Years ago a man by the name of Andrew Burian spoke to MJE participants about his experience during the Holocaust. After finishing his incredible account of survival of many concentration camps, an audience member asked “Why did you stay religious after enduring and witnessing all those horrors?”.
I’ll never forget his answer:
“Because I loved it,” he sighed. “I missed it”.
What does love have to do with religion? For so many Jews, especially in America, the answer is, regretfully, nothing. For many, the idea of practicing Judaism is wrapped up in a sense of obligation and fear – a responsibility to not let something so old die out, fear of disappointing our parents, or maybe even God. But love? Certainly not.
It makes sense. What is the most popular day in synagogue for American Jews? You guessed it – Yom Kippur. And rightfully so – it is the holiest of holy days when we have the greatest opportunity to transform and work on ourselves. It is the “Day of Awe,” in which we proclaim over and over God’s ultimate power and awesomeness. It is critical.
And so synagogues throughout America fill their pews for one or two days, and the people come, and fast and atone, and afterwards most resume their ordinary lives, with the most “Jewish” thing being eating bagels and lox on Sundays and going out for Chinese food on Christmas.
Too few Jews are exposed to what comes right after Yom Kippur – “zman zimchaseinu” – the time of our rejoicing as the Torah describes the holiday of Sukkot, and the next week Simchat Torah. During this time we gather with friends and family, we build a Sukkah, we eat, we drink, give presents to our children, feed the needy, sing and dance. We celebrate and bask in the energy of abundance and joy. We are actually commanded to enjoy ourselves. The Torah says: vsamachta bchagecha: “thou shalt be happy on the holidays.”
It’s a real shame that so many of us weren’t raised to celebrate these holidays, because a Yom-Kippur-only Jewish life reinforces the perception that so many have of Judaism as a sin and guilt oriented faith, and leaves no room for practice out of love.
But why is love in terms of our connection to Judaism and God important in the first place? Like in any relationship between two people there needs to be a balance between what we feel obligated to do and what we truly want to do – what we do because we respect the other person and what we do because we love them. A relationship with one and not the other is doomed to failure and so striking that balance is key.
Looking at my own marriage, I take out the trash, pay the bills, and schlep to events I don’t always want to go to because I have the utmost respect for my wife and ultimately I want to make the relationship work. At the same time, we enjoy a romantic dinner, kick back and watch a movie and share our innermost thoughts and feelings because I want to – because I love her.
Respect and love – a marriage needs both. Our relationship with God is no different and so Judaism needs both.
Survivor Andrew Burian didn’t just wake up one morning in love. His life was filled with daily actions which ultimately resulted in these feelings. This is why any two people are really in love – the initial chemistry is just infatuation, the real love comes from years of giving and extending oneself for the other – from years of respect. The holiday rituals year after year are meant to eventually get us to a place where we do the mitzvot not just because of what will happen to us if we don’t, and not even because we realize God’s awesomeness – but because we just can’t help ourselves. We’re in love.
We need Yom Kippur. We need to cultivate reverence and awe for God. Love without respect and obligation is transient. But like in any relationship, we need to celebrate the love or it will atrophy. We need to create space to just be with our partner, to enjoy each other. We need a date night! If not, then we’re left in a loveless marriage – best case scenario married to a platonic best friend/ roommate, and worst case scenario – running for the hills and looking for any opportunity to get away.
Sukkot and Simchat Torah are “date night”. It is our chance to simply enjoy our relationship with God and our beautiful faith.
My blessing to us all is that we take the Yirah – the reverence we experienced on Yom Kippur, and that together we move up to the Ahava – to the joy and love expressed on Sukkot and Simchat Torah. In doing so may we achieve that delicate balance and the highest levels of connection, both in our relationship with God, with our Judaism, and with each other.
Dedicated to the memory of Eitam and Na’amah Henkin, the Jewish couple killed this past week in Israel. They truly loved their Judaism.