By Rabbi Mordechai Burg
I vividly recall a conversation I had with a student many years ago. We were discussing the lack of passion in his Yiddishkeit. Like many of us, this person felt like he was going through the motions, but there was no real feeling driving his avodas Hashem. I remember this particular conversation because of a specific phrase the talmid used. “Yea, I wrap straps every day, but it doesn’t mean anything to me.” I had never heard anyone use that terminology before, and I have never heard it since. Wrap straps. There is something so soulless about that phrase.
I used to get frustrated with some of my Rabbeim. Especially those who would give us Mussar about sports. I understood that we spent too much time on it and that there were more important things we could do. What bothered me was the way they gave the Mussar. “Imagine ten people dressed up in pajamas who throw rocks into toilets that are hung ten feet in the air. Would you all clamor around to watch these rock-throwing toilet ball players?” Being the brazen kid in the class, I proudly answered, “Yes!” “In fact,” I continued, “if these were the best rock-throwing toilet ball players on earth, millions of people would watch them play. They would faithfully root for their favorite rock-throwing players and watch their toilet ball teams whenever they got the chance. They would pay hundreds of dollars to see them play in magnificent sold-out arenas, and they would develop fantasy leagues so that they could participate vicariously in their rock-throwing games.” The Rebbe looked at me incredulously and asked, “And you think that’s intelligent?” I responded, “In describing basketball the way you did, you are purposefully ignoring the game’s soul. Throwing balls through hoops is an admittedly arbitrary activity. But how could you ignore the competition which is the essence of the game? The sense of camaraderie built when you square off against another team together and have to completely rely on each other? The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, which is always that much sweeter when shared with others?”
To this day, I maintain that I was correct in that argument. Serving Hashem is infinitely more important than watching the Knicks lose (yes, they were losing even when I was young). We ought to have been using our time better, and the Rebbe could have made that point in many other ways. In my opinion, he missed a tremendous opportunity. Sports are a perfect analogy for seeing beyond the raw performance and understanding the value that lies beneath the actual (physical) activity. Throwing a ball through a hoop is meaningless on its own, but because it is an expression of competition, it speaks to a place deep inside us. Holding the hand of a loved one is not just skin touching skin. It is an expression of our affection for that person. Putting on a Mezuzah is not just hanging a parchment scroll on our doorway. Tefillin is not just wrapping straps.
I don’t blame this talmid for feeling like he was just wrapping straps. Noted psychologist Dr. David Pelcovitz said once, “Rules without relationship equals rebellion.” If a child feels like they have no real relationship with their parents, if they feel like all the parent does is tell them what they can and cannot do, then rebellion is sure to follow. And it is no different when it comes to Yiddishkeit. If a child, or quite frankly any person, feels like they don’t have a relationship with Hashem, if Judaism is just a set of do’s and don’ts, why would they be shomer Torah u’mitzvos?
Sadly, many today feel disconnected from Judaism. Those that leave the fold are but a fraction of the disenfranchised. They had the courage to leave. Others may stay for various reasons but are going through the motions at best. The soul desires to be deeply connected. One way or another, it demands satisfaction. In the vacuum of spirituality, we are driven to feel something, anything, even if it is a cheap counterfeit of what we truly desire. It is no surprise that we live in a generation where substance use disorders are so pervasive. Klal Yisrael is clamoring for more. What began with our youth demanding a Yiddishkeit that is more vibrant and alive has spread throughout our community. No longer are we willing to go through life disengaged from Hashem.
There isn’t a one size fits all solution to this problem. Different people will naturally be attracted to different aspects of Yiddishkeit. Some are excited by Daf Yomi, while others need a more in-depth approach to their learning. Some require a soulful kumzitz, and others need a powerful Mussar shmooze. Some find their place in the world of chesed while others in the world of tefillah. A mansion has many doors, ultimately leading to the same place. What follows is not the answer to this challenge; instead, I hope it will be a thread in the tapestry of available solutions. However, this particular approach speaks to the very soul of our problem.
In life, we often find ourselves wearing many different hats. As fathers and mothers, husbands and wives. We are children, brothers, and sisters. We have our professional life and our communal life. Even within ourselves, we are many different people. We can be kind, stern, compassionate, helpful, charitable, forgiving, etc. So who is the real you? Beneath the veneer of the roles we play in life, there is a soul, an Essence that defines our being. Our soul expresses itself in everything we do and how we show up. One of the big buzz phrases in today’s day and age is work-life balance. How can we juggle all of the various responsibilities we have? How can we financially support our family and be present for them simultaneously? How can we make time to rejuvenate in a life that keeps us so insanely busy? Life is harmonious to the degree that we are tapped into our souls. All of the various responsibilities are part of one movement. Life becomes broad, not contradictory. Conflicts will always exist, but when one recognizes a unified nature to all of these things, the battles become more manageable.
The Jewish Nation is no different. Every one of us is absolutely unique. We have varying personalities and a seemingly infinite amount of opinions. Yet, as our Sages have taught us, we are one body with one soul. Conflict may be inevitable with so many different opinions, but those who remember that we have a shared essence see the diversity of views not as a cacophony of voices but as a euphonious song. And just as we have a soul that unifies our different modalities, and as Klal Yisrael has a soul that unifies our varying personalities, the Torah has a soul that unifies it. What is the Torah? Is it a halachic sefer? A collection of stories about our forebears? A moral and ethical work? Of course, it is all these things and more, but at its core, the Torah is the will and wisdom of Hashem. Those who are consciously aware of the Essence of the Torah see the Torah as though it were their own soul. Its teachings are relevant in the
deepest of ways for studying Torah is the study of the self. It is our raison d’être. It brings harmony to a world of chaos. Without an awareness of the inner unifying force, the Torah may appear to be a set of disjointed rules and regulations. Tefillin is diminished to wrapping straps.
In the words of Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook (Oros HaTeshuva 4:10), “The insolence of the generation preceding Mashiach’s arrival stems from the fact that the world has been readied to the point that it demands the understanding of how all particularities are bound to the All. A part that is not bound to the expanse of the All will not be able to settle in one’s mind. If the world would occupy itself with the light of Torah in this manner, nurturing the soul until it can perceive the proper bond between the details with the spiritual rules, teshuva, and the fixing of the world which will follow, would appear and come to actualization… When the demand for this standard of living and understanding how each detail is bound to the All arises when the completion of a viable path towards this understanding has not yet come to be, this causes awesome destruction. We must utilize the lofty antidote: The strengthening of our spiritual capacities until the manner in which one may come to understand the enduring bond between all matters of Torah’s theological and practical elements with the most elevated All becomes simple to grasp….”
The awesome destruction that Rav Kook predicted is undoubtedly upon us. The negative impact of the spiritual vacuum is plain to see. Baruch Hashem, we have been blessed with tremendous abundance, and there is no doubt that we remain a community of unparalleled chesed. Yet, we have also become grossly obsessed with keeping up with the Schwartz’s. Many of us drive luxury cars, live in palatial homes, shop in kosher supermarkets that cater to our every whim, and dine out in the fanciest glatt kosher gourmet restaurants. A Shul Kiddush is more lavish than some of the weddings of yesteryear. But no matter how great the physical excess is, it cannot fill the God-sized hole in our lives. To quote the famous psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, “A spiritual problem requires a spiritual solution.”
Thankfully, we do have the ultimate spiritual solution. The “antidote” as Rav Kook called it. If we want to feel genuinely connected and for our children to be deeply engaged, we must study Torah’s disciplines that teach us how “all particularities are bound to the All.” It goes without saying that this should not come at the expense of the classic limudim of halacha and Gemara. Steak is delicious but rather bland when unsalted.On the other hand, salt on its own is gross. Learning sefarim like Derech Hashem, Tanya, Sfas Emes, Maharal, etc.… brings out the essence of all of Torah’s other dimensions. They are the salt that brings out the authentic flavor of the meat.
To quote Rav Kook again, “It is vital for the spiritual element of the Torah – in all its expansiveness, depth and reaches – to have a place in our Yeshivos… While it is impossible to grant these subjects as much time as we do to the study of halacha, Gemara etc… it is completely unviable, particularly in our generation… to prevent these subjects from occupying a respectable place.” (Oros HaTorah l’chizuk divrei Torah #5) In a conversation with a Rebbe who used to teach in high school and is now teaching hashkafa in a Yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael, the Rebbe said, “It is a breath of fresh air to openly teach the Torah I used to have to sneak in during Gemara.” Why is that? Why do our Rabbeim need to sneak in those sefarim and concepts that reveal the soul of the Torah? In contrast, Rav Netanel Lebowitz, a superstar Rebbe and someone I am privileged to call a friend, asked me rhetorically, “Why do we say ‘Abaya says’ and ‘Rava says’, but when quoting pesukim in the Torah we don’t say ‘Hashem says’?” His point was that if we want our talmidim to be passionate about Yiddishkeit, we need to give over to our talmidim not just the body but the soul of the Torah. The Yeshiva day is packed, but we would do well to ensure that we include all dimensions of Torah. Why is learning Gemara and Halacha considered more frum than learning the sefarim of the Ramchal, the Gra, the Maharal, or sifrei Chassidus? To put it plainly, it isn’t.
Tradition tells us that when a person slips into a coma, we can wake them by whispering their name in their ear. A person’s name reflects their essence, and the essence is never asleep. Calling out to their essence will surely rouse them from their slumber. Shlomo HaMelech sang (Shir HaShirim 5:2) אֲנִי יְׁשֵנָה וְלִּבִי עֵר, I am sleeping but my heart is awake. Perhaps our bodies have fallen asleep, and we are observing Yiddishkeit by rote, but our heart, our essence, remains awake. To awaken us from the doldrums of a monotonous Judaism, to inspire and ignite our passion for Yiddishkeit, we must once again become conscious of the soul of our holy Torah.
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