I will not blame you if you disagree with the premise of this article. I’m not even sure I agree with it myself.
Now that I am retired, I get asked often enough if I miss speaking publicly. I half-jokingly respond that I don’t miss speaking, but I sit and listen to the rabbi and think how I could have done a better job. In truth, the rabbi where I usually daven is an extraordinary talmid chacham who always has content worth listening to.
This past Shabbos Shuvah, the rav made a very thought-provoking comment. He stated that, baruch Hashem, there is much Torah learning and chesed in the Orthodox community today. But he added that, on the other hand, Shabbos has been reduced to “different kinds of dips, olives, and expensive whiskey.” He explained that, although there is significant depth and organized care in the Torah community, there is a perceptible amount of shallowness, as well.
“Do you know what’s missing in our generation? Hashem!” he proclaimed. In other words, as much as strict and joyful practice of Yiddishkeit is thankfully on the increase, we sometimes forget why we do what we do. We are supposed to make the service of G-d central to our lives. And that, said the rav, is what we need to work on.
I thought about that assessment quite a bit. I begin to see his point. I did mention to the rav that I would like to write an article based on his Shabbos Shuvah thought and asked if I could mention his name. He told me I could, provided that I do not take it to mean it in a “ruchniyus/spiritual” sense but in a “gashmiyus/materialistic” way. Meaning, he was not saying that we should do anything to curb our spiritual activities, but merely to check our materialistic drives.
“Some people may think that I was asking for us to slow down on our religious zeal, but I know I can trust you not to write that,” he said. Well, I’m not sure where spirituality ends and where materialism begins, so in order not to lose the rabbi’s trust, I will not use his name.
To start, I received reports of a wonderful shul, of which I am very familiar, where on Simchas Torah the daytime hakafos ended at 4:00 p.m. Shul started at 8:30 a.m. with about a half-hour break for kiddush. It seems the hakafos were primarily led by yeshivah boys who were home for the Yom Tov. I wonder to myself: Were these hakafos really done for the sake of celebrating the completion of Hashem’s Torah, or did having a good time play a role? Many of the shul’s congregants lost patience and either went home or hung around to gossip. Is it worth it?
I know it is kind of snooty of me to sit in judgment. I also should be happy that the shul was very joyful in its celebration rather than being half-dead and not caring about the significance of completing the reading of the Torah. But the rabbi’s words stick in my head. Of course, it’s likely he will tell me he did not mean for this to be a case in point. Maybe I’m just trying to justify myself for being a stick in the mud. But I do think that the spiritual value of celebrating Simchas Torah is enhanced by greater intensity in less time.
The first Gerrer Rebbe, the Chidushei Hari”m, commented on the words of Rabbi Yosi (Pirkei Avos 2:17): “And all your deeds should be l’sheim Shamayim – for the sake of heaven.” “Even the l’sheim Shamayim must be l’sheim Shamayim,” expounded the Rebbe. Quite a challenge.
My brother Rabbi Aryeh Schonfeld told me that in Ger, where he lives in Zurich, each hakafah is timed to be 20 minutes. I am sure they were not less joyous than the ones that stretched out for eternity. Likely more so.
Take the bar and bas mitzvah. The old joke is that there is more “bar” than mitzvah. It is not such a joke. Too many of today’s milestone celebrations are simply over-the-top. Even in the most observant communities, these celebrations have so many entertainment attractions (alcohol, DJs, and all) that what gets lost is the reason for the celebration. Upsherins often enough have become major productions with star-studded entertainment.
Someone sent me a voice clip of a chasidishe spokesman of sorts who was asked if it’s acceptable that husbands, weekly, go to several “kiddushes” and eat to the point where they come home with no appetite. The poor wives work so hard to prepare a delicious Shabbos meal, and the husband has no desire to eat it. “Is that proper?” asked the questioner.
The spokesman (he sounded for real) said it was okay to do so because women must realize that men will be men and they are entitled to enjoy themselves at a kiddush or two...or three.
I don’t know. Where is the mentchlichkeit in this? Where is the concern for the wives? Where is Hashem in the calculation? Food for thought.
I might add: If things were truly done with Hashem in mind, would we be reading of awful financial scandals taking place in some of our institutions?
As I say, I may be off base. I may be condescending in my approach. All true…but of course, I am l’sheim Shamayim!
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.