicle to take us from point A to point B, providing us with a deep understanding of the mechanics in conducting this journey, we couldn’t possibly interrupt our davening with idle conversation. We certainly would not allow are tefilah to be disrupted by other forms of avodah, such as Torah study, that have no place in the midst of our davening. I have recently come upon a set of seforim called Lilmod Eich L’hispallel that offers great advice and insight into each section of davening and what it is designed to accomplish.

Ultimately, we need to go back to the sources for direction. The roadmap is before us; we just need to seek it out. Join a chevra, get a guide, acquire a particular mehalech and embark on this wondrous adventure. Utilize the seasons before us to delve into the halachos of each timely mitzvah. Become familiar with some of the fascinating controversies surrounding the fulfillment of these mitzvos. We will be amazed how a Shabbos or Yom Tov table can be transformed by a meaningful debate regarding the different opinions held about the issues at hand.

Get physically involved in some form of preparation for each and every mitzvah.

Delve into the depths of machshova and hashkofoh that each majestic encounter with Hashem offers us. In order to succeed in our quest for connection, we must garner our energy and focus – we must give it our all!

To view the other responses in this issue, CLICK HERE.

Rabbi Benzion Twerski has been serving in the rabbinate alongside his father Rabbi Michel Twerski, shlit”a, in Milwaukee for the past 23 years.

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