Are We Living in a Spiritual Amnesia?
I sat down to talk with Rabbi Shalom Schwartz, one of the original group of students who joined Aish in 1974. We touched upon such important topics as the idealistic part of Judaism, how we live in a spiritual amnesia, the importance of awakening of the appreciation of life, and how Rabbi Shalom Schwartz is coaching based on the relationship with G-D and prayer.
We go back a long way, back to 1977 when I first came to Israel. Shalom, you were in Asia for seven years back in ‘72, then you were one of the founding seven people that founded Aish HaTorah back in ‘74, you were with Rabbi Weinberg and then you went to Toronto for 10 years and you started a program operation community which was educational and social network for Russian Jews in Israel and the former Soviet Union, and then you also do coaching today. You’re doing tremendous things for the Jewish people and that’s really why I wanted to talk with you.
You’re very proud of who you are as a Jew, I’m just wondering where did that start? How did you get that?
It’s interesting that you’re thinking that. I don’t think I ever viewed myself as a proud Jew. Frankly, my associations with being Jewish while growing up were not that positive. I just had the 50th anniversary of my bar mitzvah this past Shabbat and I was reflecting on my experience at that stage. I think I was a little turned off by the association of proud Jew with kind of this cultural ethical, ethnic phenomenon. I was very idealistic as a young person and I didn’t see Judaism at that time as speaking to that idealism. When people talked about being proud as Jews, to me it was an association with sort of a club and I wasn’t interested in being part of a club. The minute I discovered that the wealth of wisdom that’s in Judaism and the real mission of the Jewish people to be a light unto nations, to really bring the world to a realization of themselves and of God and our purpose, that is when I could say yes, I’m certainly proud of that. I’m proud that I’m a part of this person that has that destiny.
I think what you’re doing now is that you’re trying to share the core values of the Jewish people to the world. Can you talk a little bit about why you think this is so important, and when you say that the ten commandments, to the older generation, sounds very traditional, but the way you describe it, it is not the ten commandments, just a matter of what you can do and what you can’t do. But they’re really core values that play into our lives. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it can make a difference for the Jewish people?
One of the things I’ve learned from Rabbi Weinberg was that he used to begin many of his discussions with the teaches that before we’re born, we’re given this personal angel that teaches us all of the Torah even before we are born. We’re born, touched here and we forget it all. And of course, that raises the question, why do we have to learn it if we’re going to forget it? I think the key insight that I got from that is that really when we study wisdom as opposed to knowledge or any skill, the experience of realization of wisdom is an experience of remembering.
It’s an experience of remembering and this is very central to Jewish teachings. We talk about remembering as a key to a relationship to Mt Sinai, Shabbat, to going out of Egypt, memory is a key element in all understandings of Jewish destiny and Jewish mission. We have this collective memory that we’re tapping into and specifically the idea of living with what you stand for, living with who you are, being authentically yourself is also very tied in with a sense of remembering who we are. It’s almost like I once heard a description of our purpose here in this world is to awaken from a spiritual amnesia.
We’re all walking in a kind of forgetful state that we’re souls, that we have a sense of destiny and that we have purpose and that we’ve come into this world and every moment of gaining new insight into ourselves and wisdom and discovering who we are is not new, we experience it as new but simultaneously it’s an act of remembering. To me, that’s been always a very resonant and essential to mention of education, so the idea of core values is not that it’s something that you’re taking a list of what you want to do, not only the things you feel important, it’s uncovering that which is within your soul, it’s uncovering that which is authentically yours and when you live with that which is essentially who you are, then there’s a shalomut, a wholeness, a peace, an inner peace, a tremendous motivation force because you’re one with yourself.
And the ten commandments the Medrash says before they engraved on the tablets, you know the famous tablets they were that before they were engraved our tradition teaches, the Mechilta says that they were actually printed on the Jewish soul. They engraved on the Jewish soul before they. So this idea that we were given ten statements at the outset of our mission at Mount Sinai, kind of our founding mandate was imprinted on our souls so that we would have the values, the character and the vision of what it is that we’re here to achieve is to me a very powerful educational paradigm for awakening the Jewish people to our mission and purpose. And that’s what we found from the ten commandments, not only have a wonderful, still resonant, the impression that people have with the ten commandments is being the foundation of the western civilization, the values the Jewish people have given to the world, but they also speak very deeply personal to every person, especially to every Jew. That’s why I find it a very exciting process because you’re not teaching something that’s outside of the individual’s experience, you’re awakening your own memory to what you know and what we collectively have carried as the Jewish people’s core values.
That’s a very subtle but powerful idea that really you’re awakening what people already have inside of them that they have this intuitive understanding that has been implanted in them and it’s just a matter of bringing it out. Can you give me an example of how you would teach or bring out one of the relevant issues of the ten commandments to show that people know the serenity and can use it in their lives?
I’ll give you an example that I discovered in a conversation with my 9-year-old granddaughter. I was having a conversation, it was based on the last of the ten commandments, number ten, don’t covet and the Vilna Gaon says don’t covet is a foundation of the entire ten commandments, and the entire Torah, and it’s clear that he’s speaking about a dimension of not coveting that goes beyond, what the Sforno calls the essential mitzvah. As a core value, don’t covet speaks to this idea that somehow, we all have something unique, we shouldn’t look for our fulfillment by looking at what someone else has whether it’s possessions or even their job, their wealth, their wife, their status, whatever they’re doing is not for us. Everybody has their unique place in the universe.
So I was sitting with my granddaughter, Shoshana, and I said, tell me do you know how many people there are in the world? And she said no, I don’t know how many are there. They say there are about 7 billion people. 7 billion people, that’s a lot of people. I said tell me how would you feel if you met somebody that was just like you? She said what do you mean. I said somebody who looks like you, talks like you, walks like you, thinks like you. She said there’s nobody like me. But there are 7 billion people, don’t you think there’d be somebody just like you? No! I said well, what about in all of history if you go back in time and you know since Adam was born until now? There’s a lot of people do you think there’s somebody just like you out there? She said no, there’s nobody just like me! I said how to do you know? She said I know! And this is the reason, of course, says this and points to this intuitive truth that we all know this to be true that there’s a unique self that we carry, how do we know it? Because we’ve been implanted with that appreciation that we are unique, we’re not like anybody else no matter how many people there are; my particular unique self was given to me genetically and therefore don’t covet, don’t look outside at somebody else’ situation whether they have good or bad – anything outside of you is not going to be the key to your fulfillment. Be happy with who you are. Rejoice in your uniqueness, that’s in the core values of the ten commandments. But the example is we know it from within, you don’t need to look for proofs outside of yourself, just look inside yourself and appreciate that uniqueness. And we give these types of examples to the students and everywhere that we teach this, helping people to realize what they already know and to remember it.
Shalom, I want to take you back to about 1980 when you started one of the first Aish Branches in the United States. When you were with Rabbi Weinberg in Toronto, meeting with Joe Bergman of Lost Memory. Can you share that story with us? How it all started?
In June of 1980, I have been studying in Aish for about 6 years at this point. But I was on a visit to my family in Toronto and I offered Rabbi Weinberg to drive him around the city to different donors. This is when Joe Berman invited us to his home and on the way to the meeting, and we asked Rabbi Weinberg what do you want to ask Joe Berman? What are you going to ask him for? He said a branch. At that time there was one branch of Aish Hatorah in North America and that was in St Louis, Missouri; it was a small branch. He said we need five families to come up to Toronto, quickly calculated some numbers, we need salaries, we need some program money and we need time for preparation, we have to train them, we have to do a year of preparation. He had a vision of what it was going to be, Rabbi Weinberg kind of worked it out in the car. I don’t know how long he’s been thinking about it before, but clearly, he came up with a model and after some time with Joe Berman, schmoozing and talking about a bunch of things and the Jewish people, Joe said how can I help you, Rabbi. He said to Joe, we want you to start a branch of Aish Torah in Toronto.
He said, what’s a branch, what do you mean? He started to describe, we need five families, a community, we want to turn over the whole city, we want to bring Jewish pride and Jewish identity and Jewish knowledge to the youth here and not only the youth. We need to have a strong force and we have to prepare them. And Joe was listening very intently and at the end of Rabbi Weinberg’s presentation, he said, I’m interested in helping you. Who’s going to lead this branch? And Rabbi Weinberg looked and pointed to me, the driver. He said, Shalom, will!
Joe said, I’ll give you half the money, you’ve got to raise the other half and he bought into a two-year commitment to prepare and give us one year of initial seed money for the branch in Toronto and that moment changed my life. From that moment on I was pretty occupied with the branch. Then I went to you, Boruch, asking you to join me in this mission.
Thank you, Shalom, you’ve changed my life by inviting me. I remember long distance telephone calls, international calls were too expensive so you sent me a letter asking me to be part of a team. I received a letter back in Israel and I remember speaking to Rabbi Weinberg and he said yes, you have to go, but I said I don’t know enough and he said you have to go, you have to change the city. All this happened during a time a major recession. I think the interests rate were over 20%.
But we were committed to go and change the city, and we did! We accomplished a lot. Shalom, I know you’ve done a lot of coaching with people, that’s one of your expertise so. What have you found to be one of the core issues that you need to coach people on? I know everybody is individual and unique, everyone has their own thing. But have you found one or two things that are common to most people that they need coaching on?
Well, I never really offered what people refer to as life coaching. I specialize in what I developed as a program, based on leadership coaching, specifically leadership coaching based on a relationship with God and prayer. In that context, the reason I focus on that if people believe and have the confidence that the Almighty is always present in our lives and that if we develop a close relationship with him in an ongoing way, we get answers to our questions and we don’t have to tackle life’s issues alone. Every life issue that appears to us is given to us by God. So if we embrace it and we receive it as a gift, then we can invoke that relationship and the insight that God is always providing in our lives in order to tackle what’s in front of us with love. Obviously, that’s difficult in different situations, and it could be overwhelming, horrific or a lot of things that the almighty throws at us, but the basic principle and the basic inner awareness that we have that the almighty is with us at those moments is to me the most important coaching approach that I try to share with people and give them the confidence that they can talk it out with God; that they can ask questions and meditate and find answers that come to them, not necessarily through words but through circumstances, through getting the strength and being able to feel the almighty’s presence in finding the answers to life’s issues and challenges.
What do you think are the most pressing issues of the Jewish community and the Jewish people today that we need to address?
I don’t think I often speak about this publicly but I’ll share with you now. Let’s look at it this way, I’ve devoted the last 43 years of my life to this endeavour of helping the Jewish people come back to ourselves and to regain our strength and to be able to really remember who we are. And, I think if we had been, if I look at my own challenges with that and with God in these 43 years, I think there’s one really essential component missing, which is that if you imagine religious Jews, or if they grew up religious where living in such a way that really lived with this light that we talk about, a light unto the nations, what’s missing that’s not happening? Why is it that people from who are not a part of that, they don’t immediately see when they walk into a religious home or community or hear a rabbi speak, why aren’t they immediately drawn to this? And why is it that it’s so few strong emanating light from within the religious communities today?
So that so-called non-religious Jews aren’t coming like a magnet, you know drawn to it, rather than having to reach out to them? It should be some sort of magnet drawing them, and I believe that it has to do with a number of things, but the essence of it is that we haven’t really found ways to live with that Godly-ness that we’re looking for; living with that divine life that shines from within us, really remembering that we have a divine soul within us, a spark of God, walking with God in a way that is truly enlightened and truly real and I think that it has to do with the difficulty of prayer the way it normally is experienced today. It’s the way Torah is learned and normally experienced today. I don’t think we’ve brought God into that sufficiently, I think prayer has become to many people just too many words and it’s just not working. And I think Torah-learning has become too intellectual and it isn’t infused with the Godly dimension that it’s meant to have. The sense of real love and care that the Torah teaches us to have when we emulate God has not been strong enough. It’s kind of not pure enough, it’s not living, you know, we’re living in a world that doesn’t imbue us with that and we’re fighting the world outside and we have a lot of fear, a lot of things we’re doing out of habit and we’re too busy to really find the way to do that. I personally have found how meditation is the core experience of prayer and how the Torah can be learned with an imbued spirit of real consciousness.
I think these are things we need to embrace in a much more comprehensive and determined way. I think if we do that we’ll find that barriers between communities can be melted, that we won’t have all this decisiveness between Hasidism and modern Orthodox and all these differences between other groups. It will dissolve because we’ll have the unified feature which is our relationship with God and living more as loving souls will really change the dynamics internally and ultimately create a different invitation to those that are outside of the religious communities to join and be a part of because they’ll be drawn to it. It’ll be something that is extremely attractive. That is my personal take on what we need to focus on next.
One last question, a personal question: what’s the difference between the Shalom Schwartz in his 20s and the Shalom Schwartz in his 60s?
Surprisingly I feel like I’m just beginning. I think that’s not different. I’ve always had that sense. I just went through a workshop that was all about awakening the inner child within me. Maybe, it’s coming from just having my 15th grandchild, being able to play with her and have her in our home. There’s something exciting about awakening to your own playfulness and appreciation for life is really full of opportunities for joy. Full of opportunities for embracing people and God and yourself and enjoying that inner spirit that the almighty planted within us. I think I was pretty serious in my 20s. I think I’m finally at a point where I can go beyond seriousness to playfulness, not in any frivolous way but in the same way that when we really feel that we’re transcending, we touch the transcendental, there’s a feeling of joy that is like a child. I feel that that’s, I aspire to that and I have that more than when we started in our 20s and 30s and I’m grateful that the Almighty has given me this new dimension of living that I think is a beautiful, beautiful gift at this stage of my life.
I think one of the things we share Shalom is our relationship to Rabbi Weinberg; how even in his older years he was really focused on pleasure, enjoying life, loving people and he was an attraction to people because he would just be pure love, and at the same time, he was a serious man, he was a tiger of all tigers and he was willing to fight and stand up to do the right thing, but at the same time he was full of life and full of love. Shalom, I really appreciate you spending the time with us.