The following is a letter that I wrote to our community’s graduates:
As you celebrate your accomplishments and achievements and you venture out into the next stage of your lives, I’d like to share with you some thoughts that have been percolating in my mind ever since Dr. Eli Lazar said something during a Pirkei Avot shiur. He compared the American ideal of “Give me liberty or give me death” to the Talmudic ideal of “O Chavruta O Mituta,” translated as, “Give me a friendship or give me death.” What is the ideal, liberty or friendship?
I recently shared with you on Shabbat an insight by Professor Charles Liebman who wrote an article entitled, “Post-War American Jewry: From Ethnic to Privatized Judaism.” Professor Liebman distinguished between two terms, ruchniyut, or spirituality, and kedusha, or holiness. The Torah commands us to holy. It does not command us to be spiritual. What is the difference between spirituality and holiness? Professor Liebman argued that ruchniyut, spirituality, is the problem and kedusha, holiness, is the solution. Spirituality evokes individuality and entails a process of personal self-realization. Holiness points to an outside source to which we submit, usually in the context of public observance. Spirituality is very enticing, as it calls upon each of us to tap into that which we find personally appealing. Holiness, on the other hand, asks each of us to look outside of ourselves and submit to an objective source of truth, whether it is comfortable for us or not. We are naturally more drawn to acts of spirituality than to acts of holiness, as we are more comfortable seeking individualized self-expression than submission to an absolute truth. Nonetheless, our ultimate job as Jews is to pursue holiness. Perhaps then, one of the great challenges of the modern Jew is to make the holy feel spiritual. We must make that which is externally imposed feel personally sacred.
Spirituality is all about me. Liberty is all about me. But those things are not Judaism. I’ve often heard people say that the secular world values rights, whereas the Torah values responsibilities. The Torah Jew lives a life not of privileges and entitlements, but a life of service. I agree, but I think the language of “responsibility” or “service” has an element of burden associated with it. Kabbalat ol malchut shamayim – accepting the “yoke” of Heaven. Indeed, an element of Torah observance can be burdensome. But to what end do we willingly accept that yoke?
God Himself stated, “Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado.” It is not good for man to be in a state all alone. O Chavruta O mituta! Give me a friendship or give me death! The Torah Jew naturally desires companionship. The Torah Jew naturally desires friendship. The Torah Jew naturally desires relationships. The source of the mitzva of Kiddush Hashem is “v’nikdashti b’tokh Bnei Yisrael,” being sanctified in the midst of Bnei Yisrael, in a community. And the place where man can develop his closest relationship with God is called a “mikdash” – a Temple, a place of kedusha. Perhaps then, the distinction between the secular vs. Torah world is not one of rights vs. responsibilities, but rather self-actualization vs. creating relationships.
What then is a Torah message to graduates as you venture to a new challenge? Is it to be the best you can be? Engage in a process of self-actualization? Surely those are important goals. But I think a better Torah message is go out, create and develop real relationships. Yes, we are a religion of responsibilities, but that’s only because those responsibilities are a necessary condition to developing a relationship with God and with other people. We can only develop strong relationships if we engage in chesed and are willing to give of ourselves to others. Similarly, giving of ourselves to others expresses the fact that we care about strengthening those relationships. The same is true of man and God. We can only develop strong relationships with God if we are willing to give of ourselves to Him. Responsibility for the other connects us to the other, whether the other is a person or God. So graduates, in this rights-based, spirituality-based culture, seek out holiness, seek out others and seek out God… and then the responsibilities won’t seem like responsibilities any more.