As we approach Yom Kippur and ask ourselves what we should do to become better Jews—not just as individuals but also as a community—we must realize that we need to change our attitudes and not just our deeds. This demands nothing less than ideological repentance.
In a pointed inquiry, the Talmud (Nedarim 81a) struggles with a remarkable phenomenon that has far reaching consequences for our own generation. Why is it, asks the Talmud, that children of the sages rarely became talmudic scholars and pious Jews? Should it not be they, more than anyone, who walk in the footsteps of their parents, reach even greater heights in learning and genuine observance? How could it be that the parent-sages did not provide them with the tools to do so?
After suggesting several possible reasons, the Talmud proposes: “It is because they (the sages) did not make a blessing over the Torah first.” This statement begs clarification. It is inconceivable to believe that the sages neglected to recite the appropriate blessing over the Torah, which each Jew is obligated to say at the start of the morning prayers. The Talmud consequently concludes that this statement must have come from God Himself as only He could know its deeper meaning.
While the commentators continue to wrestle with the interpretation, it is Rabbi Nissim Gerondi, (14th century Talmudist), better known as the Ran, who renders its full meaning:
The truth is that the people (sages) actually kept the Torah and never forsook the task of studying it. Therefore the prophets and the sages were perplexed until God Himself came to explain it. He, who knows the depths of the human heart, could see that, though they studied Torah, they did not bless it. They did not consider it to be a supreme blessing.
These are profound and powerful words. The statement, “they did not make a blessing over the Torah first,” means, says Rabbi Nissim Gerondi, that as much as they were devoted to Torah practice and learning, it was not the ultimate love of their lives. It may have been their top priority, the all-encompassing drive behind everything they did, spoke, felt and thought. But what was missing was the power of radical religious passion.
It was for this reason that their children did not follow in their footsteps. As they observed their parents they realized, perhaps only subconsciously, that a major ingredient was missing. Passion. As a result, they were uninspired by their parents’ life style, notwithstanding their commitment to halacha.
Still, one needs to fully understand this statement. What, after all, is a blessing and what is it that provides us with religious passion? It is the awareness that something cannot become exhausted. To appreciate Judaism and see it as a blessing is to understand that just as the ocean is unfathomable, so Judaism transcends all interpretations. It is not simply a chapter in the history of religion; nor can it be fully comprehended by the sages of Israel or anyone else. Understanding Judaism cannot be attained in the comfort of observing its laws or studying its texts. It occupies infinite space, beyond the limitations of the human mind and heart.
It can therefore only be appreciated in the light of higher level of repentance, of returning to it again and again, discovering its many dimensions unexplored during the previous year.
We did not invent Judaism; we received it. We may accept it or reject it, but we may not distort it. And distortion is what results from our belief that we have grasped it and that we live a full Jewish life through “observance.” While in the past we encountered apostasy, today it is mindlessness that has become the great challenge. Our failure is our inability to be disturbed, upset, and even hurt by the decline of authenticity. It is the possibility that we have become casualties of complacency while living a Jewish life. Once we “observe” Judaism, at the expense of celebrating it, we fail to be a source of inspiration to our children.
Repentance must be a decision made from a place of truthfulness and deep remorse. It must be a return to God, not a retreat or a phase in our lives. It should not be a coerced change, but a move of integrity.
Repentance is, by far, the greatest miracle. In the dimension of time there is no such thing as going back. But in the world of repentance time is created backward. It allows the re-creation of the past. To make the past better than it used to be. As such, it is a divine gift that alludes to a dimension of Judaism that surpasses man.
What is at stake today is not just the fate of our generation. We are the link in a chain between Avraham and the Mashiach. We are the only channel of Jewish tradition and we must ensure, not only saving Judaism from oblivion, but also guaranteeing that it be the great love of all future generations. We can be either the last Jews or the new givers of Judaism. Rarely in our history has one generation been so essential to the survival of Judaism. We will either enrich the Jewish religious legacy, or forfeit it.
This awareness demands a new attitude, an ideological repentance. We must never view Judaism as an arrival; rather, it is a continuum. Turning the past into the present to become the future. Once we realize this, Judaism will invoke a blessing for ourselves and our children. And that will be the “first” in our lives.
Tizku Le-Shanim Raboth and Shana Tova
The essay was inspired by Avraham Joshua Heschel z.l.