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Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser

Klal Perspectives, Spring 2012 Symposium on Connectedness

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

Defrosting Judaism

THE PROPHET CHABAKUK TELLS US “v’tzaddik b’emunaso yichyeh – the righteous person shall live through his faith” (2:4). R’ Nachman of Breslov notes that in the ikvesa d’meshicha (period before the Messiah) even the tzaddik (righteous) will need to have his emunah (faith) fortified.

We currently live in tumultuous times. Governments are crumbling, unrest is sweeping throughout much of the world, there is meaningless violence and unusual global weather patterns and events exact horrific casualties. The moral and ethical fibers of mankind are eroding, and the Jew’s only mainstay is his steadfast emunah.

The lack of any scientific studies or surveys makes it difficult to accurately assess the numbers of alienated or disenfranchised members of our community. However, an experiential analysis of calls, sheilos (halachic inquiries), deliberations and discussions reveals a marked increase in the percentage of individuals who lack a feeling of connectedness.

We face a significant challenge to meet the urgent need for “inreach” today as, undoubtedly, many yearn to rekindle the pintele Yid (Jewish spark) that once glowed within them. In fact, even those who remain within the fold seem to crave more relevance and purpose. Books dealing with the basic issues of emunah and bitachon are increasingly popular. The number of frum people attending kiruv Shabbatons is greater than ever before, and there is a seeming proliferation of Carlebach minyanim everywhere.

Unlike the earlier generations, when parents and grandparents successfully imbued their families with an unequivocal sense of emunah peshutah (simple faith), many today are not as confident and committed. When Moshe Yess introduced his song “My Zeidy” (circa 1980), it struck a chord in the hearts of many within Orthodox communities worldwide. The imagery presented in the lyrics tugged at the hearts of many who were seeking their own Zeidy – their own emotional link to Torah and Yiddishkeit.

I once heard an interesting impression of the subtle difference in each succeeding generation’s affiliation with Yiddishkeit. The individual noted, “When my grandfather would go away for Shabbos, he would say, ‘I am going away for the heilige (holy) Shabbos.’ My father would say, ‘I’m going away for Shabbos.’ Now, years later, I say, ‘I’m going away for the weekend.’”

The disconnect of today’s adults and teenagers could perhaps be classified based on the distinction between one who is a hostile dissenter (mumar l’hachis) and one who has veered from the path of his religion for self-benefit or self-gratification (mumar l’teavon). Is it simply one’s emotional feelings that lead him to stray from the Torah derech ever so slightly? Is it a mild corruption of true daas Torah that produces unsettledness in the individual, manifesting itself as rebellion? Or is it a combination of both? HaGaon HaRav Moshe Feinstein deems intellectual polemics preferable to the dissent of one who is seeking to self-indulge. It is very possible, though, that the Z Generation has become a victim of the sheer materialism available to them and have become mired in the self-indulgence of goods and services, electronics and exotic foods, and the fulfillment of fantasies.

Never throughout history has secular culture been able to make such pervasive inroads into our insular community. With the advent of the Internet, the information highway has, with unprecedented speed, breached our fortifications and penetrated the security of our homes. People who hitherto had little or no link with immodesty, drugs, movies, alcoholism, gambling, and immorality suddenly find themselves just a click away from the underworld. Anyone whose spirituality is even somewhat vulnerable is the most susceptible. In fact, it may be postulated that the escalating addiction problem within our community is attributable to the dearth of spirituality. People sense a void in their life and thirst to fill the vacuum.

The Torah describes how the Jewish nation grumbled about the blandness of the mahn; they pined for the fish and vegetables that they had in Egypt. Hashem addresses the issue by telling Moshe, “Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel … and I will increase some of the spirit that is upon you and place it upon them.” (Bamidbar 11:16-17)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that although the dissatisfaction of the people was expressed as a physical deficiency, it actually reflected a void in their spiritual well being. Therefore, Hashem commanded Moshe to imparting some spirituality to them, i.e. to give them “spiritual food” so they would be content with the goodness of Hashem and would not be overwhelmed by a feeling of physical deprivation.

Perhaps the challenge is not to address the chitzoniyus (external), but to focus on the penimiyus (internal). The Mishnah states, “One who walks on the road while reviewing a Torah lesson but interrupts his review and exclaims, ‘How beautiful is this tree!’ – it is considered as if he bears guilt for his soul” (Avos 3:7). The Hegyonah Shel Torah questions the individual’s culpability, as he was, in fact, praising the wonders of the Creator. However, he notes, the individual only gave attention to the tree’s external beauty instead of considering the indigenous characteristics of the tree such as its roots, and its ability to produce fruits and provide shade.

Our personal level of excitement and enthusiasm for Torah and mitzvos is a key element in maintaining and strengthening the tenuous connection of those in our sphere of influence. Perhaps a stronger emphasis on the neshama, the soul, of the mitzvah would be more credible than highlighting its cosmetic aspects.

R’ Moshe Kubriner once saw someone vigorously swaying during his davening. The tzaddik commented that when one prays, the exterior doesn’t need to shake; it’s the inside that needs to shudder.

With reference to tefilah, HaGaon HaRav Chaim of Brisk addresses the issue of whether one may recite Hallel if he is sad. He notes that Hallel is a paean we sing before HaKadosh Baruch Hu. The intent is not merely to utter words of praise and acclamation; Hallel is an articulation of our internal elation. Similarly, heartfelt contemplation and reflection is required when reciting the Tachanun, sincere feelings of remorse are meant to accompany the viduy, and intense tears are to be evoked with the recitation of the Tisha B’Av Kinos. Anything less would be in the realm of perfunctory and passionless prayers.

Chazal tell us rachmana liba baiy – it’s the heart that Hashem desires (Sanhedrin 106b), not the mere mechanical performance of the mitzvah. Mitzvas anashim melumadah – the rote performance of mitzvos – is not stimulating; it may even become boring. It is possible that those who are no longer interested in living a life of Torah don’t feel a passion. Once the essence of the mitzvah is missing, it has little meaning; ergo there is no inspiration.

Perhaps a Mitzvos Maasiyos Program could be undertaken to foster a deeper appreciation for some mitzvos such as challah, tefillin, tzitzis and shatnez. Observing the attention, precision and dedication entailed in the production of tashmishei kedushah to ensure their sanctity would heighten our awareness of the profundity of these mitzvos. Learning taamei hamitzvos (explantions for mitzvos) and their ramifications both in heaven and on earth cultivates a special bond that connects the individual to the core mitzvah.

R’ Saadiah Gaon tells us that every mitzvah in the Torah corresponds to a limb in a person’s body. Such a personal attachment and link to the mitzvah facilitates our ability to internalize the mitzvah and make it more personal. It would perhaps be helpful and insightful for individuals to study various responsa to develop their understanding of and respect for others’ mesiras nefesh (selfless dedication) to fulfill mitzvos amid adversity. There are various accounts of self-sacrifice recorded during the times of the Inquisition, sheilos about lighting Chanukah candles or sitting in a makeshift sukkah during the Holocaust, and teshuvos from contemporary decisors with regard to mikvah and bris milah, to name a few.

Before Pesach one year, someone dropped off his neatly bound package of chametz with me and asked if I could burn it for him. Then he asked if it was possible that I could recite the necessary paragraph of kol chamira for him, as well, because he was so busy. As I looked up with a startled expression, I wondered if he also intended to ask me to eat the kezayis matzah for him at the Seder.

In truth, the lack of connection to Hashem that is expressed by adolescents and young adults does not develop overnight; it is a gradual disengagement. Psychologists note that childhood is the most impressionable time in one’s life. It is a period when everlasting memories are created and when an individual’s character is shaped. The Talmud, after recording Abaye’s comment that he wished he had learned the halacha of kavsah ein zakuk lah (if the Chanukah candle goes out, you need not relight it) earlier in life, asks what difference it makes when he learned it? The answer provided is that girsa d’yankusa – what you learn as a child – remains with you (Shabbos 21b).

We need to be more ardent in our transmission of the mesorah. In kiruv work – whether with the uninitiated or those within the fold – we cannot be indifferent or rigid. Thus, our love for Torah and mitzvos must be expressive and demonstrative, in a way that makes a positive impression. Moreover, our efforts to nurture a devotion and passion to Yiddishkeit in our progeny must be ongoing, as we ourselves strive to achieve the ultimate uvo sidbak – to cling to Hashem (Devarim 10:20).

We must strive to inculcate in our children the conviction and faith that dracheha darchei noam – the ways of Torah are pleasant (Mishlei 3:17). As we teach and educate our children, in school and at home, do we imbue them with simcha and ahavah (joy and love) for the mitzvos? Do we make the Yomim Tovim a meaningful experience for our family? Is davening a shlep, or is it suffused with spirit and an appreciation of its relevance?

The Mesilas Yesharim expounds on uvo sidbak – striving to cling to Hashem. It is a powerful principle that also incorporates “Hashem li v’lo ira”– that Hashem is with us and we need not fear. When these concepts become an integral component of our children’s Jewish education, they will be able to better deal with the vicissitudes of life. “Clinging to Hashem” includes many elements such as evaluating the ways of Hashem, emulating Him, and acknowledging all that Hashem does for us each and every day. This analysis and the mere cognizance of Shlomo HaMelech’s statement, “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine …” (Shir HaShirim 6:3) – that we have been chosen as Hashem’s am hanivchar, chosen nation, will facilitate the growth of an ahavah for Hashem that supersedes all else in the world.

We could institute Yemei Iyun (study days) that would explore all aspects of a particular mitzvah – its halachos, how to correctly execute the mitzvah, the impact of the mitzvah on the world around us, and its rewards and benefits. The performance of mitzvos could be celebrated, i.e. to make an event that joyously marks the mitzvah’s accomplishment. Brachos gatherings, groups that meet on Shabbos to learn about kavod and oneg Shabbos (honoring and enjoying Shabbos), and a festive kevi’as mezuzah would raise the bar of chashivus (importance) and respect for the mitzvah. Likewise, reading and learning about how our gedolim conducted themselves in their meticulous devotion to the hiddurim (enhancements) of a particular mitzvah, and their demonstrable chavivus (affection) for a specific mitzvah, makes an unparalleled impression.

We should reintroduce the learning of the Sefer HaMitzvos, perhaps the Chofetz Chaim’s Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzar, the Taamei HaMinhagim and contemporary sefarim such as Moadim L’Simcha or Nesivos Shalom. Such studies will stimulate a deeper understanding of the vitality of the mitzvos, their significance and their beauty.

Cleaning the house for Pesach is notoriously known to strike terror in the hearts of many. Nonetheless, the Ari HaKadosh cautions us to look forward to the work, and not to speak disparagingly of it – for each and every moment spent in the Pesach preparations is another matchless moment of eternal reward.

Our generation seeks chizuk (encouragement) and inspiration. Many adolescents and young adults lack the spiritual self-confidence and the wherewithal to reach higher in their avodas Hashem. The fire and brimstone of the past may not strike a responsive chord in many, and may often be counterproductive. I believe that the well-known parable of the power of the warmth of the sun versus the strength of the wind is most apt in our times.

The Mishnah states, “Aseh lecha rav – accept a teacher upon yourself” (Avos 1:6). I have become painfully aware that many of our people are like sheep without a shepherd. They have no rav, no shul with which they are affiliated, and no ties to their roshei yeshiva or rebbetzin. When a person doesn’t have a moreh derech (guide), he has little relationship with daas Torah (Torah perspective); he has no one to motivate his spiritual growth; he has no one to be his halachic decisor or his philosophical mentor.

The importance of establishing a close affiliation with a moreh derech, a rav or rebbetzin, is transcendent. A rav is the link in the mesorah (tradition), who ensures that the individual’s connection in the chain from Har Sinai remains unbroken. A Jew’s level of affiliation with the Torah is often defined by his association with a rav. For example, one’s tradition in mitzvos is not characterized merely by whether or not he eats in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeres. It embraces all the minutiae of details with regard to specific mitzvos, tefillos and minhagim that one’s rav/rebbe/rebbetzin practices.

Today’s moreh derech has also become his congregants’ “web-chaver,” so he is automatically kept abreast of the Internet activity of his congregants who have so requested. A rav who is an acquaintance of mine spends a good amount of time nightly reviewing these generated reports to verify that the conduct of his congregants is appropriate and acceptable.

Shalom bayis (i.e., marital) problems can be minimized, as well, when a husband and wife determine they will identify with and follow a designated rav. Such an association allows the couple to “nip the problem in the bud” if one arises, instead of beginning the search in a time of stress for a rav with whom they both feel comfortable.

I once received a call from a couple who presented a very complex sheiloh. After discussing the various aspects with the two of them, I rendered a psak. The husband then remarked, “Miriam, that’s exactly what Rav Cohen said.” I asked, “Have you already asked someone this sheiloh?

“Well,” replied the husband, “in all honesty, we actually asked two people who gave us conflicting answers. So we decided to call you for the definitive answer.”

This couple does not have three rebbeim; they have none. In today’s day and age, a rav has many different responsibilities vis-à-vis the community. In fact, the job description of a rav grows daily. Every person/family needs a rav to whom they can turn at all times – someone who can provide direction, wise counsel, and who will surely be a lifelong source of inspiration.

Once, when the Chofetz Chaim immersed in the mikvah, he found the water to be very cold. He questioned the caretaker, who insisted that he had heated up the water before adding it to the mikvah and even showed him the kettle he had used. The Chofetz Chaim first felt the kettle, then he put his finger into the water of the kettle, and found the water to be lukewarm. He explained to the mikvah attendant, if boiling hot water is added to the mikvah then the water will become warm. However, he noted, if the water is only lukewarm when it is poured into the mikvah, the water will remain quite cold indeed.

Similarly, if we are trying to ignite within our children an excitement and fervor for Yiddishkeit, we ourselves must be piping hot with enthusiasm. If our ardor for Torah and mitzvos is tepid and unenthusiastic, how will our children be energized and invigorated?

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

Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser, the Rav of Congregation Bnei Yitzchok in Brooklyn, New York, is a noted lecturer, radio personality, columnist and author.

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