Facing Up to Our Religious Ups and Downs

This Shabbat in my sermon at Lincoln Square Synagogue  I decided to address the question – ‘What happens when we just don’t feel like being religious any more?” It prompted some really deep and personal reflections and conversations. Here it is.

Shabbat Shalom.

The following is from a blog post, by an Orthodox Jew describing her decision to drop observance.

“I was in love with Orthodoxy for a long time. It was a warm down comforter and a pair of the perfect yoga pants. Comfortable, sacred belonging. There are still parts that remain beautiful to me………………
For me, this way of life has become hard. Rigid and often times meaningless. All of the commandments and rules (613 to be exact) feel more like a vise than a blanket to me. The liturgy that I once found comforting because of its familiarity no longer is. It just doesn’t resonate with me”

I’d like to speak with candor this morning about what happens when religion becomes a burden. Of course I disagree with this author, first for writing about something so private so publically. And also for her conclusions, as she puts it “As for the rest, the parts that give me hives- I bid that adieu. And with that goodbye, there is liberation and joy.”

But still, something in that piece speaks to me, and I think, if we are honest, speaks to us all. We jews are great at inventing labels. A decade or so ago the term “Off The Derech” was coined. More recently, “Social Orthodoxy.” In Hebrew there are many more. They all, collectively, describe a situation of distance, a void, sometimes a painful void, between our religion, our Torah and belief system and lives.

For some the response is to leave observance behind. Hardly a new phenomena, but now a very public one. 50 years ago you couldn’t get a book contract as an ex yeshiva guy giving up religion. Now you can.

Others’ response has been to preserve that which is admirable about religion – often all of it – Shabbat, shul, kashrut, even davening – while at the same time not believing any of it – doing it for social reasons, but nothing else.

But without labels, and without extremes, I think we all – and this is certainly true in our modern ‘Next Next Thing’ obsessed age – go through periods of great distance, of if not disenchantment or dislike, of arid periods, where religion, torah, our relationship with Hashem, – just doesn’t mean anything much anymore.

And while many people respond the way this author has – though not necessarily blogging about it- by slipping away from religion , observance, its demands , many of us most people I think, at least from time to time, respond to this with a sense of resignation, of apathy. Of a closing of the heart. The passion we felt, the engagement, the enthusiasm, the pride and the joy we took in being ‘frum Jews’, well there is a sense that “that was then, but you move on”.
I am not leaving Judaism, I am not stopping – I am still present, in my body. But my mind is elsewhere, and my soul , well my soul is withering away.

And I think that a huge failing of our orthodox lifestyle, is that we don’t make room for conversations about faith, and belief, about the days and the nights of the soul, our religious ups and downs.

I want to be frank and say that I have my spiritual battles – I remember when I first began keeping Shabbat, over 25 years ago. Shabbat was amazing – it was a joy. There were times I was so excited for Shabbat I couldn’t sleep on Thursday night.

And then, after a while, I didn’t feel the same way. I was still doing Shabbat, still keeping Shabbat – but Shabbat lost its beauty. And I was crushed. Because if Judaism doesn’t lift me up, perhaps its not really true – any of it.

And I mentioned this to a friend. Fortunately this friend of mine was a student of the late Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, and my friend told me what Rav Aharon had told him to read “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis.

In that book – a book purporting to be the letters of a senior devil to a junior devil, C.S. Lewis a Christian author, writes knowingly and with insight about what happens to people when religion suddenly feels false, and when passion turns to boredom.

But the question is also addressed in this weeks parsha too.

Parshat Emor really is the end in an important sense of the book of Vayikra. The book of Vayikra ends next week, but those parshiot are really a covenant for the land of Israel are almost separate. The real business – the laws of priests, the temple, sacrifices, ends this morning.
And it ends in an unusual way.
צַו אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית לַמָּאוֹר לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד:
“Command the children of Israel, that they bring unto thee pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually”

The Mitzvah of the Menorah is mentioned frequently and at seemingly unexpected places in the Torah – but here, right at the very end of the book, after all the laws of Korbanot – what is it doing here?

Here is the Ramban’s very logical explanation.
It is true that in parshat Tetzaveh, way back in Shemot, an almost identical Mitzvah was given – get people to donate pure olive oil for the lighting of the menorah. So why is the mitzvah repeated, almost word for word here?
Very simple says the Ramban – they had run out of oil! And so they needed more, and Hashem said, get people to give more oil.
On one level it’s intuitive – it makes sense. On the other hand, its almost absurd: Of course they would have run out of things – oil, flour, animals etc – but the Torah is not a shopping list. Every time they ran out of something we dont find a commandment to give more.

I think the Ramban is really addressing our own issue of spiritual fatigue. We have got to the end of the book – we’ve learned everything we could possible need to know about getting close to Hashem, giving Korbanot, living in the mikdash, the intensely holy place.

And at the end – well, it could be that we are depleted. We have done everything we are told. And instead of feeling close, we might feel distant. Instead of feeling holy, I am thinking “what’s for lunch.” Sometimes we leave Shul after Yom Kippur feeling elevated, and sometimes we leave with a headache.
And the Torah says, it can happen. You now what? It will happen. The Menorah, the ner has got to be tamid – constantly burning. But sometimes tamid leaves me feeling drained.

And so there is an answer
וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית לַמָּאוֹר לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד:

Recharge. Renew there are going to be times when you need more oil. Its not a bad thing, unless you ignore it.

None of us can feel sure of how our spiritual lives will feel at any given moment. And there is no aveira, no sin in feeling distant from G-d, tired and disengaged from religion.The aveirah comes in failing to respond. Not to try and fix it, but instead, in accepting it.

We feel, in these times we live in, that the way we feel about things – the way we experience them, is true. True for us. And we have to act in accordance with our feelings.

But I think Judaism disagrees. Because after all what kind of people would we be, if we only did things that we felt like doing?
What ultimately, would our values be, if that was how we lived our lives.

70 years ago, yesterday, the guns of Europe fell silent. VE day. The defeat of the Nazis yemach shemam. It was called the greatest generation. The millions of men and women in the free world who stood up to Hitler. Who paid an unimaginable price.Not just soldiers, civilians too.
I remember seeing a cookbook that belonged to my grandmother – a wartime cook book, for times of food shortages and rationing.
And I thought to myself, reading about meals made of left over this and leftover that, cakes made from stale bread and turnip and no sugar “I couldn’t live like that.”
And this question has haunted the West in recent decades – If we had to, could we? If our world was again at threat – could we kiss our children good bye and wave them off to the army? Would we accept sacrifices and loss the way our parents and grandparents did?
And if we cannot, if we could no longer find the mettle, the determination, to do that, then what does that say about our future.

What made the greatest generation great, 70 years ago – was not that they wanted to fight, and to go hungry, and to go without for the good of the world. Of course they didn’t want to do any of that.
But they did it anyway.

And what we need, in our world, in our own spiritual world is Emunah.
Faith is important. And when I hit a dry patch in my own spiritual life, I try and strengthen myself. If Torah isn’t compelling – learn more Torah. If davening is rote – daven harder.
But the real answer, what, I firmly believe Hashem, wants of us – is Emunah. Not emunah as in belief, but Emunah in the sense of the verse

וַיְהִי יָדָיו אֱמוּנָה עַד בֹּא הַשָּׁמֶשׁ
That even when Moshe’s hands were tired, were exhausted, he was drained – they were “emunah”. Because for a jew emunah means consistency. It means that if today, this week, this year I don’t feel it, I’m going to do it anyway. I don’t always feel like davening, learning, giving tzedakah.
But I am bigger than my feelings. I don’t do things only when I feel like them. For a Jew, emunah, does not mean faith. It means to be faithful.

We should be honest enough to address, speak about, but certainly think about, our own spiritual lives – we don’t have to blog about them. But we have to take them seriously. We owe it to ourselves to renew ourselves spiritually. To strengthen our faith and recommit to Torah. But most of all we owe it to ourselves to remain committed, steadfast, faithful, no matter how we happen to feel about it. Feelings come and go. We feel up, sometimes, and then we feel down. But our commitment, like the burning light of the Menorah, even in the darkest of nights must be tamid, faithful, shining out, no matter what.

About the Author
Born in Glasgow, Scotland. Holds a BA in Economics and an MBA. Former Rabbi of Cambridge University and Barnet Synagogue in London. Appointed Senior Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan in 2005.
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