I was taught as a child to keep a dictionary around. It helps with spelling; it corrects vocabulary mistakes. Today, there is spell check and automatic corrections of many kinds, but I still cherish my old Funk and Wagnalls volumes. However, lately, I have often not bothered consulting them. Language seems to be rapidly changing, mirroring a world where words, like the world itself, are no longer the same. Words that used to mean one thing now have been commandeered to mean something totally different, unknown even to my trusty lexicon.
One example is the word “woke,” which used to carry a simple, even innocent, meaning. Today, it has become an ugly and decadent definition for a certain attitude about the past. To be “woke” is to be destructive and disdainful of the past. It implies not just progress, but the erasure and cancelation of all that was. It is in numerous ways symbolic of the evil that has been replacing many of the norms and regularities that defined human beings for centuries and even millennia.
I must confess that as a Torah Jew, I first thought that there was something worthwhile and positive happening here. Statues of tyrants and villains were toppling and being torn down. The wickedness of prominent people was being exposed. What could go wrong? However, what emerged was a diabolical and insidious attack on all that we used to hold dear. It was all just a ruse to rid ourselves of that which is most traditional and generic to human society. In just the last few years, and especially the past few months, even the most basic precepts of mankind – right and wrong, justice and its perversion – have been co-opted by politicians and would-be leaders, suddenly mirroring a topsy-turvy universe. What has happened and what should we do about it?
Chazal long ago us taught that this world is an olam hafuch, an upside-down world compared to the real world above, which is based upon proper ethics, morals and decency. Everything that we see, hear and read is permeated by the sense that all societal norms are being eradicated before our very eyes. Even gender definitions have become meaningless and our streets are no longer the friendly safe places we casually called home.
A recent scientific article (Psychology Today, June 2021, page 3) reported on “The High Cost of Calm,” meaning that there is such anxiety in our culture that people are resorting to incredibly expensive antidotes to rampant hysteria and depression. We Torah Jews are not immune to all that is crumbling around us and in fact are often its target, as the bearers of what used to be called the Judeo-Christian heritage and western tradition. The so-called “Squad” in Congress is not only openly anti-Semitic and Jew-baiting, but seeks to overturn almost three centuries of American traditions.
An interesting alternative may actually be found in a recent editorial in a scientific journal. The winter 2020 issue of Popular Science describes a fascinating Japanese method of repairing shattered pottery called kintsugi. “Artisans rejoin shards with gold-laced epoxy following a belief that the aesthetic flaws of age – things like rust, breakage and discoloration – enhance an object’s overall splendor.” What a refreshing thought in a society that has been rushing madly into self-destruction and self-loathing.
Before the Torah was even given to Klal Yisroel, there was a set of rules known as the Sheva Mitzvos Bnei Noach, basic guidelines for mankind to live in peace and tranquility. There were no positive commandments, no rituals to be followed. However, all human beings shared the restrictions of their ancestors in not tearing down the fundamental laws of mankind. Perhaps the time has come to speak more of these common rules that bind people of all backgrounds and cultures.
However, if we cannot change the world at large, we must at least remember our own teachings to “Remember the days of yore, understand the years of generation after generation. Ask your father and he will relate it to you, your elders and they will tell you” (Devarim 32:7). The Gemara (Shabbos 23a) derives from this posuk the essential rule of listening to the rabbonon of every generation (see Torah Temimah ibid.). If the rest of society has become irrational and lost its way, we must retreat to our revered leadership and hallowed traditions. This is a time to re-embrace communal minhagim, strengthening our adherence to rabbinic restrictions and teachings. When society shoots poisoned arrows against us, we must bring out our best artillery of ancient minhagim and time-honored beliefs. It is a time to renew our study of mussar seforim and hashkafah teachings, and reacquaint ourselves with what the Torah expects of religious Jews. This is not a bad idea anyway as the summer arrives and after a year of often being separated from our most cherished institutions.
Another perhaps surprising time to reflect upon what is happening and strengthen ourselves is our birthdays.
The Ksav Sofer had locked himself into his office and was crying bitterly. Only one of his closest talmidim was allowed entrance and was shocked to find his revered rebbi in this terrible state. “What is wrong?” he begged of the great posek to explain. “I have turned fifty-four today,” he responded amidst bitter sobs, “which is the gematriah of dan, meaning judgment. I have examined myself and found myself empty of any accomplishments. I have neither Torah nor wisdom, righteousness nor perfection” (Chut Hameshulash, page 267). A birthday is a personal day to reflect upon where we are in life, what our goals are for the future, and – these days especially – how to achieve immunity from the forces around us.
Another approach might be gleaned from a Mishnah in this week’s Pirkei Avos. Chazal (3:3) teach that we should utilize our tables as a place to repeat divrei Torah. The Rashbam (quoted by the Chossid Yaavetz) understands the source to be a posuk (Yechezkel 41:22) which seems to equate our table to a mizbeiach, an altar. The Mishnah Berurah (170:1) cites this as a halachic obligation, recognizing that our tables – both weekday and especially Shabbos – can provide an opportunity to upgrade ourselves from the world at large. Whereas most human beings merely eat to enjoy physical pleasure or for physical sustenance, we, in effect, become kohanim performing a holy avodah in our personal Bais Hamikdosh.
The next Mishnah, too, alerts us to the obligation and opportunity to turn our homes into a bais medrash by learning Torah at night. This distinguishes us from the world at large by literally turning darkness into light and spiritual emptiness into sanctity. But even more so, it allows us to connect with the centuries and millennia that are slowly being taken away from us by our enemies from within and without. The Gemara (Eruvin 65a) even reminds us that moonlight was created for this very reason; all the more so we who have such wonderful artificial light. The Brisker Rov added that even though the Rambam (Hilchos Deios 4:4) recommends eight hours of sleep, he also rules (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:13) that a person should learn Torah most of the night. He resolves this seeming contradiction by citing the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 3b) that one who learns Torah intensely at night gains a special level Divine protection and acceptance by day.
Having been thrust into such a period of darkness, we must respond by strengthening our opportunity to turn the night into an incandescent source of illumination for a world rapidly descending into tenebrous gloom. May Hashem send us all the wisdom and siyata diShmaya to overcome the forces of evil around us until the geulah comes with the sudden burst of light we await so desperately. May we both see the light and help the world do so as well.