By Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss
As we begin the Jewish year of 5775, all of us want to get off to a good start. I’d like to discuss here an area of life we can enhance that will impact upon many of our daily activities. Every generation has its challenge. In the olden days we battled against the lure of idolatry. In other generations, we had to fight just to survive as Jews whether it was with the Syrian-Greeks who tried to Hellenize us, the Hamans and Hitlers who desired our obliteration, the Ferdinands and Isabellas who expelled us, or the Torquemadas who tortured us. It was a full-time job just to keep our Jewish heads above water. Yet, during other periods of our checkered history, we had to learn how to exist under situations of dire poverty. Thankfully, the American Jew, living with religious freedom and relative affluence, does not have these severe and monumental challenges.
But with our prosperity comes other great tests. I believe that one of today’s great challenges is that we are living with a tremendous amount of superficiality. People spend hours in shul with their prayer books open saying words that they don’t understand, shuckling without giving G-d even a fleeting notice. They listen to the Torah reading but it’s like background music while their minds wander to thoughts of the Shabbos cholent and the weekly Shabbos siesta to follow.
Admittedly, this is not a new problem. Almost a thousand years ago, the Rosh, Zt”l, Zy”a, wrote in his great work, Orchos Chaim, that we have to ask forgiveness for saying without concentration ‘S’lach lonu, forgive us’ in Shemone Esrei. So too, on Yom Kippur, we said “Al cheit shechotonu lifonecha b’vidui peh – For the sin that we sinned before You while confessing.” How sad! We confess to not paying attention while confessing. In general, this lack of depth while we put on our tefilin, pass a mezuzah, or eat Shabbos cholent, is a severe deficiency in our religiosity. For we are taught, “Rachmona libao bau’ie – Hashem wants from us our heart,” the feeling and passion we put into our Yiddishkeit is the very core of successful religious observance.
While it is true that the prophet Yishaya already decried this type of mitzvah performance as mitzvas anoshim milimuda, religiosity by rote, I believe our generation suffers more acutely from this malady for we are perfectly happy to thrive on the superficial. Weekly, people spend scores of hours watching television and movies that do not represent the true identities and feelings of anything that they are watching. People pursue the American pursuit of clothing, furnishings, and name brand cars, spending much of their lives in pursuit of that which is mostly surface pleasure. Myriads of divorces and unhappy homes scatter the American terrain because people made the most important decision of their life, namely who to marry, based on skin deep factors. The lack of modesty that plagues the world is due to the premium that we place on the external. In this way, our generation has much in common with those who were addicted to idolatry for, there too, they worshiped idols that had eyes but could not see, ears that could not hear, and nostrils that could not smell.
If we are to introduce greater feeling into our Torah observance we must first be cognizant of the fact that we live in a place and time where many people are satisfied with pure superficiality. Sadly, this is a type of frightening spiritual Alzheimer’s, where the inside is almost wholly bereft of religious fervor. It is interesting to note that the word panim, which means face, shares the same letters as the word p’nim, which means interior, for the true Yiddishe panim is only where there is an active interior that is in sync with the exterior.
The Netziv, Zt”l, Zy”a, explains why man is called Adam. He says it alludes to the aim of adomeh l’elyon, to be like the Almight-y. Hashem has no corporeal form, He is all Thought. So too, we aspire to be creatures of depth. In that way, one can become a true mentch.
All over the globe, shuls are plagued with the constant problem of people talking during davening. Much effort is expended to educate the congregants on what a terrible sin it is to talk during prayer and the terrible punishment that can happen for such criminal behavior. While all this is undoubtedly true, there wouldn’t be talking in shul if people were trained to get into their davening. We don’t have to chastise people about talking during a riveting movie or a nail biting ninth inning. It’s only when prayer is wholly superficial that we have such a problem.
I’d like to suggest another important point. Many people are suffering from dull and lackluster living. They simply are not excited about their lives. It’s because so much of their core activities are being done by habit. In a very real way, rote is rotten. If one is just doing something because he or she has to, then their mitzv a observane is obviously not a ‘turn on’ and even worst they often fail at passing it on to the next generation. For, as we say in Krias Shema, “V’hoyu hadevorim ha’eila, asher Anochi mitzavecha hayom al levovecha, v’shinantom livonecha – If these words are upon your heart, only then will you succeed in teaching them to your children!”
The difference between a functioning marriage and a loving marriage often lies in the effort in putting feeling into the habitual daily procedures of a marriage. Bear in mind the Talmudic adage, “Devorim hayotzin min haleiv nichnosin l’leiv – Things that emanate from the heart pierce the heart.” A romance of heart demands the effort to be heartfelt.
So, here are some suggestions to up the ante in the passion department. For the next few Shabbosim, read the zimiros instead of singing them. You can’t read without thinking and then you’ll learn what you’re singing about. Think ahead about what you want to say to Hashem in your daily prayers and then look where you can insert it. You have a friend who is sick, insert this into Refa’einu; a fight with your spouse, Sim Shalom becomes urgent; if the heating in the car is really helpful, think about this in ‘she’oso li kol tzarki.’ Prepare before every prayer what you want to thank hashem for when you say modim.
Here’s another idea to beat the spiritual doldrums. Give tzedaka regularly. No one parts with their money without feeling; it hurts too much. Look to do extra things that are not already dulled by habit such as taking your shoes for a polish to the shoemaker before Shabbos, or going to the shelf and taking out a Tehillim to say an extra curricular prayer for a child with cancer, or a member of the IDF who is in danger. Finally, think of something authentic and warm to tell your spouse such as ‘I admire this about you,’ ‘I’m so lucky to have you,’ ‘You’re full of pleasant surprises,’ ‘Our children are a reflection of the goodness in you,’ and so forth. Small compliments and heartfelt wishes go a long way in preserving the magic of a solid marriage.
Sheldon Zeitlin transcribes Rabbi Weiss’ articles.
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