I’m glad I went to yeshiva, because there they taught me how to survive the Days of Awe: learn Torah, don’t look at girls, pray three times a day with a minyan, never forget the blessings before and after eating, and learn more Torah.
Fifteen years later, I’m not afraid of the Day of Judgment, because I still remember the formula.
I yell at my wife the moment I walk through the door. Dinner isn’t ready.
“Tell me about school,” I mumble to my daughter later without lifting my eyes from my phone.
I don’t make it to minyan the next morning. Or the morning after. My meeting runs late. I cancel my chavruta (study partner). It’s OK. The Talmud’s not practical. It won’t help me pay this month’s tuition bill. And there are no goring oxen in Riverdale or Teaneck or Los Angeles.
At least I didn’t look at my daughter.
* * *
There’s a point to these sarcastic, fictional vignettes.
We tend to define ourselves by our formative religious experiences. But, as we age, our responsibilities change. Fifteen or 20 years down the road, we are no longer the same people we were when we went to yeshiva, seminary, or college. So perhaps our religious barometers need to shift as well.
The pressures on many Jewish families and individuals are immense. It’s hard to pay for day school. It’s hard to coordinate pick-ups and drop-offs and weave in shul board meetings. It’s hard to arrange child care, and it’s hard to be at home taking care of children. It can be impossible to take a vacation when all your vacation days are dedicated to Jewish holidays. Even if one doesn’t have a spouse or children, modern life takes place exclusively in the fast lane. The inbox is always full of emails requiring an immediate response. Work-life balance is fleeting.
Needless to say, it’s hard to set aside time for Torah, and it’s hard to make it to shul. It’s even hard to find time to think about God. The call of the shofar: “Arise you sleepy ones from your lethargy!” — as Maimonides puts it — instills in us terror and helplessness. For we are not sleeping. We don’t sleep nearly enough in fact. We are struggling just to hold on. And yet it never seems like we’re doing enough.
And there’s the other side of the coin we tend to neglect: our relationships with others. As we grow into adulthood, there’s often a lot more to think about than just ourselves. Our spouses, children, and coworkers are the people we spend the most time with, and they are often the people we wrong the most.
I’m not saying that Torah and mitzvot are unimportant. Far from it. At the same time, many of us are already making sacrifices just to keep the basics. We ought to be proud of the hard work we are doing to keep Shabbat and Yom Tov and kosher and to be active community members. Yet we’re not always behaving the way we should toward others. We’re not treating those close to us with the respect and compassion they deserve.
So this year, let’s shift the focus. If we can’t immediately reignite our connection with God through Torah and mitzvot, let’s take the first steps toward repairing our relationships with others. Remember, the turn to the other is also part of our return to God.
It’s easier said than done. And I’m talking to myself more than anyone else. I’d rather spend four hours a day contemplating those Talmudic oxen than lift a finger to make myself a better person. Even in writing this essay, I am taking time away from my family, and I’m selfishly contemplating the number of likes and shares it will get on social media. But I’m writing it anyway, because maybe it will force me to begin doing what needs to be done.
Let us try to be better fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, coworkers, and friends: slow to anger; loving; accepting; doing and not just grandstanding; present in the moment. Could we, for one evening, put away our phones and just listen, really listen, to someone who needs us? In these times of profound connectedness that paradoxically breed such deep loneliness, can we try to help a friend or a stranger in need, instead of just reacting to them on Facebook? And when is the last time we have approached someone we have truly wronged and asked for forgiveness and tried to make amends?
Here then is a prayer for these Days of Awe. God — instead of just speaking to You, let me speak to others with the respect they deserve. Instead of just listening to the sound of the shofar, let me listen to those around me. God, uncover my eyes to gaze not only on the wonders of Your Torah, but upon the wonderful traits of those who You created in Your image. Allow me to see the good in every human being. And may I, in time, merit the fulfillment of the eternal words of Your prophet, and my heart of stone become one of beating, living flesh.