I enter into this days-of-awe period with trepidation. I recall the year that passed with gratitude and joy, and look ahead at the year to come with apprehension.
While much of the discussion during these Yamim-Noraim of Rosh-Hashana & Yom-Kippur, is about it being the day of judgment, where Hashem decides who shall live and who shall die, I don’t over-focus on this critical acumen. I’ve lived a good, full life and I realize that G-d will do what He or She must. What I am expected to do – is to keep striving for my best, which for me means turning off the cruise-control and asserting more care and intentionality in my relationships with the world around me. I should be my best with my family, my friends and God who keeps everything in order. My attitude about going through this period can be summed up with a modern-day Hebrew expression, “if I’ll be all-right – we’ll all be all-right.” The question is obviously: how to get there.
This may sound more like a drive for self-improvement. The equivalent of a new year resolutions akin to losing weight, going more to the gym, or improving my golf-swing. But this is still Yom Kippur and I am talking Jewish. My quest is about how to use our age old Jewish tradition and wisdom to impact our selves and our family, or if you feel comfortable with touchy-feely expressions, my mission these days if about rallying my Jewish soul.
When I think of what I could do to have a lasting effect on my Jewish family, I remember the colloquial expression: “Jewish is he or she, whose grandchildren are Jewish”, and there is nothing more critical to me, after making sure that my family is well, than ensuring that ours will be a Jewish family in generations to come.
But truly, what more can we do?
For those of us, within the Modern Orthodox camp, part of the challenge is in how to impart our vision of Jewish continuity, when we have our feet on both sides of the Modern divide. We eat Kosher, but we may pick a non-Kosher snack on the run. We observe Shabbat, but we may skip Mincha. We rush to work but sometimes we forget to put Tefillin. Each of us overcome our daily shortcomings, yet we send our kids to Yeshiva and expect it to help bridge the gaps of our imperfection. But it doesn’t always work.
Modern Orthodoxy is ideological, meaning that it is not Jewish-light. It is about blending our Jewish life with the modern world around us while honoring both. I’d not want to be any other Jew, but this practice is challenging in how it transforms the black and white orthodoxy of Charedi Judaism, to many shades of grey, leaving it up to us to navigate this complex duality and balance it at home and in the workplace. Straddling this balance, we accept the burden of deciding our observance à-la carte rather than accepting it as a prix-fixe. As a result, many of us have a hard time ensuring our children’s adherence to orthodoxy, where their needle shifts to embracing more modernity at the expense of connection to Halacha as they move on with their adult life. Ultimately, it may lead to a dilution of the message and with it, making it possible for their children to let go of Jewish practice and affiliation altogether. It is a real threat in a world of costly Jewish Education and easy assimilation within the world around us.
In wondering how to approach this worry of mine, I thought of writing a letter to my children and to anybody who has the same concern. It is therefore an open letter to ALL of us.
To our children:
In facing this Yom Kippur, I spent this past Shabbat-Teshuva in New York City, listening to the Drashot of few of our great rabbis. Their message had a profound effect on me and I thought of sharing my impression, in the hope that their impact will have a lasting effect.
First, I want to retell the story I heard at the Spanish Portuguese synagogue from Rabbi Meir Soloveichik. The impressive young rabbi followed the text of Mishnah Yoma’s description of the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, and the ritual of the service during the Yom Kippur during Temple times. Following a fascinating depiction of the preparations and their symbolism, it was clear that the tradition was transformative, with the Temple playing a central role in Jewish life in Israel in BC times, but two thousand years later, these traditions appear less and less relevant. Their animal sacrifices and particular rituals appear weird and ghastly to people in our times.
Trying to bridge the gap, the rabbi followed to tell a parable. It was a story about a person who’s walking down the street and noticing, through the soundproof windows of a house, a bunch of people jumping in strange fashion. The passerby looks in with fascination, and after a while he becomes convinced that these are crazy people and that the building must be an asylum. Curious, he decides to walk in and knocks on the door, but no one answers. He then opens the door and enters, where at once he hears the incredible sounds of music and realizes instantly that these people were not just jumping randomly, but they were dancing to magical tunes which he couldn’t hear from the outside. He then understands that he made a mistake and compelled by the music, he joins them dancing.
Jewish life is similar, argued rabbi Soloveichik, where we can be insiders – and appreciate thousands of years of Jewish tradition and its beauty, or we can face it as outsiders, where we’ll regard everything as strange and outdated. My hope for you – our children, is that you’d open the door and walk in, appreciating our rich Jewish tradition as insiders and not just watch it from the outside, separated from its beautiful tunes.
I then walked a few blocks and listened to Rabbi Robinson, of Lincoln Square, who spoke of Rabbi Akiva, as representing the ultimate idea of Teshuva, of repentance, which is the theme of this Shabbat, before Yom Kippur. He elaborated on Rabbi Akiva’s life, his bravery – to go study Torah from the beginning, at the age of forty. He spoke about his revolutionary interpretations of our Halacha, his deep humility and his empathic egalitarian view of all types of Jews. And with the loss of his students, his resolve to find new ones to whom he transferred his Torah. Never give up – was the message I had to hear.
When I walked out, I thought of how inspiring our Jewish story is and how much I’d like to share it with my grandchildren. I recalled Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s recent lecture about Jewish identity, where he ended it with the line: “Biblical Judaism is the story of the redemptive self, which embodies the ‘belief that bad things can be overcome while affirming our commitment to building a better world.’ This story is our heritage as Jews and our contribution to the moral horizons of humankind. Hence, the life-changing idea: Our lives are shaped by the story we tell about ourselves, so make sure the story you tell is one that speaks to your highest aspirations, and tell it regularly.”
Our story is transformative and I wish that you all allow it to inspire you.
When I came home, I tried to share some of it with my son who had just graduated college. “But what if we don’t like the music?” my youngest son asked, referring to Rabbi Soloveichik’s parable. My son is a musician, and for him the question was not only symbolic, but also a literal one. I thought of what the wise rabbi’s answer would be. I tried my best to reply, while wishing he was there to whisper his wisdom in my ear; ‘Judaism is not one soundtrack. Modern Orthodoxy celebrates a large library of sounds and, as insider Jews, we have access to a rich library of tunes from across history, geography and styles.’
My hope this Yom Kippur is that you realize that Judaism is a gift, that Jewish observance is for all of us, and that you chose one of our many soundtracks and join in the dance.
Shana Tova & Gmar Chatima Tova.