Tuesday, September 07, 2004

RJJ Newsletter - September 2004

From the look of things, we have lost all of the battles and the war against materialism and hedonism. Homes that not long ago would have been regarded as elegant are being disemboweled and then rebuilt because he or she or both believe that it isn't fancy enough, especially when compared with the homes of friends and neighbors. We all seem to be caught up in self-indulgence. There are frum people who though they are quite skimpy in fulfilling their tzedakah obligations have been hit by the travel bug, shelling out thousands to see the Canadian Rockies or Alaska or to join the rapidly growing number of expensive kosher tours to this or that exotic place, apparently in the belief that these experiences are an essential element of a proper Torah life. Shortly, thousands - perhaps 10,000 or more - will make the sacred pilgrimage to Uman in Ukraine because they do not achieve spiritual fulfillment if they daven on Rosh Hashanah in an ordinary shul or yeshiva. Besides, it's apparently a mitzvah to enrich the Ukrainians by many millions in recompense for their slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Jews on that blood-soaked land. All of this is apart from the growing number of ego trips to Israel, at times led by Torah leaders. We may wonder what such Torah giants as Rav Eliyashev and Rav Shteinman would do with their time if they did not have a constant stream of Americans dropping by. A few weeks ago, I met a man who told me that he had just been to Israel, first scuba diving in Eilat and then two visits in Jerusalem with Rav Eliyashev. As with others, money was the passkey.

We are seeing once more that religious Jews whose values and practices separate them from nearly everyone else are profoundly affected by the behavior and values of others. In some respects, we have outdone our hosts in showing off, in being materialistic. It's quite the case that from the look of things we have lost the battles and the war against materialism and self-indulgence.

But there is more to the story. We see only a part of the picture because that's the part that our community overly focuses on. We see excesses everywhere. What we don't see sufficiently are the thousands of Torah families struggling to get by. We do not see sufficiently the parents who work hard and honorably and scarcely can meet the extra costs of a religious life, particularly the steadily increasing tuition charges. There are families, often with many children, where both parents work, where the father in a state of near exhaustion fights to find time to study Torah and learn with the children and where in a state of near exhaustion the mother takes care of the home, studies with the children and, likely as not, engages in chesed activities.

These families are our glory. They are our grandeur. They are the glory of the Jewish people. In truth, they are not entirely immune from materialism. After all, they are influenced to an extent by the world in which they live. In the main, though, they live modest lives. We see them in shul and wherever religious Jews are found, but while they are our glory and in a sense we see them, in another sense they are hidden. Their needs and their behavior get too little attention.

In our religious thought we have a concept known as Hester Panim, of G-D's glory being hidden from the Jewish people. This is a difficult concept to understand and yet it clearly has relevance to our contemporary experience. As we religious Jews and some Torah leaders give prominence to pomp and all that is public, we lose further sight of G-D's glory and consequently we lose sight, as well, of the glory of the ordinary Jewish family. The more we are a public people indulging in the noise and attention-grabbing that are highlights of the modern world, the more that is hidden from us and the greater the incidence of Hester Panim. The more that we abandon the principle of hatznea leches (modesty), the more that is tzanua (hidden) from us.

The shattering of the First Tablets immediately after they were given at Sinai is one of the epic events in our history. Medrash Tanchuma notes that the First Tablets were given in grandeur, with great sound and in the presence of the entire Jewish nation and that is why they were broken. The Second Tablets that were seen by Moshe Rabbenu alone were not broken.

The Chafetz Chaim comments: "Our Sages are teaching us that the permanence of any act, even that which is of great significance and sanctity is in danger if its creation comes with noise and loud ceremony. Behold, the First Tablets although they were the handiwork of G-D were nonetheless shattered because they were given in public." He goes on to emphasize that truth and wisdom are inner experiences that do not require tumult and noise and this is also true of Judaism, Torah and the commandments.

We are witness to the corrosive force of materialism and self-indulgence, how the emphasis on personal pleasure harms us and our children and our children's children. Except for the few who are blessed with a special sanctity, we cannot fully escape the influences of the world around us. Our Torah leaders properly urge us to resist, yet too much of what our community does openly belies this message. We have become eager to embrace noise and ceremony, apparently accepting the alien notion that whatever is not done openly is scarcely worth doing. There is greatness and glory in our family life and in all that abides by the principle of hatznea leches. But too much is hidden from us because we are intoxicated by the impulse to be exhibitionists.