By Y. W.
Frum. It’s a word we all use, but what does it mean? Well, literally, it means “devout” or “pious” – from the German word “fromm”. But more important than what it means literally, what does it mean to us and, moreover, how important is it to us to be truly “frum“?
Let’s start with the basics. Judaism is a religion in which the ultimate goal is to reach moral and spiritual perfection and develop closeness to G-d. Although this requires tremendous work, and perfection is difficult, Judaism has been extraordinarily successful throughout the ages. If that is the case, why do we oftentimes hear about “frum” people behaving in ways that are morally repugnant?
The following paragraph is a succinct summary from “simpletoremmember.com” which addresses the issue of frum people doing improper things:
“Observant families are generally harmonious and close, kindness and charities proliferate, drugs, and alcoholism are miniscule. The overall standards of observant communities on the whole and the range of desirable social characteristics are the envy of the broader world. Nevertheless, people have freedom of choice, and otherwise observant people may choose to act inappropriately. The truth is that all people, observant or otherwise, do some things wrong at some times. The Talmud assures us that even the greatest spiritual giants transgress the “dust of speaking badly about one’s neighbor” at some time or another. We are on this earth just because we are imperfect; we are here to grow and improve.”
“This is not to justify the wrongs of anyone, and certainly not the wrongs done by religious people. I am merely pointing out that Orthodox people, like the rest of us, sometimes really mess up. Now Judaism definitely regards such behavior from an observant person as being much more morally repugnant. It goes so far as to call such behavior a Chilul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s name, for why would someone want to keep G-d’s Torah if those who claim to do so behave in a scurrilous fashion. In fact, a Jew who lies or cheats is no different from a Jew who eats pork or doesn’t pray – he is at best a partially committed observant Jew. And in one sense he is worse. For a Jew who eats pork only sins against G-d, whereas a Jew who lies or steals sins against man and G-d.”
That having been said, let’s try to understand the position of a non-frum, or almost non-frum, person who attributes his lack of observance to the improper acts of frum people? Though I am far from an authority on kiruv issues, I feel that there needs to be a basic understanding of this common approach and in what type of setting these seeds of confusion are sewn. By analyzing the root of the problem we will find it easier to address this doubting individual.
To this end, an important point must be addressed: What of the Jew who hears, repeats, and often even relishes a piece of news about a fellow Jew who has been enticed by the yetzer ha’rah and has slipped up? Has he, too, not sinned both against God and his fellow man? One whose mouth haphazardly spews whatever he has let in to his all-too-believing ears, is likewise sinning against his fellow Jew. So how do we avoid becoming people who ramble, (in our children’s presence no less!) about everyone else’s dirty laundry, if we are getting bombarded, via a myriad of technological gadgets, with every piece of trivial news – practically in real time? How can we expect for our children, or society as a whole, not to question the sincerity of holy Jews if we ourselves are constantly throwing them under the bus?
What must be contemplated is whether the “rambler”, as we’ll call him, possesses an even greater shortcoming than the sinner himself – one which is very hard, if not impossible to reverse.
The Rambler, who believes this toxic chatter and perpetuates the vicious cycle by repeating it to anyone willing to listen, is doing himself a great disservice by listening, and even more harm by believing and repeating the gossip. He has now made it a part of him, and with that he has done two terribly destructive things. For one, he has become, and made others, desensitized to whatever improper action or deed has now become the topic of his conversation with friends and family. And secondly, possibly even worse, he may begin to assume that if “frum” people can do something like steal or lie, then it’s just not worth being frum at all.
To arrive at this conclusion is a dreadful error. It is important to note that one who comes to this decision is rarely one who was a completely God fearing Jew prior to hearing this news and has now decided that the whole “Jewish thing” just isn’t for him. There is typically a root issue, or sometimes even erosion in the foundation of this individual’s avodas Hashem, and the news of “frum people” doing improper things becomes a convenient rationalization for his lack of observance. He is using every regrettable story about a Jew who has sinned as an excuse that slowly chips away at the iron-clad fortress of kedushas yisroel that should be the solid bedrock of every Jew’s yehadus.
Unfortunate is the person who allows his thoughts about the very people Chazal call “mamleches kohanim v’goy kadosh” to sour to the point that he begins to verbalize negativity about various sects of Jews – or yidishkeit as a whole. There’s no denying that a Jew sinning, in whatever area, causes a chillul Hashem, but publicizing, relishing, and then using the iniquities of others to feel better about one’s own weaknesses, is a more tragic chillul Hashem – one which is far more destructive.
There are so called “Jewish Publications” out there which thrive on publicizing and disseminating a negative stereotype about Torah observant Jews, one which couldn’t be farther from the truth. I suppose a readership eager for more slander about the “ultra-orthodox” and the Torah world won’t care much for articles honoring the hundreds of thousands of ehrlicha yidden who exemplify what it means to be an eved Hashem and a wholesome person. Orthodox communities the world over are brimming with men and women who are scrupulous in every facet of their life. Yes, they are as meticulous in their tax filing as they are in their search of a proper shiduch for their children. They examine their interactions with Jews and gentiles alike as carefully as they examine their lulav and esrog. But you won’t hear a word about them from the individuals and publications that are Hell-bent on feeling good about their replacement of traditional Jewish life with the one they’ve remodeled for themselves. Their abandonment of whatever halachos inconvenience them bothers their conscious less when they are able to find someone amongst the Torah world who makes mistakes.
As for the purported sinners, the best approach is to give them the benefit of the doubt, while knowing in our hearts and minds, that regardless of whether or not the sin was actually committed, it is the wrong thing to do. But as far as the observer is concerned, how detrimental it is to use the knowledge of someone else’s blunder as further rationalization for our own aveiros – ones which we have undoubtedly decided are “less bad”.
Only Hashem can ascertain the amount of punishment or reward one will receive for any given act he’s done, based on the thousands of factors and variables in his life. So how futile it is to use the growth or shortcomings of anyone else as a measuring stick for how well we’re doing.
One should feel bad for a person whose security in his avodas Hashem is on such an unstable footing that he relishes the opportunity to use the exposed sins of people, whom he perceives as being on a different level of observance than himself, as a frame of reference for his own level of frumkeit.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, every immature comment, (often posted by an equally immature person,) that finds its way into the poisonous world of the news, blogs, and social media, wrongly becomes our litmus test for how well we’re doing and how “frum” we are. Focusing on these blog commenters, or on the subjects of the articles they recklessly gab about, is certainly not an ideal strategy for working on one’s character. For instance: not checking one’s fruits and vegetables for bugs doesn’t become less of an issue because we read about someone who wears a long black coat and “side-curls” who committed grand larceny. A woman not covering her hair or dressing improperly isn’t less wrong because there is a Rebbetzin out there who does…whatever.
This seems to be a common trap. If we aren’t comfortable with our levels of ahavas and yiras Hashem, we assuage ourselves with the knowledge that there is someone else out there whom we can call a hypocrite. Although this may help stifle our feelings of insecurity, and help us pass positive judgment on our own shortcomings, it doesn’t and won’t do much to fool the Ultimate Judge.
A frum person is one who cares about what it says in Shulchan Aruch – because he cares about what his creator wants of him, (which the Shulchan Aruch does a very good job at explaining.) Period. Being frum doesn’t mean one never fails; being frum means that when he does fail it bothers him and he wants to change. When his yetzer ha’rah gets the better of him and his mistakes are pointed out to him, he is grateful that it has been brought to his attention and that he has been saved from a lifetime of repeating the same sin. As Nelson Mandela once said about himself “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying”. That approach – of sometimes falling, but always getting up – requires a tremendous amount of honesty – a brutal honesty many of us lack.
Another reason we easily fall in to the trap of busying our thoughts and speech with the shortcomings of others is as follows: We are inclined to think that as long as there are others who are failing, we’ll take advantage of the Heavenly bell-curve when Hashem collects the papers and marks all the tests. At the very least, we try to convince ourselves that, because our “grades” have dropped due to the less than perfect “class” we were placed in, He will likely average out all our “grades” and we’ll make by with a “passing mark.” In our limited understanding of Hashem’s ways, we tend to think that we are judged at the end of our lifetime in a manner similar to the way our high school teachers would grade our report cards. Science – 83, American History – 72, Math – 91 (or 68 in my case), and English 85…Your average: 83 – great! If only it were that easy on that crucial, final exam.
As we say on Rosh Hashanah: “aiyn shichichah lifnaiy kisaiy kivodechah” -“there is no forgetfulness before Your Throne of Glory”. There are no plea bargains with the Almighty! And undoubtedly, the most inadequate justification is “I did talk loshon hara pretty often, but at least I didn’t get caught doing the terrible things that the other guy did…”
Let’s face it; Hashem will hold each and every one of us accountable for every word of loshon hara, every insect eaten on an improperly washed piece of lettuce, and every missed minyan. Scary? For some. For others, the knowledge that the King of Kings watches us closer than we can fathom, is simultaneously comforting and demanding. It reminds us that our obligation is to know the minutia of halacha. We have survived the generations precisely because many of our grandparents fought with blood and tears to discern what a kizayis and a kli shlishi were, and had disgust rather than infatuation for anything but the d’var Hashem. They didn’t survive lowering themselves to the standards set by the spiritually weaker ones in their shtetle or by making compromises in their level of observance.
This remains the challenge of the Jewish people – the challenge of preserving and transmitting pure, unadulterated Judaism. This challenge demands that we adapt to the times with the greatest of caution. These struggles require us to be careful with what our eyes look at or how we cause others to look at us, notwithstanding whether or not those are tests others in our circle are passing. The people to whom it is important to pass every nisayon, regardless of whether or not others are passing those same tests, are the ones who live fulfilled lives. Being frum means preparing for and passing the tests that come our way, and not saying “no one else is studying for it, so I’ll fail with everyone else” Being frum means living a life looking inward at ourselves to strive for perfection as opposed to looking outward at others to justify our failings and flaws.
Our Father in heaven will calculate the schar va’onesh each of us will receive after our lifetimes with exactitude. We stand to gain delightful reward if we view ourselves and our brothers in only the best light, while keeping our standards high and maintaining the spiritual level expected of us – even when at times those around us make it difficult.
May Hashem grant us the maturity and strength to judge every Jew favorably. And if what we hear about others falls short of what our Torah Ha’kedoshah wants from them, let us use it as an impetus to further perfect ourselves and become truly frum Jews.