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Judaism Is Meant To Be An Experience

By Rabbi Mordechai Burg

I remember one time in high school when I was sitting in davening and one of my Rabbeim came over to me with a Shulchan Aruch and motioned for me to join him in learning a particular halacha. I had been talking during davening and the Rebbe wanted to show me inside that it was asur to speak at that point in davening. I looked up at the Rebbe and said, “The problem is that you think showing me the halacha inside is going to inspire me to stop talking during davening. The problem is that I don’t care what it says in Shulchan Aruch.” The Rebbe was well intentioned and I was a chutzpadik high school teenager. I often think about that experience with a mixed range of emotions. I am deeply embarrassed by the way that I spoke to that Rebbe. He was doing his best to give me mussar in the best way he knew how. The Rebbe was a fairly gentle person who clearly did not love confrontation. As the Rebbe who was tasked with watching our group during davening he had a responsibility to maintain appropriate decorum. We did not make it easy. If I could go back in time I would handle that situation very differently. And yet, the words I spoke that day were true. If I am being honest, davening meant very little to me. It was an exercise in boredom. Sitting through davening three times a day, saying the same words day in and day out, words that had no meaning to me, was to say the least, painful. Especially for a hyperactive kid. Teaching me the halachos of talking during davening was never going to be a successful method of correcting my behavior. And so the question becomes, what can we do to inspire our youth?

It goes without saying that learning Torah is mission critical. Our children (and adults) should know the halachos regarding talking during davening and much more. And yet, asking our children to be inspired by learning alone is like asking them if the food is delicious when they have only seen the menu. Dovid HaMelech sang in Tehillim (34:9) טַֽעֲמ֣וּ וּ֖רְאוּ כִּי־ט֣וֹב יְהֹוָ֑ה, taste and see that Hashem is good. For us to successfully transmit Yiddishkeit to the next generation it must be something they can experience. They have to taste it for themselves and see that having a relationship with Hashem is good. Dovid HaMelech assures us that Hashem is good. To fall in love with Yiddishkeit one need only taste it.

It follows then that our responsibility and opportunity is not only to teach but to create meaningful experiences for our children. Experiences that not only generate excitement but that truly inspire. To clarify, there is a fundamental difference between excitement and inspiration. The world says inspiration doesn’t last but I believe that is a serious mistake. Excitement doesn’t last. Inspiration lasts a lifetime. It is important that we don’t conflate these terms. The excitement generated by a beautiful kumzitz, a warm Shabbos table with stunning zemiros and meaningful divrei Torah, a lively Melava Malka etc.. may only last a short while but the inspiration of those moments becomes deeply embedded inside of us. We call on that inspiration as we develop our core values and as we make important decisions throughout our lives. How many times have I heard from talmidim that the Shabbos they spent by their Rebbe was one of best Shabbosos of their lives. How this is the type of Shabbos table they want to have. The type of relationship they want to have with their children. The feeling that they want to permeate their own home. Perhaps the excitement of those Shabbosos fades over time but the inspiration certainly lasts a lifetime. I have often encountered talmidim years later who still reflect on those Shabbosos as some of the most meaningful of their lives.  

I remember well a Shabbos that I spent with a friend and mentor deep in the heart of Meah Shearim. After davening in Karlin Stolon we were set up to eat the Friday night seuda in the home of an English speaking Chassid. The apartment was significantly smaller than any I had previously encountered and with a family significantly larger than I was accustomed to seeing. In the middle of Shalom Aleichem there was a knock on the door and another young man joined us for the seuda. There is no graceful way to say this, but the food was dreadful. Because I felt like they had sacrificed so much to have us over I forced myself to eat. It was not a simple task. When dessert was served, it was only for the guests. Dessert was a luxury they did not and likely could not afford for themselves. But the seuda was incredible. They sang zemiros which I was unfamiliar with and gave over Divrei Torah I did not understand. And yet there was something magical at the table. The children were shining. The wife was beaming as her husband said the Dvar Torah. There was a simplicity that I fell in love with. Shabbos was majestic. No amount of shiurim could ever teach me what I learned that Shabbos. When we left the apartment the guest who had arrived during Shalom Aleichem asked us how we ended came to be here for Shabbos. We explained that we had been set up by one of the Gabbaim in Karlin Stolin. We asked him how he came to be at the sedua. He had gotten lost and knocked on a random door to get directions. Before he could get a word out of his mouth the host had pulled him in and he was sitting at the table. I was stunned. People who had so little and yet all they wanted was to share what they had. The excitement of that Shabbos has certainly faded but the inspiration never has. I cannot tell you that I think about the Shabbos often but it lives somewhere inside of me and in ways I do not understand it informs the choices I make for my own family.    

I do not mean to suggest that education is not important. It absolutely is. And again, to be successful, even our education ought to be an inspiring experience. Rav Yosef Hirschel, a very successful Rebbe in our Yeshiva always says, “It’s all about the matzav.” Our Torah is Toras Chaim, a leibidike Torah. Are we merely conveying information or are we transmitting a living, breathing entity, one that cuts to the very core of our existence? The difference is not necessarily expressed in the dynamism of the teacher, it is often seen in terms of the way the Rebbe or Morah relates to the Torah they are teaching.

Consider how Rav Soloveitchik zt”l spoke about the way Torah should be taught and studied. “I have been a Rosh Yeshiva, a teacher of Talmud all my life, at least the major part of my adult life. I have taught many, many people – I don’t know how many, but many people – and when I do teach, time comes to a stop for me. I don’t look at the timepiece, the clock, or at my wristwatch. I just teach. It is a very, I don’t know, for me teaching has a tremendous, a very strange impact upon me. I simply feel when I do teach Torah, I feel the breath of eternity on my face. When I do teach, I feel rejuvenated, and as if I were twenty-five or thirty years old. If not for the study and teaching of Torah, I would have lost my sanity in the year of triple aveilus in ’67 (the Rav lost his mother, wife and brother in one year)…  I felt somehow, because of teaching Torah, that I was not alone, that I had somebody, that somebody was invisible but I felt His presence, to confide, there was somebody on whose shoulder I could cry, and there was somebody from whom I could almost demand words of solace and comfort…The study of Torah has had such a great cathartic impact upon me, as you understand it, is rooted in the wondrous experience I always have when I open up the Gemara. Somehow, when I do open up the Gemara, either alone or when I am in company, and I do teach others, I have the impression… as if I heard, I would say, soft footsteps of somebody invisible, who comes in and sits down with me, sometimes looking over my shoulder. It is simply, the idea is not a mystical idea, it is the Gemara, the mishna in Avos, the Gemara in Berachos say, אפילו אחד יושב ועוסק בתורה שכינה שרויה] and we all believe that the nosein haTorah, the One who gave us the Torah, has never deserted the Torah, and He simply walks, He accompanies the Torah, wherever the Torah has a, let’s say, a rendezvous, an appointment, a date with somebody, He is there. Therefore, the study of Torah has never been for me a dry formal intellectual performance act, no matter how important a role the intellect plays in limud haTorah. You know very well that I place very much a great deal of emphasis upon the intellectual understanding and analysis of the halacha… there is no doubt that the intellect plays a tremendous role in limud haTorah. However, talmud Torah is more than intellectual performance. It is a total, all-encompassing and all-embracing involvement – mind and heart, will and feeling, the very center of the human personality… Talmud Torah is basically, for me, an ecstatic experience, in which one meets God.

Our talmidim and talmidos can see right through us. Teenagers especially are walking truth detectors. They know exactly how we feel about the material we are teaching and the life we are living. To be successful, the teacher of Torah must make the classroom and the material a place where there is an encounter with Hashem. They should see in us the same passion and enthusiasm that Rav Soloveitchik zt”l expressed. And if we aren’t on that level all the time, that’s ok too. There is nothing wrong with sharing our humanity with our talmidim. We can be honest that we too struggle in our Yiddishkeit and that it is part of the process. It will normalize their own struggles and  at the same time they will see our ambitions.

What will our talmidim and talmidos take with them? We can spend hours preparing a shiur, developing a particular chiddush, and giving it over but most, if not all, of the Torah we have taught them will be forgotten. What they will remember is the experience. The kindness and compassion that we showed them. The warm smile. A friendly greeting. The interest we showed in their lives. And hopefully, that our shiurim were not just a boring place where they were forced to memorize information to pass a test but a place where they tasted for themselves the beauty of Yiddishkeit and it tasted good.  

Internationally renowned speaker, educator, and author Rav Mordechai Burg is the Menahel of Mevaseret, Mashpia of NCSY Summer, Mashpia of Nitzotzos, author of Nitzotzos on Chumash and a senior Rebbe at Tomer Devorah and Bnot Torah Institute. His shiurim can be found on Nitzotzos.com

Rav Mordechai Burg

Internationally renowned speaker, educator, and author Rav Mordechai Burg is the Menahel of Mevaseret, Mashpia of NCSY Summer, Mashpia of Nitzotzos, author of Nitzotzos on Chumash and a senior Rebbe at Tomer Devorah and Bnot Torah Institute. His shiurim can be found on Nitzotzos.com

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