Yachad Shabbaton Nov. 11.

Passion: the Key to Jewish Continuity (A Response to ‘A Jewish Father’) Rosh Hashana Day Two

Do not send your children to a Jewish Day School. Better yet, boycott Jewish Day Schools.

That was the takeaway from an op-ed written last week, titled, “I can ‘do Jewish’ on just $40,000 a year.’ The anonymous author argues that Jewish life, especially sending one’s children to Jewish schools, is way too expensive and not worth it. The children, he argued, don’t come away with a solid education nor do they learn good middos. He decided to pull his kids out of his local day school and provide for their Jewish education on his own and is encouraging others to do the same.

Since publication, this article has been shared approximately 30,000 times. Clearly, his message resonated.     

In the course of the article, he went on to criticize everything Jewish, including his rabbi who he claims is making $350,000 a year, is receiving free housing and pays no tuition. Honestly, reading that part kind of made me happy – at least I now know the author does not daven here.

Today is Rosh Hashana, it’s a big day, and so instead of focusing on the particulars of the article, I’d like to focus on the big picture, something we all care about – the key to a strong Jewish future. Because I believe the author is right, at least in a limited sense – a child can go to public school and grow up to be a wonderful Jewish adult and a child can go to a Jewish day school and want nothing to do with Judaism.

Of course, there are endless factors at play, some we can control and some we cannot. But I would argue that there is a single feature that anyone who cares about a strong Jewish future needs to incorporate into their Jewish lives. It is a feature that is relevant whether you have a child in a Jewish Day School, public school, or home school. It is relevant, I must add, whether you’re a grandparent or you have no children. Because a strong Jewish future is dependent on a strong Jewish present, and we, you and I, are the face and the soul of modern-day Judaism.     

Not too long ago, there lived a great Torah scholar, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein of blessed memory. He was considered by many to be the most authoritative voice in Jewish law here in North America and beyond. Rabbi Feinstein lived in the Lower East Side of New York from 1936 until 1986 when he passed away.

As you know, back then, the Lower East side was teeming with immigrants. Many of those immigrants were religious Jews who came from Europe. As I’m sure you also know, tragically, many of the children of those immigrants walked away from Judaism.

Rav Moshe Feinstein would often ask, rhetorically, how is it that the children of these Jews turned away from Judaism? The parents were so deeply committed. They were willing to be fired from their jobs every Friday because they refused to work on Shabbos, they would try to keep kosher well before the kosher industry really took off. Why didn’t that commitment rub off on their children, he asked.

Rabbi Feinstein explained that those dedicated Jews, who were indeed incredibly committed to Judaism, would come home after being fired, or they would sit down to eat their severely limited meal due to kosher standards, and they would say, “Oy! S’iz shver tu zain a Yid. It is so hard to be a Jew.” It was that message, explained Rabbi Feinstein, that turned off so many of the second generation American Jews.

And that’s why I so often speak about the Joys of Judaism, because it’s not shver tu zain a Yid. S’iz gevaldik tu zain a Yid! It’s awesome to be a Jew! I love being Jewish, and I hope you do too. Because if negativity or guilt is driving your Judaism, no one wants to be a part of that. The author of that article I mentioned chose to remain anonymous, and I’m glad he did, at least for the sake of his children. Because that cynical tone, the way he chose to discuss the issues, is toxic and is a surefire method to drive one’s children away from Judaism.  

Positivity is contagious in the best of ways. But positivity alone can be superficial. Clapping and singing and having a good time is not the positivity that I am discussing today. That’s a start but we need a positivity that expresses something far deeper and more powerful and that is PASSION.

We are no strangers to passion. This has been a very passionate year for us Americans. I even coined a diagnosis, OPD – Obsessive Political Disorder. It doesn’t really exist but it should. It represents a new reality; a reality in which everyone is obsessed with politics.

Allow me to read to you one man’s personal reflections of this past year: “Like millions of affected Americans, I can’t get President Donald Trump out of my head. I search his name in Google a dozen times a day. Every day. Seven days a week. It’s the first thing I do when I awake in the morning and the last thing I do before going to sleep at night: “Trump.” Press enter.

Trump rarely fails to satisfy the addiction; it’s a round-the-clock show. There’s always an update — a firing, a nutty tweet, a Russia revelation.”

Everywhere I go all people seem to talk about is politics. I come into shul, people are talking about the latest. I was in Toronto this summer, Toronto, Canada! I know it doesn’t seem like it, but it’s a different country! I was listening to a Canadian comedian speak to a Canadian crowd, and guess what he spoke about? Trump! You gotta be kidding me!

Couples, who typically do not care much for politics, have split over their political differences. The New York Times had a story about a wife who gave an ultimatum to her husband last summer, “If you vote for Trump, I will divorce you.” And no, this was not a joke.

It’s a sad day, it really is, when I know more couples who are intermarried than couples who disagree about politics.

Now let me be clear, passion is a wonderful thing; it means you believe in something deeply, and in many ways it’s an expression of your soul. The experience of passion is the most alive feeling known to man. It’s beautiful, it’s euphoric, and it’s just plain magical to lose yourself in something wherever your passion may lie; politics, sports, Game of Thrones, it doesn’t matter.   

What I wonder is how we can borrow some of that wild and intense passion that we have in this area or that, and apply it to our faith, and apply it to Judaism. Because let’s  be honest here, we could sometimes be a little lacking in passion when it comes to Judaism, and sometimes we can even be apathetic. How many times will we look at our watches this morning? How often will we get up to stretch our legs and see who’s hanging out in the hallway? And to contrast, how often do we look at our watch during a playoff game? We rather hook ourselves up to a catheter than miss a minute of our favorite TV show.

If there is no fire, there is nothing to pass on. They call it passing on the torch for a reason. A passionate Judaism, I believe, is the key to a Jewish future and a Jewish present.

So allow me to describe to you not how to develop passion, we’ll talk about that tomorrow. But today, let me describe to you what a passionate Judaism should and could look like:

One of the most well-known stories of the great sage, Rabbi Akiva, takes place in the last weeks of his life. The Romans had decreed that all Torah study was forbidden and punishable by death, and yet, Rabbi Akiva continued to teach Torah to his students. A Roman friend of Rabbi Akiva urged him to stop, “What are you doing rabbi? You’re risking your life!” To which Rabbi Akiva answered, “This is my life. You ask how I could learn Torah, I ask, how can I not?”

Now if we’re honest with ourselves, I think we would say that this story is difficult for us to understand. A day without Torah? A week without Torah? A year without Torah? Big deal! How could one be so obsessed with Torah study anyway? How could one genuinely feel that Torah study gives their life its sole sense of meaning?

And to answer that question, I need to apologize. Because if we could even ask that question that means that I, and all Jewish educators who have ever taught you, have not properly conveyed the powerful and passionate connection one can have to Torah study. I have tasted it but I obviously haven’t taught it. I have had the privilege of studying a page of Talmud so deeply that I have been moved to tears. There have been times, after finally understanding a difficult passage that I have held myself back from dancing. I have dreamt Torah. And yet, I have failed to convey its beauty, its depth, and its majesty.

And that’s too bad. Because without appreciating its profundity, by only studying Torah superficially, there’s no way in the world we can cultivate a passion for it. And so it’s our fault, your teachers and your rabbis for not exposing you to the beauty and the profundity of our heritage.   

But while I take some of the blame, some of the blame is on us all. If we wanted it, if we were looking for it, we would find it. It’s not found on Aish.com and it’s not even found in a sermon. The beauty, the true beauty of Torah is found by immersing ourselves in a genuinely Jewish idea, in a Torah text, thoroughly, deeply, passionately. “Ta’amu ure’u,” King David writes, “Taste it and you will see.” Like a good scotch or a fine cigar, it’s an acquired taste. And the only way to develop it is to bite in.

I commit myself this year to spending more time preparing my classes and I invite you to meet me in the middle. To try a class, and if the class or classes don’t speak to you, find a class somewhere else, there’s a lot of Torah being taught in Baltimore, or find a study partner – I’ll help you find one, or study by yourself. But study deeply, study passionately, develop a passion for Torah. It’s G-d’s gift to every Jew and please trust me when I say, it is a magnificent, enchanting gift worth being passionate about.

We need passion in Torah and we need passion, perhaps even more, in prayer. Natan Sharansky, the famous refusenik, who spent nine years in a Russian jail, would often tell people how he kept his spirits up in the darkest of times, thousands of miles from his wife Avital, in solitary confinement, and often without food. His source of strength? Tehillim/ Psalms.

He was allowed to have this one Jewish book, a book that encapsulates all the yearnings and desires of the Jewish People throughout the millennia. And he relates how every day, and at any time that despair would start to creep up on him, he would lovingly open this book, read from it, and connect to G-d.

What amazes me is that he was not a learned man;  he didn’t even know how to pray. Remember, he lived behind the Iron Curtain with virtually no Jewish education. And yet, his relationship with G-d was profound, it was deep, it was real.

You don’t need a Master’s in Judaism to have a relationship with G-d. You don’t need to know how to read Hebrew to communicate with Hashem. Knowing what page we’re on, knowing when to bow down and when to stand up, is not what makes prayer powerful. Passionate prayer is when we have a passionate relationship with G-d.

Nachman of Breslov, a great and holy 19th century rabbi known for his passion, recommends something called his’bodidus. It doesn’t translate well but what it means is to take time every day to speak to G-d in your own language; openly, honestly, and sincerely. And if you feel uncomfortable doing so or stuck, he suggests that we speak to G-d and ask Him to help you get unstuck, ask Him to help become more comfortable speaking to Him. Adon-i sefosai tiftach ufi yagid tehilosecha, open my mouth, G-d, so I can speak to you.

An let me tell you, this is tried, tested, and true. I can personally attest to the powerful effect of this exercise. You could do it in a few moments when we daven Shemoneh Esrei and you could do it on Sunday before you get out of bed in the morning and on Monday on your drive to work. Five minutes a day, two minutes a day, one minute a day! Carve out some time to develop a deep and meaningful connection with G-d. It is the stepping stone to a passionate Judaism.

That is the key, in my humble opinion, to a strong Jewish present and a strong Jewish future. And so back to the question of Jewish education: Passion and positivity can be learned at home. One does not need a school to teach these things and yet, I can only share with you my personal experiences. I love Judaism, I’m passionate about Judaism. I think you know that. And I wondered, as I sat down to collect my thoughts, where did I get that from?

Thank G-d, I have parents who are deeply committed to Judaism and had a realistic yet positive outlook towards the Jewish community. But I also had teachers who I adored, who lived and breathed the most positive, joyous lives that I had ever seen. Teachers whose faces would radiate in a way that I never saw anywhere else. Teachers who had a special serenity about them that I so deeply yearned for. Teachers who were brilliant who opened my eyes to a profound understanding of the Torah. Teachers who lived with G-d.

Passion is something that we as parents can teach and must teach our children at home, whether they go to a Jewish school or not, through modelling a passionate Jewish life of our own.

But my experience has been that positivity and passion is something that the men and women who have dedicated their lives to Judaism, the teachers in Jewish day schools, have an unequal share of. Personally, exposing my children ten months a year, five days a week, to those wonderful men and women, to those paragons of passion, is something I find difficult to put a price tag on.

 

Two weeks ago, I attended Talmudical Academy’s 100th year anniversary. Rav Aharon Feldman, the Rosh Yeshiva  of Ner Yisrael, was the first one to speak. He is in his mid-90’s and he has accomplished quite a lot in his life. He has written books, led fine institutions, and brought up a large and beautiful family. This is how he concluded his address: “I must confess, I don’t remember a word of what I learned while I was in TA. However, it was not a waste, because Torah is compared to a shirah, a song. I may have forgotten the words, but I will never forget the music.”

It’s a lot of money to pay for learning a song, I know. It could be done without a school, I truly believe that. And sometimes that is the best decision for one’s child. But if that song is a beautiful one, if that song is one that inspires my child to keep on learning and to keep on growing, then I’m willing to pay a premium for them to learn it.

Passion, positive passion, will ensure Jewish continuity, and it’s up to us, the bearers of that torch, to find the best place for ourselves and for our children, where that tune can be learned.  

 

I’d like to conclude with an old parable. It’s about a man whose job it was to warn pedestrians of oncoming trains. This was before the advent of electricity. The man would sit up high in a tower and when he saw a train coming he would light a lantern and shake it back and forth to warn the people down below not to cross the train tracks.

One night, tragedy struck. A young woman was crossing the train tracks and she was hit by an oncoming train.

The man was brought to court and was questioned mercilessly by the prosecutors. They asked him time and time again, what were you doing the night the woman was killed? Were you sleeping? Were you drunk? Were you distracted? And each time the man responded, “I was waving the lantern back and forth, back and forth. I was waving the lantern back and forth!”

After much deliberation, they decided to let him go. He was innocent, he waved the lantern after all.

However, the man was never the same again. He wasn’t sleeping, he wasn’t eating, and finally, his wife sat him down and said, “I know you must feel so much guilt, but honey, you aren’t guilty! You were waving the lantern! You were doing your job!”

The man, with a sad face, his eyes sunken in, slowly looked up and said, “Yes, I was waving the lantern. But the lantern was not lit.”

Judaism is not about going through the motions, it’s about being lit up, it’s about being on fire. We all know that magical feeling from other interest in our lives. Let’s bring that fire to our faith. Let’s make sure our torch is lit so we can pass it on to the next generation.

For this year to come, let’s commit ourselves to speaking about Judaism and its institutions, honestly, with an eye for constructive change, but let’s do so positively.

Let’s commit ourselves to developing passion, to tasting the depth of Torah, to understanding Rabbi Akiva’s love, to pursuing this goal, to diving in, to really seeing what it’s all about.

And let’s commit ourselves to spending some time talking to G-d. Don’t worry so much about the structure or the formalities. Our relationship with G-d, like all relationships, begins with communication; his’bodidus, real genuine communication.

May G-d bless us with the fuel we need for a year of vibrancy, a year of health, and a year lived with a fiery passion.       

Shana Tova!

 

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