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Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky

Klal Perspectives, Spring 2012 Symposium on Connectedness

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

The First Connection is to Your Inner Self

WHETHER OR NOT MANY ORTHODOX JEWS lack a true sense of connection can only be answered properly by researchers and sociologists. My only response would be to offer a Jewish “answer” (i.e. another question): If there isn’t a serious problem, why do so many rabbis and educators think there is, and why are we spending so much time discussing it?

If accurate, and there are many “feeling no meaningful connection to Hashem, His Torah, or even His people,” then this is the most significant problem facing the Jewish people. There can be no greater barrier to the actualization of our national mission statement, and there can be no greater testimony to failures in our educational system.

If solutions are to be found, the root causes of the problem must first be identified. Then it can be decided whether the price for implementing promising solutions is tolerable. The problem did not arise overnight, and it cannot be solved overnight.

The Maharal (Derech Chaim, Introduction) teaches that a person must achieve perfection in three relationships, or “connections:” with his Creator, with his society, and with his own “self.”

The root cause of people not feeling a connection with G-d (or with society) is frequently the absence of a true connection with one’s own “self.” Many individuals lack self-awareness, and the ability to answer the question “who is the real me?” Those courageous enough to “meet” their true self can discover the answer to that threshold question, and thereby open the door to developing a deep relationship with the Almighty, His Torah and with others, as well.

Western society is dominated by instant gratification, consumerism, globalization, breathtaking speed and always-on technology. This environment creates and feeds a staggering array of distractions, which render it virtually impossible for one to connect with one’s deepest core. We don’t have the time, the focus or the serenity to be alone with ourselves so we can get to know what “makes us tick.”

Each person is born with unique instincts, as well as unique personality traits. Some are naturally sharers, others hoarders. Some are naturally aggressive, while others are more passive by nature. Each person has their individual middos, character traits, and left untouched, these middos will govern behavior in an instinctual way. One of the foundations of the teachings of mussar is the need for a person to identify the unique strengths and weaknesses of his or her personality and to work on elevating and perfecting that personality. In the process, he grows beyond the animal-like instincts with which he was born into a person who can behave in a G-d-like way. In doing so, the individual can live a life that is governed by his Divine neshama (soul), with which each of us has been endowed. It is only by engaging in this life-long exercise that a person can reveal the true core of his being. We need to be aware of this great, ongoing challenge, and to appreciate how contemporary society makes this task all the more challenging.

Developing an awareness of our own essence – of who we really are – enables us to develop first and foremost a relationship with ourselves. Absent that primary relationship, it shouldn’t surprise us if we do not feel connected to Hashem, or to those around us. If we do not know our own inner self then we live on the most superficial of levels. All we know is what is on the surface, and that does not allow for more than superficial contact with others, as well. The word דעת used in the Torah means both “deep knowledge” as well as “connection.”[1]If a person cannot identify his or her own essence, and cannot discover the essence of that with which he or she is trying to connect, all other interactions – whether with a spouse, with others, or with the Almighty – will be limited to superficial contact rather than true connection. True connections between any two people happen at the core of their being.

How do we achieve this so fundamental, yet elusive, goal? In earlier times, significant effort combined with the study of mussar was a classic formula. With the right guidance, it remains a wonderful system. All of Abraham Twerski’s books are excellent resources for self-study. The ones that I have found the most compelling are “Let Us Make Man,” a treatise on developing self-esteem, “Lights Along the Way,” his penetrating and practical commentary on the classic mussar work “Mesilas Yesharim,” and “On Spirituality.”

There is another aspect of self-awareness uniquely fundamental to our personal relationship with Hashem:[2] To have a meaningful connection with our Creator, we must have authentic self-esteem, knowing our uniqueness and our importance. We need to be fully cognizant of how we make a difference in this world. The source of true self-esteem is the realization that one is created b’tzelem Elokim, as a reflection of the Almighty, endowed with a transcendent neshama. For this recognition to be nurtured in our children (and in ourselves!), we must recognize and value different talents and abilities and create frameworks for utilization of those qualities to advance goals that are connected with life’s purpose. A Judaism that offers a very narrow set of avenues to successful avodas Hashem (service of the Almighty) inevitably leads those who don’t’ fit the mold to become disconnected from Hashem and Torah. We must acknowledge multiple paths to becoming a first-class Jew.

The commentaries on the verse in Mishlei חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ גַּם כִּי יַזְקִין לֹא יָסוּר מִמֶּנָּה, (educate the lad according to his path; even when he matures he will not deviate from it – Mishlei 22:6) illustrate the importance of rising to this challenge, and the potential cost of failing to do so.[3] The Malbim explains that “every person has different natural tendencies… (different) ways of thinking, [and] each one must be educated according to the foundation that he has. In actions, one is [naturally] prepared for a certain craft… and he will assimilate (training for) it easily. This is identified in the lad by his passion/enthusiasm. It is according to what he strives for himself in his unique manner that you must educate him – according to his path and according to the tendencies towards which he is naturally inclined. For then, he won’t abandon it when he grows old. This will not be the result, however, if he is educated to what is against his nature.” (emphasis added).

This is a great challenge to our educational system – both because of limited resources and because of the stigma that has developed for boys who have not demonstrated success in the path of gemara learning. But this is one of the most compelling investments we can make to enable our children to grow into adults connected to Hashem and his Torah.

In seeking solutions to the disconnection felt by many, it is incorrect to presume that the focus on certain mitzvos, the study of certain texts, or the teaching of certain hashkafos will create a greater connection with the Almighty. I suggest that it will take a very different focus to identify a promising solution.

In Hilchos Teshuva, the Rambam writes:

Do not say there is only repentance from sins that entail actions, such as sexual transgressions, stealing and thievery. Rather, just as one is required to repent from these, so, too, he must examine his evil character traits, and repent from anger, hatred and jealousy, from levity, from pursuit of money and glory, from gluttony, etc. From all these a person must repent. In fact, these sins are more serious than those that entail action, for when a person sinks into these [characteristics], it is difficult to change. (Hilchos Tehsuva 7:3)

Rather than focus on the traits emphasized by the Rambam, most of contemporary education focuses on the ritual aspects of Judaism and on teaching the “correct hashkafa.” And the social dynamics of our communities only reinforce this tendency. For example, compare our community’s reaction (on a religious level) to a person not following a modern chumra (stringency) or who espouses non-conforming hashkafos with the communal reaction to a person who exhibits the negative character traits about which the Rambam imposes a requirement of teshuva.

Hilchos Teshuva can be characterized as the laws that repair our disconnect from Hashem. The Rambam emphasizes teshuva of character traits because of the major role these traits play in our connection with Hashem.

We need to teach our children how to recognize their instinctual personality traits, to be aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and to understand how important it is to develop and refine those traits. And we must reverse the myth that the Torah giants whom we idolize did not have personality weaknesses as well that required much work to refine.

The importance of character development cannot be overemphasized. A few lines from Rav Chaim Vital should alert us to the possibility that our education may be missing the foundation on which our Judaism – and the ability of our neshama to connect to Torah and mitzvos – must be built:

“…good character traits are not mandated among the 613 commandments, but they are the fundamental preparation for the fulfillment or annulment of the 613 commandments… Therefore bad character traits are much more serious than violations of the commandments themselves… The consequence of this is that one must be more cautious about bad character traits than about the fulfillment of the positive and negative commandments, for one who possesses exemplary character traits will find it easy to fulfill all the commandments” (Shaarei Kedusha, Part 1, Gate 2). (emphasis added)

We teach “derech eretz kadmah l’torah” – good character traits are a prerequisite to accepting and properly fulfilling Torah. This is why there was a period of seven weeks between the redemption from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai – weeks used to transform the people of Israel into a People worthy of receiving the Torah[4]. But teaching it is not enough – we need to “walk our talk,” in our schools, our families and our communities. Beginning in the home at the youngest age, following through in school, and continuing in our communal behavior, children and adults with refined character must be accorded the highest honor and sense of importance.

Refined character means many qualities: simplicity, respect, politeness, the ability to delay gratification, willingness to compromise, etc.[5] Rav Chaim Vital means to teach us that a refined personality serves as the interface between one’s physical life and the transcendent neshama, and that it is the foundation upon which mitzvah observance must be built. We already have curricula that teach correct ideology and proper mitzvah observance. But, we must ensure that it includes – as a foundation and not merely as an afterthought – lessons and exercises for the refinement of character.[6]

Another critical ingredient for developing self-awareness, and thus true connections and relationships, is time. We cannot know ourselves, we cannot know others, and we cannot develop deep connections without the investment of time. Our culture and life-style certainly make finding the time we need an almost insurmountable challenge. Beyond the simple answer of creating priorities, I believe there are two periods legislated in Judaism that provide the opportunities to nurture more self-awareness and deeper connections with ourselves, with Hashem and with others. These two periods are davening times and Shabbos. We must invest more resources in utilizing these dimensions of our avodah in the way the Almighty intended.

Davening must be slowed down, with time and energy devoted to understanding what we are doing. Proper davening is a process of introspection – putting us in touch with our selves, with our true needs, and with our Creator as the source of fulfillment of those needs. If we zoom through a 27-minute shacharis (berachos to final kaddish), or a nine-minute ma’ariv, while periodically glancing at our smartphones, we have lost a major opportunity for self-awareness. Adding even a few minutes to our rushed davening can enable us to prioritize our real needs, to recognize how our resources should serve those needs, and to appreciate how Hashem fulfills our needs. We need to view our davening as a dialogue with Hashem, appreciate the potential connection this can create, and find ways to enable our children to share this experience.[7]

Shabbos is also an invaluable gift. During the week, we are “always on” and always connected – striving to control the harried world in which we operate. Shabbos, prepared for and enjoyed properly, nurtures our ability to “let go” – to disconnect from a world that isolates us from our inner self and ultimately from our Creator. It is our covenant with G-d to declare publically that we can relinquish control of a world created by Him, and that such a world has a greater purpose. We need to spend focused, undisturbed time within ourselves, as well as with our families and our friends.[8] We must learn to appreciate why Chazal call Shabbos a “matanah tovah” – a unique and wonderful gift that G-d reserved for the Jewish people. We must live Shabbos as much more than being simply a “day off” that Judaism happened to think of first.

A final aspect of our society that disconnects us from our true essence and that creates a barrier between us and the Almighty is rampant consumerism. Consumption ought to fill genuine needs only. Luxurious indulgences numb our spiritual dimension, which is where our true selves lie. When every chosson expects a dazzling new watch, when every kallah expects to enter her marriage outfitted with a wig costing four figures, when a basic kiddush must have fancier food than used to be considered lavish for a fully-catered Shabbos seudah, when the smorgasbord at a wedding must have a variety and quantity of foods that renders the actual meal completely unnecessary, it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the spiritual dimensions of our true selves to connect to anything real. This problem of lavish consumption may have been imported from the society around us but we must not ignore the corrosive effect it has on our spiritual essence. We need to ask ourselves what our consumption is accomplishing, and which part of our true essence it is nourishing. We may find that the need for such indulgences is actually the symptom of a deep, spiritual hunger – the result of lacking a real connection to Hashem. Breaking this cycle then becomes all the more important.

Many readers may justifiably think that in our society, in our culture, and in our financial system, the solutions proposed are simply not realistic. I alluded to this reaction in the beginning of the article. We have to decide whether solving the problem is worth the price we need to pay. Many people may decide it is not. I hope enough people in positions of influence decide it is. But we should not fool ourselves. As Albert Einstein is quoted to have said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.”

If we want to develop a true connection with Hashem, we may need to return to a simpler life, spend time getting to know ourselves and become students of Avraham Avinu – having “ayin tova, ruach nemucha, v’nefesh shfala” – a giving personality, a natural humility, and a modest life-style.[9]

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

Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky is co-founder and Dean of Shapell’s/Darche Noam and Midreshet Rachel v’Chaya in Jerusalem. He has been involved in the education of English speaking Ba’alei Tshuva for 35 years, and has over 3,000 graduates.


[1] והאדם ידע את חוה אשתו Breishith 4:1, using the word to indicate intimate relations.

[2] This is one of the major themes running through all of Rabbi Twerski’s books.

[3] See also the Vilna Gaon commentary on that verse; Sefer Chasidim, section 208; Sefas Tamim 206 for additional and complementary insights. See also Off the Derech by Franak Margolese, for anecdotal evidence of the consequences of not following this path in our educational system, especially Chapters 27 and 28.

[4] See Nesivos Shalom, Vol. 1, pgs 211-212; many other sources discuss the “tikun“, the rectification of the middos done in the seven by seven cycle of the Sefira period.

[5] The suggestion raised in a serious article that a teenager went “off the derech” because his parents permitted him to drink “chalav stam” as a child reflects the serious confusion of our priorities.

[6] For personal study, I recommend Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt’l’s, Alei Shur, Vol. 2, pages 19-70, and 135-325. Though not built on Torah sources, Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has proven to be a uniquely valuable resource in this area. If our sources don’t convince us of the importance of middos, Walter Mischel’s 1968 experiment with four-year-olds being challenged to delay gratification should do so. Mischel himself has measured long term correlation over decades, and the experiment has been replicated a number of times. See the New Yorker, May 18, 2009 Don’t! The Secret of Self-Control.

[7] Rav Reuven Leuchter has recently published a wonderful book: Tefilla: Creating Dialogue with Hashem that can help make davening more meaningful on many levels.

[8] I believe it should be self-evident that the root of Orthodox teens “texting on Shabbos” is their inability to be alone with themselves, and to develop deep, meaningful connection with anyone. Text messages, especially the ones our teens are addicted to sending, is anything but deep and meaningful!

[9] Avos 5:19. See also, Nesivos Shalom on Pirkei Avos, Vayikra pgs 251-253

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