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Non-Trends in Jewish Life – Parshas Devarim

One of my favorite stories is about the author of the Jewish Code of Law, Rav Yosef Caro. Apparently, he was troubled by a passage in the Talmud for many, many years. And he would always come back to this passage and try to come up with solutions to the question, but to no avail. Finally, after years of mental gymnastics, he figured it out; he was able to reconcile the two contradictory passages and come up with a resolution.

This took place late one night. And so the next one morning, he shows up at his Yeshiva in Tzfat, he starts giving his daily lecture, hundreds of students in attendance, hanging on to his every word. After all, he is the leading sage of the 16th century. Towards the end, he poses the question that he has been grappling with for over three decades. He pauses dramatically, allowing the question to sink in, knowing that the students will all be baffled by the complexity of the challenge. He looks around and sees his students eagerly waiting for him to provide a brilliant solution. And then, from the back of the room, possibly the least intelligent student, the least studious disciple, pipes up. “Rebbi,” he says, “It’s simple. The resolution is as follows.” And he goes on to provide the answer that Rabbi Caro was about to share; the answer that he had worked on for three decades, the resolution he a moment ago had thought was one of the most profound ideas he has ever come up with. And this young whippersnapper, without putting much thought at all, nails it.

Rabbi Caro face turns white. He dismisses the class.

Rabbi Caro is beside himself. You ever experience imposter syndrome? Imposter syndrome is when you doubt your accomplishments and you feel like a fraud. Rabbi Caro had imposter syndrome, big time. How could it be? He asked himself. Maybe I’m losing it? Maybe I never had it?

That night he goes to sleep and he has a dream, and in that dream an angel appears to him and tells him as follows: “Yosef, you’re no imposter. That question was a good one. The resolution, even better. For years, many great people have asked that question and no one could come up with an answer. But when you figured it out, you brought the answer down to earth. You made the answer accessible. The answer is now in the air, so now anyone can get it. It’s through your toil, your contemplation, your efforts that have made it possible for anyone to now understand, on their own, the answer to the question.”

I know, it’s a rather esoteric story. But it speaks to something that we see all the time. That there are ideas “in the air” and even when people are not communicating with one another, people, in the same era, are coming to the same conclusions.

Two of my favorite Jewish thinkers, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook and Rav Tzadok Hakohen, never met, and never read each other’s works, but they both lived at the turn of the 20th century, and both wrote extremely creative works, with an astonishing amount of similar ideas. There was something in the air.

You find this in many places. There was a significant Jewish community in 12th and 13th century Germany known as the Chasidei Ashkenaz, literally the German pietists or devout ones. They were mystics and had a number of strange practices. One of them being self-flagellation; having themselves whipped, extreme fasting, rolling in snow, you name it. And there is significant discussion among historians about the Christian influences of these practices. Asceticism, which is certainly more of a Christian idea, was at its height in 12th and 13th century Germany, and some historians argue that these practices were simply copied from their Christian neighbors. Of course, others argue that it’s the other way around; the Christians adopted Jewish practices. Alternatively, there was “something in the air” – not necessarily a mystical something, but due to a whole host of sociological, economical, and psychological reasons, there are trends that are consistent in religions across the spectrum at any given era.

So for example, if we were to look for some commonality through all faith groups in America, today, I think it would be safe to say that one significant common denominator is positivity, happiness, and wellbeing.

“Through G-d you will find happiness.”

“Through the church/ synagogue/ mosque you will find peace.”

“Everything is awesome.”

In Jewish circles, this movement was kick-started by the creator of Aish Hatorah, Rabbi Noach Weinberg, who would constantly preach how Judaism can make you happy. In more modern times, there is a movement known as neo-Chassidism, young, Modern-Orthodox, mostly men, who have adopted elements of Chassidic dress and emphasize the beauty of Judaism; the intensity of prayer and the joys of singing Jewish songs.

At the same time, you’ll find articles in the New York Times by Christian leaders explaining why going to church is good for your health. Preachers who focus on the joy that comes along with living a life as a good Christian. Christian literature and music that embraces the elevating and uplifting elements of their faith.

And all this positivity dovetails quite well with the explosion of a relatively new field known as positive psychology, which promotes happiness, joy, and fulfillment. The self-help section in any given bookstore or library is busting at the seams, with books teaching you how to be happy and how to be fulfilled.

Now in Jewish thought, all of these ideas, positivity, happiness, kindness, they all stem from one characteristic known as ahava, love. One of the central commandments of Judaism is to love G-d. Praying with fervor, singing with emotion, living a happy life, giving to others, and really all the proactive mitzvot that we perform, are all behaviors that relate to love. Love is beautiful, love is powerful. Who doesn’t love love?

But in Judaism, there are two central characteristics from which everything flows. One is love, ahava and the other is yirah.

Let me tell you what’s associated with yirah. Sin, transgression, prohibitions, fear and punishment.

When was the last time you heard a preacher or rabbi talk about that?

Yirah is not in the air. We do not like using the s-word, sin, as people find it offensive. We do not like talking about transgressions, instead we use words like mistakes. We do not talk about prohibitions, instead we talk about parameters. And fear is a psychological impairment and so instead we use words like awe.

It’s not trendy to talk about yirah, and yet it is a crucial part of our faith.

Judaism does have rules. Judaism does believe there is something called sin. Judaism does suggest that our relationship with G-d is not only one of love and joy, but also one of awe and trepidation.

Ahava and yirah are needed in every relationship. In a healthy relationship, it’s not enough to love someone, we need to respect them. It’s not enough to do the things we both love doing, we need to sacrifice and do things we do not enjoy. It’s not enough to say, I see it differently, we need to say, I’m wrong. A healthy relationship has both the positivity of ahava and the restraint and respect of yirah.

Tonight and tomorrow, we will be sitting near the floor, fasting, and restricting ourselves, as we mourn for the destroyed Temple, the Bais HaMikdash. There are many mitzvot that took place in the Beit HaMikdash, but almost all of them were performed by the Kohanim, by the priests. There was one Mitzvah that affected every single Jew – and it is called Morah HaMikdash, a sense of awe that we are commanded to feel when we stand in that holy place, when we stand in the presence of G-d.

We do not today have a Bait HaMikdash, the Holy Temple. But we do have what is called a Mikdash Me’at, a small temple, the synagogue, a shul. And the Mitzvha of morah, of fear, of respect, applies here as well.

 

You know why people built nice and large shuls, at least here in America? Professor Jonathan Sarna, the leading expert on American Jewish history suggests that these beautiful buildings were built because in the shtiebels there was too much talking and a complete lack of decorum. American Jews were embarrassed to bring their Christian friends to a shtiebel. Their Christians were accustomed to quiet and reverential services. And so these early American Jews built these impressive buildings, with pews so people could sit in their seats and not walk around, and built imposing pulpits and furniture to inspire reverence, so that there would be a sense of decorum in shul.

I’m not sure when it happened but now it’s the other way around. It’s quiet in the shtiebels, and really noisy in the big shuls.

 

Yirah is not trendy, I get it. But if there’s one place where we can exercise this essential part of our Jewish experience, it’s here, it’s in the house of G-d.

Aside from the fact that the person next to you wants to concentrate and us talking is distracting them – it is the most basic derech eretz to respect the people around us. Aside from the fact that there are people in your row who are praying with all their heart and soul for a job, for a spouse, for a child, for health – and us talking is detracting from their heart-felt pleas. But even if everyone was talking, we need to respect G-d, and we need to respect His House.

And I will be the first to admit, I am guilty as charged. Often, I am catching up on shul business with our president between aliyos (or Adam’s asking me really difficult parsha questions which I pretend to forget by the time the next break in Torah reading comes up). And I love, love the fact that this is such a friendly and warm place. We exemplify the characteristic of love. But I don’t think that has to preclude us from exemplifying the characteristic of yirah as well.

Look, I don’t believe in zero-tolerance policies. But perhaps, perhaps, during two parts of our Shabbos morning prayers we can all grow in our yirah, we can all exercise this essential part of our religious identity.

  • The Chazzan’s repetition is seen as a communal prayer, it is the holiest of prayers. Let’s listen to the chazzan, let’s sing along. And if we can’t, let’s just use that moment to reflect and sit in G-d’s presence.
  • Again, one of the holiest of prayers. A man or woman is praying to G-d and remembering their loved one, tears are welling in their eyes, and we’re laughing. It’s an insult to the memory of their loved one and it’s insult to the sanctity of the prayer.

Two parts of davening, I think that’s doable.

Let’s make yirah trendy again. Let’s continue to be loving, positive, and joyful, but let’s inject a sense of awe and fear into our lives. Let us be respectful of those around us, and let us recognize that when we stand in this room, we stand before G-d.

May we merit a time when both love and fear are “in the air” and may we experience the intensity and beauty of these emotions in the rebuilt Temple speedily in our days.

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