Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The World Is In The Palm Of Our Hands, But Hashem Is Still So Far

Real friends are the ones who tell you how off the mark your article was. Two very wise friends were kind enough to critique last week's column. Each of them made a different point, and both points have a stamp of truth to them. With those constructive words of criticism, I think we can gain a far more comprehensive understanding of the problem (not the solution) of “detachment” from Hashem even as we observe the mitzvos.

Last week, we opened this column with a story of how Yidden would bentch lulav and esrog in communist Russia. They waited on line, put their lives in danger, and then, when they finally had a chance to make the brochah, they fainted from the simcha and emotion of being able to fulfill the mitzvah – a mitzvah that, due to the difficulty in obtaining an esrog, they could not fulfill in its entirety every year.
“I don’t think there is anyone in America today who makes a brochah on an esrog like those Yidden in communist Russia did,” was the way an elderly mesirus nefesh Yid put it.


We pointed out that the connection to Hashem is missing. Those Yidden were deeply connected and we are not.


We pointed out how the Yidden of old, the Yidden from per-war Europe, were not detached from Hashem as we are. We also keep the mitzvos, but we are detached. We eat the same matzoh at the Seder, but we don’t live with that matzoh and for that matzoh. We shake the same lulav and esrog, but it is not our entire world. We have other things, many other things, in our world, too.


We bentch licht, but we don’t feel Hashem. We don’t feel that we are talking directly to Him. We don’t feel that same closeness of relationship as they did. In truth, we don’t have that relationship. They were truly connected. We are not.


An old friend took issue with two points. Firstly, he thought that the situation in pre-war Europe was being romanticized. Certainly there were many giants and many who were more connected to Hashem than we are. Unfortunately, however, there was also much negative going on then, and much disconnection.




The primary critique was that in last week’s column, we used nostalgia to highlight the beauty and the connection of the generations of our zaides and to show our lack of connection in comparison to them. In no way, however, did we try to analyze or understand why that was so.


It is important to do that in order to gain clarity, because there are so many fundamental differences between the milieus in which our children are being raised today and those of the previous generations in Eastern Europe.


In Europe, there was tremendous poverty and there were hostile governments that oppressed and discriminated terribly against Jews. Jews were forced to serve for years in armies that sought to strip them of their Yiddishkeit. Modern medicine was unheard of, and something as benign as an ear infection could be a death sentence.


To paraphrase my friend, “Is it any wonder why they lived with Hashem?!”


They were cognizant every second of the day that without His assistance, they were doomed. They understood how precarious life was and how much they needed Him. In a matter of days, an ear infection could mean the death of a child. Many went to sleep at night having no idea what they would eat the next day. The house was bare. There was no money and no food.


Life’s terrible difficulties forced them to forge a deep connection and bond with Hashem. That is without a doubt one of the reasons why the old, unlearned grandmother from Europe cried copious tears when bentching licht. Today, our learned Bais Yaakov girls clearly know more halachos and more meforshim than she ever knew even existed, but they have a much harder time mustering those genuine tears for the Ribono Shel Olam. When life is constantly hanging in the balance, when you rely on Hashem for your every need, when you cannot for even one second fool yourself into thinking that it is your actions that are helping you, you become connected. Deeply connected.




My friend continued with a daunting challenge: “Perhaps you might consider what it is about the modern condition that promotes this distance from Hashem. Might it be sophistication?


“Maybe the Ribono Shel Olam, Who, after all, makes history, is satisfied with the fervent Polish and unbending Russian Yidden who already embellish His crown, but desires a new form of beauty from us.”


He is right!


Looking back at the old days with an unproductive nostalgia that longs for a bygone, no-longer-existent era is at times counterproductive. Certainly, we have to try to emulate our avos, our forefathers, but emulating possibly means overcoming the specific nisyonos presented by the time period in which we live, just as they overcame the specific nisyonos of the time period in which they lived.


The challenge for us is to live with Hashem even though we have never been hungry in our lives. How do we live with Hashem when we know that we can get antibiotics and when modern medicine has made so much progress?




How can we live with Hashem in an age of sophistication, an age of acute lack of yishuv hadaas, when the entire world is in the palm of our hands and we are being bombarded by phone calls, messages and information in a way that robs us of any sense of connection to Him?


We seem to be connected to just about everything in the world except for Him. Is there room for Him in our world? Can we carve Him a niche? That is our avodah. That is the avodah of this generation – to overcome these hurdles and still be deeply connected.


There is a story of a Jew who went to Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk complaining, “Rebbe, I am so busy. I have so many things vying for my attention that I simply have a very difficult time focusing on matters of spirit. I don’t have the head to immerse myself in in-depth learning the way I once did. I cannot muster the requisite kavonah to daven with dveikus as has been my wont. What should I do?”




The Kotzker opened up a Pirkei Avos to the Mishnah which states, “Do not say, ‘When I am free I will learn,’ for perhaps you won’t become free” (Avos 2:5). The Kotzker said, “Perhaps Hashem wants you to be one of those people who must learn and daven even when you are in a ‘won’t-become-free’ situation.”


He was saying that some people are left with no choice other than to figure out how to carve out a niche for Hashem in their lives, even while a lot is going on and even when there are so many seemingly “natural” things that detach our plug of connection with Hashem and try to couch Hashem’s impact in “nature.” Maybe that is the avodah that Hashem wants from us, being ovdei Hashem even when we are sunk in the seeming inextricable throes of the “won’t-become-free” generation.


How to do that is another question. It is a question that we would like to pose to our dear readers. Chazal teach us that the question of a wise person is half the answer. My wise friend provided the first half of the answer. I turn to you, my dear readers, to suggest the second half. How do we connect deeply with Hashem in an age of sophistication? How do we connect in an age of distraction?


The second critique from another friend will have to be left for a different time. But just to whet the appetite, he said, “You are talking about recapturing the passion and connection to Hashem. Perhaps part of the problem is that many of us have replaced the passion for Torah and mitzvos of our ancestors with obsession.”


More on that in a future column.



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