Over the last few weeks, we’ve been reading the Torah portions describing the circumstances leading up to the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Rashi’s commentary on the plague of darkness explains that the darkness was necessary to cover up the deaths of 80% of the Israelites who were not worthy of redemption from Egypt because they had sunk to the level of the Egyptians in all respects. Under the cover of darkness, these Jews were buried, so as not to cause the Egyptians to believe that because this plague had also affected the Jews, it was not a sign from G-d. According to Rashi and other commentaries, the 20% of the Jewish nation who DID merit redemption did so because they did not change their names, language, or clothing in keeping with Egyptian culture.
I wonder to myself–because history does repeat itself–how many Jews today would readily leave their cushy homes, jobs, and American friends to move to Israel, were G-d to show up demanding we serve Him in the Holy Land. Most of my Jewish friends have English names that are trendy and unlike the traditional Biblical Hebrew names of their forefathers. Most are identical to non-Jews in terms of their dress, their language, and their cultural habits. Most watch T.V., go to movies, play sports, go to clubs, bars, or parties, and generally do the things the non-Jews do. If they keep the Sabbath or kosher laws, they do so while not really thinking about their meaning or significance. If they pray, they rush through their prayers, most not understanding what they are saying. If they visit Israel, they do so as tourists who are more than happy to spend money there and then come “home” to their comfortable lives in America.
I receive daily emails with words from the great scholar Rav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, who was a Torah and Talmudic icon among American Jews. In his words, we Jews must be as unlike our fellow Americans as possible to maintain Judaism for the future. We must also not change our clothes, our language, or our names to suit our American surroundings. We must avoid contaminating ourselves with American cultural beliefs, such as the capitalistic credo that money/material comfort buys happiness and that, therefore, money/material comfort is the most lofty goal one should seek. Rav Miller’s words are in keeping with King Solomon’s in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), who opines, “Vanity of Vanities” about all material pursuits, and says at the end, “At the end of things, everything is understood: Fear G-d and do His commandments, because that is the purpose of man.” Recall that King Solomon was reputed to be the wisest of all human beings.
As someone who thought she identified with Modern Orthodoxy most of my life, I am now beginning to question whether such a thing as Modern Orthodoxy can truly exist without endangering the goals we Jews are meant to pursue in accordance with the Torah/Talmud. I have learned multiple times that the Jews’ only purpose in life is to serve G-d. We do so through learning Torah/Talmud and doing G-d’s commandments, or mitzvot. We do NOT do so by watching T.V., reading pop-culture magazines, going to sports games, or playing HQ on our mobile phones. We are meant to be an or lagoyim, or a light unto the nations. We are not supposed to be like the nations themselves. Our commitment to Torah ideals is what has enabled Judaism to last as long as it has. Abandoning our traditions in favor of pursuing pop cultural mores, even when such mores do not specifically comprise transgressions of the Torah, is a very dangerous game to play, considering our history. Look at the Jews during Hellenistic times. How many of them eagerly left their study halls to attend the athletic games in the stadiums? How many went to the gyms to hang out with the Greeks and other Hellenized Jews? How many wore the latest Greek fashions? How many spoke Greek, rather than Hebrew? How many didn’t see anything wrong with their behavior? After all, is it a sin to go to a sports game? Is it a sin to want to work out and perfect one’s body? Is it a sin to wear a toga instead of traditional Jewish garb? Is it a sin to speak another language? No, these actions are not sins, but they constitute a slippery slope we Jews tend to slide down until we eventually consider our Jewish lives and goals secondary to whatever cultural goals are de rigeur in the country in which we find ourselves.
There is a concept of bitul Torah in Judaism, which means wasting time that could have been spent learning Torah. As an American Jew, how much of my own time is spent on Facebook, writing emails, watching T.V., playing games on my phone, reading novels, or hanging out with my friends doing any or all of the above? Can I really consider myself to be a religious Jew if most of my time is not being spent on being Jewish? What will I answer G-d when I eventually come before Him and have to justify my abysmal waste of the time He allotted me in my life? Can I really say that there was nothing wrong with me spending hours binge watching my favorite show on Netflix? Can I really justify the time and money I spent on pursuing physical comfort rather than spiritual strength? Will I be among the 20% minority who chooses to leave the material comforts of America to settle in Israel and serve G-d, as I am meant to, in my homeland; or will I be one of the 80% who is so assimilated into American culture that I cannot recognize G-d calling me home, despite the many signs and miracles He has performed for me?
As a Jew, I believe there is an accounting for my actions in the World to Come; and as a cancer survivor, I know the fear of facing death before one is ready to go. Cancer taught me the value of time. Why do all the greatest and most learned of our Rabbis implore and exhort us to avoid wasting our time with anything but Torah study and mitzvot? Because that is why we’re here. Because that is what being Jewish means. Because that is what will merit us redemption. Because that is how we can face G-d when our time is up here.