Many of you probably have seen a video that went viral a couple of months ago. It captured the powerful emotions of a left-wing protestor at a rally in Bnei Brak, who was moved to tears and began singing along when he heard the popular Friday night tune for Shalom Aleichem being played on the loudspeakers.
Apparently, it brought back memories of his youth, reminding him of his father who used to sing the melody to him every Friday night.
It was a beautiful, spontaneous, and emotional scene that fortunately was recorded for thousands of others to enjoy and reflect upon.
However, for me it was not just a feel-good moment. It reinforced my belief that Judaism for the most part is able to thrive because of its sights, sounds, scents, and tastes.
I know that we like to think of ourselves as the people of the book, and we strongly emphasize Torah study and other intellectual pursuits. But when you think about it, what are the things in our religion that stick with us the most, and that remain part of our inner being? It’s usually the more sensory things that we remember and that we associate with our ritual practices.
I’m sure if that protestor heard the same dvar torah that he was exposed to when he was a child instead of the tune for Shalom Aleichem, he wouldn’t have blinked an eye. It was the fact that he heard a beautiful melody that he associated with his youth – that is what triggered the strong emotional response.
We are fortunate that we have many parts of our daily religious life that are sensual in nature and allow us to better appreciate God’s handiwork. If we simply were required to study Torah all day, and not have any sensual experiences as part of our religious life, we would lack the heart and soul that makes Judaism so special. Imagine not being able to light the Shabbos candles, hear the melody of kiddush, sing Shabbat zemirot on Friday night, smell the cholent when we come home from shul, and taste the special foods we prepare for Shabbat. Our Shabbat would be devoid of any spiritual meaning.
Which brings me to the main point of my column. There’s a major problem in the Modern Orthodox community today, in my opinion. An unusually high percentage of our youngsters are abandoning religious observance and leaving Orthodoxy in high school, college, and after college. In a recent study done by Chabad, a whopping 45% of those who identified as Orthodox and who participated in Chabad programs on campus were no longer Orthodox after they left school. And that’s the group who participated in Chabad activities … if you add to this total the Orthodox students who did not participate in Chabad, the percentage is likely even higher.
What’s also disturbing is that the Modern Orthodox community seemingly does not view this as a major issue. In the Nishma Research study that was released just two months ago, Modern Orthodox respondents were given a list of 18 different communal priorities and asked to rank them in importance.
Youngsters going “off the derech” was ranked twelfth, behind fighting anti-Semitism, dealing with LGBTQ Orthodox Jews, caring for Orthodox minorities, and several others. Only 44% viewed the problem of our youngsters leaving Orthodoxy as a major problem.
I don’t have a magic bullet to solve this problem. However, I do believe that if we are going to keep more of our kids connected to observance, it will be because we are appealing to their spiritual and sensual side. And if we are going to bring back those who have unfortunately already gone off the derech, it’s going to be with the sights, the sounds, the tastes, and the smells that they remember from their youth.
We need to reinforce those sensual experiences: the warm glow of the candles in the menorah on Chanukah … the piercing sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashana … the Dayenu tune at the seder … the sweet smell of the besamim at havdala.
In 1978, The Rav, zt”l, gave a hesped for the Rebbetzin of Talne, in which he explained what he learned from his own mother. It has much relevance to the topic I’m discussing:
“I used to watch her arranging the house in honor of a holiday. I used to see her recite prayers. I used to watch her recite the sidra every Friday night and I still remember the nostalgic tune.
“Most of all I learned that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent, a warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life – to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up as a soulless being, dry and insensitive.
“The laws of Shabbat, for instance, were passed on to me by my father; they are a part of mussar avicha. The Shabbat as a living entity, as a queen, was revealed to me by my mother; it is a part of torat imecha. The fathers knew much about the Shabbat; the mothers lived the Shabbat, experienced her presence, and perceived her beauty and splendor.
“The fathers taught generations how to observe the Shabbat; mothers taught generations how to greet the Shabbat and how to enjoy her 24-hour presence.”
May we all be fortunate to utilize the many sensory elements that are part of our rich tradition, both to teach our children how lovely Judaism can be and to bring back those who need a sensory reminder.