Thursday, May 23, 2024

Out With The Old By Breaking The Mold

It is a famous line of the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitlebaum, but it is dear to me because I heard it from him myself one summer in Sharon Springs, New York. The Torah (Devorim 11:12) speaks of the special Hashgocha Protis accorded to Eretz Yisroel. “The eyes of Hashem…are always upon it from the beginning of the year to the year’s end.” At first, the posuk refers to hashanah (the year) and then to shanah (year). The rebbe explained that every year at this time, we promise ourselves that this will be the year that we will…change, improve, become… However, when we look back honestly, we recognize that it was just another year. What can we do to alter this terrible pattern and spiritual rut?

The path to an answer may be an amazing Rashi. The novi (Yeshayah 33:13) exhorts Klal Yisroel, “Hear O rechokim (faraway people)…and you kerovim (who are close by), recognize My might.” Rashi surprisingly interprets the rechokim as “those who believe in Me and have done My will from their youth.” He then explains kerovim to mean “Baalei teshuvah who have recently become close to Me.” Now Rashi seems to have turned everything upside down. We usually refer to those who are “frum from birth” as kerovim and newcomers to the fold as rechokim. Why does Rashi deviate so sharply from our common definitions?

Rav Shimshon Pincus answers that those who have grown up with all the norms of a religious home are often jaded. There is little excitement or freshness in every mitzvah or religious insight. On the other hand, for the newly minted baal teshuvah, each new mitzvah and understanding is something to cherish and embrace with joy and gratitude.

Why, indeed, is this the situation, and why are we seeing such losses in many of our most wonderful groups and chevros? To be sure, there are even formal organizations today that prey upon our most precious but vulnerable teenagers, purposely luring them away from their roots. But that doesn’t answer why they are so fragile in the first place.

Rav Pincus offers us an enlightening answer based upon the teachings of the Alter of Kelm, Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv. He raises the issue (Chochmah Umussar 1:83) as to why things that we learned in the earliest grades — such as belief in Hashem, the exodus from Egypt, Krias Yam Suf, etc. – do not arouse our amazement and fascination. He answers his own query by pointing out that when we learned something when we were five or six years old, we rarely grow in our understanding of that event or circumstance. For instance, if we learned Bereishis when we were five, then when we hear about it again when we are ten, our inclination is to think, “I heard that already,” and not bother to listen once more.

Rav Pincus suggests an amazing thought experiment. “Imagine,” he challenges us, “if someone 150 years ago was a bit of a futurist. He has the ability to picture how things will develop decades ahead. He therefore regales everyone around him with a picture of paradise in the 20th century. He depicts a time when no one will have to drag clothing to the river to be laboriously laundered. If you want water, you won’t have to carry it from the well, which may be far away. Even if you want hot water, you will simply push a different lever or button. To cook supper, you won’t require firewood. You will simply turn a knob, put the pot on the fire, and supper will soon be ready.

All this prognosticator’s listeners will be sitting with their mouths open, hoping dearly that they will indeed live long enough to enjoy the Gan Eden looming ahead. So why aren’t we also so excited?

The answer is sadly obvious. It is because for us, it is no longer news or even surprising. That is why Rashi states that those who were rechokim yesterday are in better shape than those who were kerovim from birth. Here, too, the novi Yeshaya is our guide. He laments, “Their fear of Me is like rote learning of human commands” (29:13). Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim, delivered and published several sichos mussar on this very subject, calling it the scourge of hergel. At the very least, the words of Yeshaya, the Alter of Kelm and Rav Chaim ought to immediately disabuse all of us who grew up frum of any feelings of superiority we may still have over our newly religious brethren. If anything, our job today is to borrow and make our very own their zeal and sense of discovery upon each new mitzvah, minhag and piece of Torah they encounter.

Rav Pincus closes his essay with the thought that the mazel of Elul is besulah, a young maiden, because our goal for the month and indeed new year is to rediscover our inner child with the wonder and passion that come to him every day and perhaps even every hour.

All wonderful sentiments, but what do we do with them and about them?

Not every solution works for every individual, let alone every tzibbur. However, let me share a bit. I have been a shul rov, boruch Hashem, for over four decades, and rarely do anything just because it is a fad or in vogue. However, ours is a generation that thrives upon songs, music and emotional experiences even when Klal Yisroel didn’t always do them at certain times. For the past few years, we have instituted a pre-Selichos kumzitz alternated with divrei hisorerus and stories. The feedback I have received was universally that souls were uplifted and primed for the difficult avodah of teshuvah ahead. Sometimes, the line between improper innovation and refreshing the old is tenuous and unclear. Yet, within proper boundaries and with great trepidation, we must avoid what the novi warned us about and its horrifying consequences.

That idea is what one tzibbur did to effectuate change. What about individuals? Women have long developed an approach that men would do well to emulate. From the earliest grades through adulthood, they take on kabbalos. This means that at first, with guidance from their teachers and later independently, they make commitments to certain improvements and additions to their daily routine. The baalei mussar were extremely in favor of these small steps. First of all, because everyone is at least somewhat motivated to change the future by altering the present. Secondly, just making the commitment means that someone has entered unto the right track, will soon be on the correct train, or is least moving in the direction required. Thirdly, the Baal Shem Tov taught us that the first step must always be making sure that we want to be good. After that, our other limbs will fall into place, as long as the heart is on board with the changes.

An example of realistic kabbolas for men might be to learn two halachos immediately after Shacharis and two Mishnayos after Mincha. As Chazal teach us, never try to grab too much at a time. The one who remains an ignoramus is the one who only sees an impossible task looming ahead. The talmid chochom is the one who looked at one posuk, one Mishnah and one daf. Those are realistic additions and improvements to one’s daily regimen. The Chofetz Chaim used to motivate people to do more with the following calculation. He pointed out that in one minute, the average person can utter two hundred words. In an hour of learning, therefore, he can say or read 12,000 words of Torah. In turn, each word of Torah is multiplied by 613, because it is the equivalent of all the mitzvos. Thus, each hour of Torah is more than the equivalent of our six million lost brethren in Churban Europe. That is motivation that can hopefully excite even the most jaded of those who approach Torah learning with a certain amount of dread.

However, above all this, each of us know what would ignite our own personal fire of avodas Hashem. That is where the yeshuah and geulah are hidden. We must think of Elul as a wonderful time to rediscover our own inner excitement and motivation and then implement what works for us. We do it in business and other areas of our personal lives and we must do so in our preparation for the Days of Judgment as well. If we can accomplish so much in just one hour of Torah learning, imagine the worlds we can change as we add hours of limud haTorah and mitzvos during this month of unlimited potential. May we all merit a kesivah vachasimah tovah.



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