“What are today’s barriers to fear of Heaven? What makes it difficult for people to feel religiously committed?”
As I folded laundry on a Friday afternoon with only a few hours till Shabbat, someone posed this question on a faculty WhatsApp group. It made me chuckle. I had actually been enjoying folding laundry in the quiet of my house and thinking about…nothing. At least not anything too important. In the world of education, however, it is not uncommon to find yourself in situations that strangely mix the mundane with the sacred, as we deliberate over and grapple with the profound challenges of the day.
The questioner had a specific reason for asking, and, over the next few minutes, I was amazed as my colleagues managed to find a minute to leave their laundry, mops, ovens and boiling pots in order to share some meaningful thoughts on the topic.
The countdown clock is quickly approaching the buzzer. Only a few short days left until we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot commemorating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
There are so many uplifting parts of this holiday. The flowers and greenery, the beautiful white dresses, the ice cream and cheesecakes, the inspiring lectures and shiurim. One enjoyable, intense, compact day (at least in Israel) with no special commandments. No mitzvot we need to worry about, prepare for and get done. No succah to build, no chametz to get rid of, no matzot to eat and wine to drink. Just the joy of a great holiday with no real pressure.
Except for one.
Every year, the Jewish people are asked to reaccept the Torah. To accept the yoke of Heaven upon ourselves. To imagine standing at Mout Sinai, with lightning flashing and thunder booming, and listening to the Ten Commandments. And to recommit, as the Jews did over three-thousand years ago with the words, “We will do, and we will listen” (Shemot 24:7).
But “doing” and “listening” can be really tough. Especially these days.
There are so many barriers that stand in the way of belief and commitment.
On the superficial level, there is the challenge of submitting to a life of hard work, responsibility and weightiness in a world where instant gratification is often encouraged and easily accessible.
It can be hard to believe in a Higher Authority when we have mastered so much and live with the illusion that everything is in our control. Despite a worldwide pandemic, it can still be difficult to accept that even with all the science and technology that we have developed, we don’t always have understanding, let alone a response.
The heavy Western emphasis on autonomy, self-expression and self-actualization, while often positive, does not jive easily with respect for authority, submission and a life of commandedness.
And what is often thought of as today’s moral and ethical values can fly in the face of a traditional Torah lifestyle.
There have always been challenges to being a committed Jew.
Many of our grandparents faced discrimination, expulsion or real physical persecution. Others were fired from jobs when they did not show up on Saturday, and they worried week to week if they would have money to feed their families.
Despite rising antisemitism around the world, many Jews still feel that they live overall better and more comfortable lives as Jews than previous generations.
But the challenges to commitment are still real.
They can haunt our minds and the minds of our children and students. We and they can struggle to make sense of the conflicting messages that surround us and to hold the tensions those messages create.
As we prepare to accept the Torah this year, I have found the words of two of the previous generation’s greatest thinkers to be more relevant than ever.
Rabbi Norman Lamm writes in Seventy Faces about the need for humility in our obedience of God:
“Since morality or conceptions of morality change in every generation, do I believe that the mitzvot rise or fall? No, because then my performance of a mitzvah is no longer obedience of God but to my own fallible sense of what is moral, and that I don’t think I can trust. The history of mankind does not inspire much confidence in man’s moral judgement in and of itself. I would say, likewise, that we have no right to be so terribly confident in man’s religious judgement in and of itself.”
It is not a bad thing to struggle and grapple with issues that matter to us, like equality and justice, and to constantly look for ways to improve the world we live in.
But it is also ok to take a step back and admit that we don’t always know what is best, that the world is in tremendous flux, and that it is ok to have real questions that keep us up at night. It is an inherent part of being a thinking, contemplative, human being.
It is possible to live and function and even thrive while we are in tension if we approach our tension with honesty, openness and deep humility. It is not easy living with tension, but to deny the tensions we feel is to simplify things, to erase the complexity of human experience and to wish away the conflicting values that pull us in competing directions. So often when we are uncomfortable with tension and quickly deny one side of it, we deprive ourselves of something valuable that we shouldn’t be so quick to discard.
We can embrace and accept our questions and doubts and learn to live with them. In the words of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein:
“What I received from all my mentors, at home or in yeshivot, was the key to confronting life, particularly modern life, in all its complexity: the recognition that it was not so necessary to have all the answers as to learn to live with the questions. Regardless of what issues–moral, theological, textual or historical–vexed me, I was confident that they had been raised by masters far sharper and wiser than myself; and if they had remained impregnably steadfast in their commitment, so should and could I.”
And at the same time, perhaps paradoxically, we can also learn to better trust our intuitive feelings, to not always look over our shoulders, to not need to have an explanation for everything but to allow ourselves to experience and feel and trust that our religious experiences are real. Not everything has to be questioned, always.
In the same article, “The Source of Faith is Faith Itself”, Rabbi Lichtenstein continues:
“Existentially, however, nothing has been more authentic than the encounter with Avinu Malkeinu, the source and ground of all being. Nothing more sustaining, nothing more strengthening, nothing more vivifying.
Encounter, of course, has been varied…In part, it has been random– moments of illumination while getting on a crowded bus or watching children play in a park at twilight. Obviously, it has also been greatly varied in intensity. In its totality, however, whatever the form and content, it has been the ultimate basis of spiritual life.”
If we have been fortunate to experience moments like these — moments where we intuitively feel connected to something bigger than ourselves; moments where we feel at peace that there is broader purpose and meaning in the world; moments that we know deeply that there is a God; moments where we can appreciate what His Torah has contributed to our world — if we have felt these feelings even occasionally, then we can embrace them with confidence, as opposed to insecurity, and we can trust that these feelings are significant, worthy and very real.
In a few days, we will be asked again to accept the Torah. What will we respond?