The Rabbis are making this stuff up (Eruvin 99)

A God-fearing, pious, devout individual once came to Rav Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) bemoaning his children’s rejection of Jewish observance.

“Rabbi Feinstein, I don’t understand,” said the man, “I sacrificed so much for Torah.”  The fellow went on to tell the tale of how he immigrated to America from Russia and found work in the sweat-shops of New York’s Lower East Side.

“Each Friday afternoon, I would gently try to explain to the boss that I couldn’t come in to work the next day, due to my commitment to Sabbath observance.  Inevitably, the response, week-in, week-out, would be: ‘If you don’t come in tomorrow morning, don’t bother coming back at all.’  And each Monday morning, I’d spend half the day scrambling to find a new job, praying that I’d be able to feed my family that week.  Rabbi Feinstein, I gave so much for my Judaism.  It wasn’t easy being Jewish back in those days.  And this is how God repays me!  I just don’t understand.”

Rabbi Feinstein placed his hand on the man’s hand and let out a deep sigh.  “My dear friend, Hashem loves you.  You have indeed given so much for Him.  But my fear is that your children were the real victims of your weekly struggle.  You see, each Friday, when you came home, looking forlorn and dejected, undoubtedly you exclaimed, as you said to me, ‘It’s not easy being Jewish.’  Can you imagine what it’s like as a child to hear that refrain every Friday night at the Shabbos table?  Can you blame them for feeling that it really isn’t worth the effort?”

But Rav Moshe was a kindly soul.  He asked the man for the telephone numbers of his children.  He reached out to each of them and would call them every Friday to wish them Shabbat Shalom.  Slowly but surely, the young adults were drawn back to their Judaism and began to warm to traditional practice.

Indeed, it isn’t easy to be Jewish.  But with love and warmth, one learns that it’s worth all the effort!

אָמַר רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ: כִּיַּח בִּפְנֵי רַבּוֹ חַיָּיב מִיתָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר ״כׇּל מְשַׂנְאַי אָהֲבוּ מָוֶת״ — אַל תִּקְרֵי ״לִמְשַׂנְאַי״, אֶלָּא ״לְמַשְׂנִיאַי״.

Reish Lakish said: One who coughs up phlegm before his rabbi is deserving of death, as it is stated: “All they who despise Me love death” (Proverbs 8:36). Do not read it: “They who despise Me”; rather, read it as: “Those who cause others to despise Me.”

The Meiri (C13) explains that expectorating is vulgar, and doing so before one’s Torah teacher symbolises the rejection of the rabbinic tradition.  The verse signifies the broadening of this concern.  Anyone who causes people to despise the Torah by disrespecting our Sages is guilty of the offence of ‘expectorating’.

Sometimes we find it hard to accept the words of our Sages.  If it’s our Sages of yore, we might feel that their sentiments are unsuited to our modern sensibilities.  Or if it’s our contemporary Sages, we might feel that their positions are too stringent or out of touch.  We mumble and grumble, but, as Torah-observant Jews, we begrudgingly get on with it and do what we have to do.

Sadly, however, our children hear the mumbling and grumbling.  The cynicism in our voices does not pass them by.  They pay attention to our reluctant acceptance (or, worse yet, even snarky attitudes), and they question our undying fealty to the words of our Sages.  When they hear us comment that the Rabbis are making this stuff up, why would we expect them to commit to something they think that we don’t even believe in?  And so their minds and practices begin to wander.

Just like the fellow who sacrificed so much to keep Shabbos, and yet conveyed a message of regret to his children, only to wonder what went wrong, we need to be so careful about the message we’re conveying to our kids.  For our generation, the test of “It’s not easy being Jewish” is not one of Shabbos observance.  It’s one of maintaining a passion for Torah and the teachings of our Sages in a postmodern relativist world that assails the belief in an absolute truth.  We live in a world where respect for any authority has all but disappeared, let alone religious authority.

We need to be so careful not to alienate our youth by expressing our personal misgivings aloud.  Everyone has questions.  Everyone has doubts.  But a classic Yiddish aphorism declares, “Nobody ever died from a question.”  It’s OK to have questions, so long as you maintain your passion and enthusiasm for your Judaism and make it crystal clear that questions are a positive aspect of Jewish life, not an excuse to give up your hope and motivation.

Your kids are watching you.  Your kids are learning from you.  While it’s true that actions speak louder than words, what you say and how you say it are still of paramount importance.  Your Judaism should be bubbling with optimism and positivity!  May you always shine a light of passion and enthusiasm for Torah that propels all those around you to spread the light and joy far and wide!

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Friedman is the senior rabbi of the 1200-family Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, the United Synagogue's flagship congregation.
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