Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The Last Lifejacket in Today’s Pitched Battle

It was Friday night on the way home from shul when it happened. It wasn't the first time either. Walking home from shul with a small group of Jews, minding our own business, our conversation was suddenly interrupted by a blood curdling scream. A car whizzed by at high speed, its occupants screaming epithets about Jews in a tone and at a decibel level that made me jump. As my pounding heart began to slow, anger set in at the audacity and evil behavior that I had just experienced. Just then, one of those walking with us, a distinguished talmid chochom and mechanech,asked, “So what are you thinking? You are probably angry with them. You know what I feel? I feel thankful to them! Yes, I feel thankful to them for reminding me that I am a Yid, for reminding me that there is a hevdel bein Yisroel lo'amim in this generation, especially here in America where the barriers between Yisroel lo'amim seem to be melting away. It is important for us to have that reminder…”

The talmid chochom continued: “My father grew up in one of the large cities in pre-war Poland. He told me that any time he had to leave the Jewish quarter, he knew that in the worst case, he would get a beating. If he was luckier, he might get a rock thrown his way. And if he was really lucky, he would just get hate-filled insults hurled at him. That was part of life.”


That is what living in the golus of pre-war Poland entailed. That, however, is why, in so many places throughout Poland, there was such rich Jewish life. The host culture was so good at making havdolah that there was virtually no attraction to their culture and lifestyle. The Yidden were forced by circumstances to look inward to connect with Hashem and find meaning in their lives as Jews.


Of course, the yeitzer horah was not asleep at that time either, and then, too, there was much attrition from observance. That attrition – a response to the poverty and harsh conditions of the golus – was generally a Jewish-based attrition. People left Judaism for Zionism, socialism and other movements inspired by Jewish ideals that had become warped. They mistakenly thought that these ideals could solve the age-old problem of anti-Semitism and injustice in the world. Hitler taught them how mistaken they were.




Today, the battlefield has changed dramatically. Yes, there are plenty of fine, ehrliche young people in our yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs. May Hashem continue to bless them and increase their numbers. Nevertheless, we are losing so many. Far too many.


Not only those you see loitering on the street corners dressed and acting like the patrons of the local bar, but even those who are seemingly fine, regular yeshiva bochurim and Bais Yaakov students. They may look the part, but what goes on inside is a different story. There are too many cases where it is not tocho kebaro, by any means.


There are so many who are spiritually floundering, who are dealing with tremendous challenges to their emunah and their observance, and who are grappling with the very difficult, ever more accessible yeitzer horah, and who are losing the battle, r”l.


By and large, we are not living in a land where poverty and anti-Semitism run rampant. To the contrary, we are living in a time of plenty and a time of equality. It is a time when it is becoming increasingly more difficult to separate ourselves from the pervasive, non-Jewish surrounding society.


Certainly, we must try to ensure that our youth are in an environment where their access to the easily accessible yeitzer horahs of our time is curbed or limited. Nevertheless, we would be guilty of gross naiveté if we think that this alone will do the job, for any young person who really wants access will get it. Today’s technology is so pervasive, so easily attainable, that despite the imperative to make every effort to protect our youth, we would be foolish to think that it is sufficient.




So what should we do? Give up? Lie down, raise the white flag and play dead? Certainly not!


It is said, I believe in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, that there will come a time close to the arrival of Moshiach when all external factors that once kept a person from sinning will be removed. The only thing that will be left is pure yiras Shomayim. If someone possesses pure yiras Shomayim, he will be saved. Otherwise, no social inhibitions, family inhibitions or anything else will stop him.


So how do we cultivate this kind of yiras Shomayim in our youth and in ourselves?


Is it possible in this generation?


The answer, of course, is yes. Hashem never declares bankruptcy. He promised that the Torah and Torah observance will not be forgotten.


We have no choice other than to reconnect with Hashem, to develop a true connection with Him. By way of explanation, let me relate an incident that took place last Shabbos. I walked over to a bochur, a fine yeshiva bochur, a ben Torah in his low 20s, and I asked him, “Tell me, did you ever talk to Hashem?”


He looked at me strangely. “What do you mean talk to Hashem?”


I replied, “Not just daven the words of davening, which is something you have to do, but actually talk to Him, ask Him for something, tell Him about your problems, or ask Him to help you in any way. Did you ever actually thank Him for giving you something that you wanted?”


By now, the boy was looking at me as if I was from the moon. Finally, he understood the question that I was asking. “Only kooks do that,” he told me emphatically.


Later, I went to a second bochur and his answer surprised me even more. “Are you allowed to do that?” he asked.


Ribono Shel Olam!” I wondered. “What did Dovid Hamelech do? He talked to Hashem! And the outcome? Sefer Tehillim!”




So many of us are engaged in spiritual matters the entire day. We daven thrice daily, but for too many, the avodah seems more cultural than religious, more scripted than meaningful. How can one develop a connection with Hashem if everything is completely scripted and if there is no personal feeling?


No, I do not necessarily mean that a person should walk around like the guys you see in the street with their Bluetooth on, talking loudly and looking like madmen who talk to themselves. What I do mean is to forge a connection with Hashem in the same way that one forges a connection with a family member, a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, or a best friend. If Hashem is not real to us, how in the world can we even remotely hope to have a chance to overcome today’s difficult yeitzer horahs?!


So where do we start? Certainly, the first place to start is with parents. If we want our kids to be connected, then we ourselves must be connected. We don’t mean the perfunctory words of mothers and fathers saying, “Boruch Hashem,” or, “Im yirtzeh Hashem” in every second sentence without really meaning it. Kids are way too smart for that. They will recognize hypocrisy if the conduct of the parents are not consistent with their words.




What we mean is fostering a real connection with Hashem. If a mother or father really starts to work on seeing Hashem’s Hand in their life, and if, when something good happens, the mother begins to talk about how Hashem is so good to her and her family and how He holds their hand and guides them, and she really means it, the child will begin to connect. If, when difficulties arise, the mother instinctively and naturally turns to Hashem and begs him for help, the way one would beg a benevolent father who one knows has the ability to help, the child will notice and feel that connection.


If a father sitting in traffic chooses, instead of drumming his fingers and yelling at the cars in front of him and at the situation, to stay calm and say, “It seems that Hashem, in His wisdom and kindness, wants me to be sitting here in bumper to bumper traffic,” and the father really means it, then, by virtue of the fact that he is living with Hashem, his children will also begin to develop that connection.


This is not easy. The writer of these words – a perpetual finger drummer on the steering wheel – does not mean to minimize the magnitude of the task. Nevertheless, if we want our children and ourselves to have the tools to attain that “pure yiras Shomayim” mentioned above, the pure yiras Shomayim that is so pivotal to overcoming this generation’s challenges, we must have a real connection, a connection that is no different, no less close and vibrant, than the relationship with our closest loved ones.


Only a connection with Hashem will enable us to withstand the onslaught.


We know it is not easy, but please, next time you have a quiet moment, take some time to talk to Hashem, not only with the scripted words of davening and Tehillim, but actually telling Him what is on your mind, thanking Him for what He does for you, telling Him about the challenges you face, and asking Him to help you.


Connect. It’s the last lifejacket that we have.



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