Monday, Jun 10, 2024

It’s About Us

What do people care about? What are people interested in? This question intrigues newspaper publishers, as well as rabbis, teachers and anyone who wants to reach out effectively to the public.

Oftentimes, communicators, teachers, rabbeim, rabbonim and fundraisers wonder if people still care about anything.

We’ve all read about the passion and determination of generations past, how people lived for their communities and gave freely of themselves for others. We read how teenagers spent every waking moment under Mike Tress’ direction at 616 Bedford Avenue, assembling packages for survivors in Displaced Persons camps after World war II, and how he dispatched armies of children with pushkas in their hands to go forth and collect pennies for Vaad Hatzalah.

The older generation rose up to the daunting challenge of rebuilding a nation that had nearly been decimated. Intrepid souls rallied to rejuvenate survivors, helping them acclimate, finding them jobs, getting their children enrolled in schools, and building a communal infrastructure. Fueled by necessity, they banded together, pooled resources and rebuilt everything from scratch.

We tell the tales of the heroes of that time and we wonder about our time. Do we see people banding together for causes with all their energy, ability and passion? Passion is the key word; it seems as if today it is sorely lacking. We do what we have to, but we do it without passion.

We don’t get excited about anything anymore.

We are blessed with schools boasting beautiful buildings and excellent rabbeim and teachers. Do we get involved with the schools and appreciate what they have been doing for us?

Effective communal organizations have arisen in cities across the country, but there seems to be a lack of passion. Do people truly appreciate the changes these endeavors have brought?

We seem to be afflicted by a bout of apathy.

It wouldn’t be cynical to say that there was a time when people cared about each other, about their communities, and about communal organizations, bikur cholims, schools and the like. People cared about the news. They sat glued to their radios to hear the latest news on the hour. They read newspapers for the news and cared about what was going on around the world.

They cared about people who had stepped out of line. They got worked up about issues. They cared about kiruv and followed the latest news about Soviet Jewry. They were consumed by the goings-on in Eretz Yisroel.

Those who study generations and psychology say that our generation is plagued by self-importance, narcissism, and getting quick and instants highs. Apparently, not enough people in our generation get excited from a gorgeous esrog, a 50-year-old putting on tefillin for the first time, or a five-year-old kid rescued from public school saying Shema day after day.

In the wider world, meaningful dialogue has been replaced by short, soulless tweets or one-liners. Everything is so superficial and farcical.

We try so hard to get people interested in each other, in good causes, in Torah, in the world, in things that should concern them. And too often, we fail and say that the generation is doomed. They don’t care about anything but their toys, phones, cars and wines.

That was until the Cleveland team won the basketball championship last week. People were jumping up and down with glee and happiness. They really cared. They were really happy. The joy was palpable, as people across the country sent each other clips and quotes and updates.

Apparently, there are still things people care about.

Our generation is not totally unabsorbed. There are things that really grab them.

Different things.

Suddenly, with that basketball victory, we saw it all on display – raw emotion, passion, heart, exuberance and zeal. People of all ages – especially those with connections to C-Town – threw their heads back and shouted, cried and hugged. They came alive like inflatable dolls suddenly filled with air.

What happened?

More relevantly, what does it mean for us?

There is a pulse after all, so why aren’t we seeing it more often?

What does that team and its star player have that we don’t?

We have battles in our world as well. We have heroes, leaders and champions, yet people remain apathetic about them. Look around. Scores of Jews are leaving France, traveling to Israel to escape raging anti-Semitism, and no one seems to care. A generation ago, the plight of Russian Jewry consumed our community, as people wondered who would teach them, who would support them, and whom they would marry. People worried that they would leave Russia only to become lost here, and they rallied to be there for them.

Yet, here we are, a quarter century later, and very few are wondering about what will happen to the French children arriving in Eretz Yisroel. How many people know what is going on in Europe? And how many truly care? When was the last time you heard anyone talk excitedly about Be’er Hagolah or Sinai Academy, the two foremost schools in the United States catering to children of Soviet immigrants?

How many people care about Lev L’Achim, Shuvu and other Israeli kiruv groups? And how many care about Oorah, other than to laugh along with Fiveish?

Do our children know the names of people like Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Grossman and where he lives? Do we tell them about heroes like Rabbi Tzvi Schwartz of Rechovot and what he does every day?

Do they know about the revolutionaries in our midst changing stale mindsets about all sorts of topics and turning people on to Torah? Do they know of the heroes who run Tomchei Shabbos programs to feed hardworking people with honor? Do they appreciate the people who support so many of the community mainstays with little or no fanfare?

How about those who provide a warm shoulder to cry on when there is none, or friendship in a lonely world? Why all the negativity all the time? Why do so many people never look around to see the good in our world?

They know how many points a 6′8″ once-in-a-generation athlete scored in a game. Do they know which cities have communal kollelim or day schools? How many Jewish kids are in Catholic schools and how many are in Jewish religious schools? How many kids are waiting for someone to come along and reach out to them?

What happened to the passion for kiruv?

Do we even care anymore about the millions of Jews being lost to our people forever? Or do we just say, “Oh, look, there used to be a Reform temple here and now it’s gone,” as if that’s good news? It’s not. The temple is gone, replaced by a school, shul, nursing home or yeshiva because its members are gone, not because they changed for the better. They have departed from Yiddishkeit altogether and are even more lost and unreachable.

We wring our hands helplessly and say, “What do you want from us? It’s not our fault. There is so much going on and we can’t possibly keep up with everything. We are bombarded by news and causes and updates on a minute-by-minute basis. It’s hard to get too involved with anything before the next email, text message or WhatsApp rolls in. What can we do? We have to pay tuitions and mortgages, and keep up with the rat race. Life isn’t as simple as it used to be in the pre-iPhone days.”

That is certainly true. But when something that we care about, something that touches our soul, happens, we get all into it. Sports may be a bad example, but it shows that it is possible to get people to care, focus and remain engaged. It shows that passion is not dead. People do care about something; they can still get excited about things outside of themselves.

Would it be sacrilegious to say that following a great ball player in action can provide a rush that a magnificent esrog does not? That a sports team’s victory is more meaningful than a 50-year-old putting on tefillin for the first time and a greater thrill than rescuing a five-year-old child from public school?

If so, why? And what can we do about it?

In this week’s parsha of Shelach, we read how the meraglim returned from scouting out the Promised Land and turned the people against Moshe, Hashem and the Land of Israel. Knowing the people’s weaknesses, they played down the bounty and blessings of the land.

During their mission, as in life, they saw things transpiring that could be viewed as positive and negative. Invariably, they chose the negative interpretation each time. The fruit is too big. The people are too strong. Nothing is good. Hashem promised this place to us and our forefathers. Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov lived there and saw the eternal blessings of the place, but that was of no consequence to the meraglim.

“Efes, ki az ha’am. Eretz ocheles yoshveha hee,” they said. We’ll never make it; forget about it. Let’s find some better place to move to. Let’s dump Moshe and start over.

What caused them to be so mistaken? How could they veer so far from the pasture of goodness?

One hint is the posuk that says, “Vanehi be’eineinu kachagavim vechein hayinu be’eineihem.” They viewed us as small grasshoppers (Bamidbar 13:33).

They were concerned about how others looked at them. Insecure in their beliefs, they sought to find favor in the eyes of the Canaanites. They imagined that they were viewed as pygmy interlopers.

This is the age-old Jewish mistake of looking to those outside of our community, seeking their praise and adulation. Instead of recognizing our position in this world and seeking to find favor in the eyes of our fellow Jews, helping them, supporting them, and doing what is proper in the eyes of Hashem, we invariably seek to blend in and earn accolades. If a frum paper writes about us, we aren’t impressed, but a mention in a goyishe paper and the whole family and neighborhood breaks out in a burst of ethnic pride.

The insecurity of the meraglim caused them to be unhappy, resulting in their negativity about something as blessed as Eretz Yisroel, the mekor of our belief and the place so integral to Torah, our way of life and our history. And they were able to convince the people that Eretz Yisroel is just a farce.

Their insecurity was brought on by a lack of enthusiasm for the word of Hashem. It caused them to view themselves through the prism of the locals, and brought on a fear that if the nation would enter the land, they would be supplanted and lose their leadership positions. Their own selfish, petty, subconscious thoughts set in motion contrived conspirational thinking, setting back our people, keeping us in the desert for forty years, sending us into golus and evoking the anger of Hashem.

The people were easily convinced by the meraglim because they also shared apathy toward the words of Hashem and Moshe. Their careers weren’t in jeopardy; they didn’t see the Canaanites to fear them. All their physical and spiritual needs were provided by Hashem as they traveled in the midbar. There was no excuse for them to fall for the lies propagated by the meraglim. They should have recognized the truth in the arguments of Kalev and Yehoshua.

Their apathy and lack of excitement caused them to be led astray by what they should have known was fiction.

At a gathering of rabbonim from across the pale of Jewish settlement, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik became upset with something one of the rabbis said. The person who was sitting next to Rav Chaim remarked, “What do you want from him? He’s nebach not smart.” Rav Chaim answered, “When it comes to zeiner zachen, his things, he’s smart. Apparently, Torah iz nit zeiner ah zach, Torah is not one of his things. That is why I am upset at him. Torah darf zein unzere zach. Torah must be our thing.”

If the Jews were able to be swayed by the meraglim, it was because Eretz Yisroel iz nit geven zei’ir ah zach. They weren’t sufficiently tied to the land and excited about it. The thought of walking in the footsteps of Avrohom Avinu didn’t excite them, so they lost it.

We need to be excited about mitzvos. We need to feel connected to Torah. We need to appreciate the many blessings we have and not take them for granted. Torah must be our thing, as must mitzvos and maasim tovim. We have it so much better than previous generations that we lose appreciation for the freedoms we are granted and the ease with which we can practice our religion.

But that shouldn’t lead to apathy. We must be alert for opportunities to do good and be thankful for everything we have. We should get excited when we learn a Mishnah, a halacha or a Gemara. We should appreciate the value of learning even one posuk and performing even one mitzvah, strengthening us and the world.

Mitzvos are about us. Torah is about us. Simcha is about us. They expand and elevate our lives, giving us reasons to live and be productive. They aren’t simply restricting rules, but methods to make us bigger and better people. And who doesn’t want that?

Lebron, a star basketball player returned home to Cleveland, promising that he would win the big prize for them. He said that they know what it means to work hard and that he would sweat for them. His toil for victory would reflect what they were doing in factories. It would reflect the worker standing in the hot kitchen of a diner and the mechanic sliding under a car to make repairs. He was them and they were him.

His battle was their battle and his triumph was theirs.

So they cared deeply. It was about them.

The allure of sports is that it allows people to attach themselves to something bigger than themselves and dream of heroics and victories. They feel one with their team and heroes, and when the team wins, they win. Everyone wins. When there is not much going on in your life, that appeal is overwhelming. No one is apathetic about their team. No one is unexcited when their hero brings home the medal.

Torah is our team. Torah is our goal. Torah is what we are all about.

A young bochur in one of the great yeshivos received a dreaded draft notice. He was called away from his Gemara for life on the Polish front. Someone suggested that he ask Rav Chaim Soloveitchik for help, so the young man traveled to Warsaw, where Rav Chaim was staying at the time.

He arrived and made his way to Rav Chaim’s lodgings, only to hear that Rav Chaim was in the middle of meeting a large group of rabbonim, roshei yeshiva and askonim, discussing issues of importance to Klal Yisroel. The anteroom was filled with attendants and gabboim of the illustrious personages, but the bochur pushed head.

The prospect of spending years in the army, eating vegetables for sustenance in the company of coarse soldiers, was a lot more unpleasant than having to fight for a moment of Rav Chaim’s time.

An attendant informed him that there was no way he would be allowed entry to the room, but the bochur insisted that this was pikuach nefesh. The attendant was adamant; no one was to disturb the meeting. The argument grew louder. The noise reached the great men in the room and, finally, Rav Chaim appeared in the doorway. With a glance, he took in the situation. He excused himself from his distinguished colleagues and sat down with the bochur in a corner of the room, listening closely and promising to help.

When the conversation concluded, Rav Chaim returned to the distinguished group he had kept waiting and apologized, offering a succinct explanation. “Everything that we discuss, deliberate and decide here is for Klal Yisroel. Rabbosai, that yeshiva bochur, who wants an exemption from the army so that he can return to his Gemara…he is Klal Yisroel!”

Are we always cognizant of the fact that every one of our children is Klal Yisroel – that we are Klal Yisroel? Do we treat every Jew as if he is a member of our team? Do we understand that we belong to each other, that we are here to help each other and bring the championship to our team?

When a fan goes to a game, he dresses up in the team uniform and projects himself on the field. After all, it’s his team. When the team wins, he celebrates and lingers in the stadium. But when the game gets off to a bad start, with the pitcher giving up home runs to the other team, the fan can simply leave his seat, return to his car and go home. For sports fans, as wrapped up as they can be in the game, they are spectators, not players. They come and go as they please; they are not forced to sweat out the game on the field.

In life, and especially in leading a Torah life, we are not merely spectators. We are all players. We are in the action and able to make a difference. If we try hard, we can help our team win. But if we are apathetic and unexcited, we cannot contribute to the team. We are then losers.

Summer is here. School is out. Country, here we come. Camps are filled with smiling children.

Now is a perfect opportunity to get children excited about our club. We do that by speaking with them on their level, talking to them in a way they can understand and relate to, connecting with them and letting them know who they are and what we are all about. Speak to them in a language they comprehend. Relate to them. Explain things to them in a way that excites them. Don’t force-feed them and scare them into following. Make it come alive with joy and optimism.

And it’s not just children. It’s adults too.

A generation of parents was forced to part from beloved children in concentration camps or under a hail of bullets. Always, their parting message was the same. “Gedenkt. Remember that you are a Jew.”

Nothing else was important at that moment. You’re on a team; make sure you connect and belong.

We’re fortunate to raise our children in safety, boruch Hashem. Is that a reason for them to lose out? We can do it. It starts with speaking to ourselves. When we feel it, they will too.

Let them know that it’s about them.

Spread the word. It’s about us. It’s our thing. It’s our team.

Let’s get excited.

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