Making Room for Hashem

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Writing columns must be one of the easiest jobs in the world (though like most easy jobs it is not terribly remunerative). All one has to do is keep one’s ears open and, in the course of a week, one can pretty much count on someone basically writing the column for you.

Two days ago, for instance, someone approached me at a wedding. The conversation did not get off to a great start. After telling me I looked familiar and asking my name, he told me, “Oh yeah, I heard you speak in my shul. You write better than you speak.” I was tempted to argue, but I decided I would not be any happier if he told me, “You sure speak a lot better than you write.”

Anyway, I forgive this fellow because he ended writing this week’s column. At some point, the conversation turned to Switzerland and the idiosyncracies of the Swiss. For instance, on his first flight to Switzerland, my new pal asked the stewardess about train schedules in Zurich. She returned a few moments later with a copy of the 1958 Zurich phone book. When he asked her whether there might not have been some changes in the train schedule over the last forty years, the stewardess stared at him uncomprehendingly.

It was not, however, until slightly further along in his routine that I had the column. Like my wife and I on our recent visit to Switzerland, he had been struck by the fact that on the trams and buses no one takes your ticket or otherwise checks to see if you paid. When we asked our hosts about this, they offered that every once in a while an inspector asks to see one’s ticket. But even then the fine for not having paid is relatively small. A rational economic calculator, with criminal tendencies, might well conclude that it was worth paying the occasional fine.

My newfound friend had the same thought, and had asked one of the locals, “What happens if the inspector catches you without a ticket?” The man could barely understand the question. “Everyone would know!” he said with a horrified look.

My friend found this hilarious; I found it pretty impressive. The Swiss sense of shame is so highly developed that the mere contemplation of being revealed as someone who did not pay for the tram, in front of a group of strangers, is so terrifying that Switzerland can dispense with the elaborate turnstiles and subway police that New York City needs to prevent fare jumpers.

Shame is one of the characteristics by which Klal Yisrael is distinguished. But it has atrophied over the generations. Haven’t we all asked ourselves upon hearing about someone caught running a ponzi scheme or engaged in some other unsavory activity: “Did he think he could get away with it forever? Didn’t he think about his kids’ shidduchim?” and the like.

If our sense of busha were as strong as the Swiss most of us would look a lot different. After all we are in a much better position than they are. The Swiss only need to worry about an inspector getting on the same tram once or twice a year. We know with a certainty that Hashem knows every thing we do. And yet that knowledge does not save us from all kinds of failures – great and small – of which we would surely be ashamed if our neighbors knew.

What emerges, then, is that we have not really internalized the fact that He knows. We are only dimly aware of Hashem as we go about our daily business.

THAT SAME REALIZATION came to me in a different context during a pre-Tisha B’Av drashah by a leading ba’al mussar (who will remain nameless in case I misunderstood him.) The Bais HaMikdash was called Bais Tefilasi (the House of My prayer), he noted (Yeshaya 56:7); its destruction placed a solid barrier between our prayers and Hashem. We lost the ability to call out directly to Him. With every generation, the intense connection to Hashem through prayer becomes more attenuated.

In some respects — dikduk in mitzvos, for instance – we may even be greater than our immediate predecessors. Our grandparents’ mitzvah observance followed a mesorah passed down from generation to generation. We, however, learn halacha from seforim, and try to fulfill all the different shittos in the poskim, not just the tradition of our parents.

Yet when it comes to hartige tefillah (heartfelt prayer), we cannot compare to the simple Jew of just a couple generations ago.

Dikduk in mitzvos, the speaker emphasized repeatedly, is indispensable. It derives from the yiras Shomayim that must underlie all our Divine service. But we also need the direct connection to Hashem of tefillah. Prayer engaged in just to fulfill the rabbinic mitzvah is lacking the very essence of prayer.

Already the Amoraim noted that superiority in one area of spiritual endeavor is no guarantee of greater closeness to Hashem. Rav Pappa was puzzled by the fact that previous generations were the beneficiaries of greater Divine miracles. After all, the early generations were not greater in Torah learning: Rav Pappa’s generation was fluent in all of Gemara and that of Rav Yehudah only Nezikin. Yet Rav Yehudah had only to remove one shoe to pray [on a public fast] and the rains already began to fall.

Abaye answered Rav Pappa: They were moser nefesh for Kiddush Hashem and we are not (Berachos 20a).

Mitzvah observance, even Torah learning, can be engaged in without a heightened consciousness of Hashem. That may explain why we sometimes observe actions taken in the name of some lofty spiritual goal that come out as ugly and off-putting. The one thing missing from the actor’s consciousness is Hashem.

Will my action bring about a Kiddush Hashem or the opposite? Will it bring others closer to Torah or distance them? Am I acting in way that reflects thought about the ideal man for whom Hashem created the world? Until those questions too are part of our consciousness, until the question of what Hashem wants is ever before us, we are at risk of making ourselves disgusting in His sight and that of our fellow man.

This article appeared in the Mishpacha on Wednesday, 20 August 2008.

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7 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding chazzanut:

    Many chazzanim were unable or unwilling to carry it off properly. Some would launch into interminable, boring attempts at arias while the congregation nodded off or started side conversations. Others lacked the necessary singing voice or vocal training. Some chazzanic tunes didn’t fit the words or their meaning. Some chazzanim made the congregation rush through its own parts.

    For a congregation unable to find or afford a quality chazzan with the right attitude, using acceptable amateurs from the congregation makes a lot of sense. This, however, does not justify abandoning the nusach in favor of today’s or yesterday’s Jewish pop hits.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    I noticed the same honor system trolley fare when I visited Zurich in 2002. Perhaps they have decided that the social cost of their cheating on the fare outweighs the short-term gain.

    This is far from objecting to cheating in principle. Recent news about Swiss deals with Iran and old news about Swiss deals with the Nazis would indicate that their moral priorities are shuffled or pushed aside when there’s major money to be made.

  3. Peleg Strauss says:

    Perhaps one of the reasons that people don’t always do the right thing is that the only thing that compels them to do the right thing is fear of punishment. And since the punishments Hashem metes out are not always immediate or obvious, it may seem that one can get away with an averiah. It’s just like raising kids. If you wait until next week to punish a young child, he’ll likely not understand what the consequences of his actions are.

    I think that we should, in addition to stressing that there will be a punishment, try to instill a sense of ethics such that a good person does the right thing just because it is the right thing and that is sufficient reason to do the right thing. A crook knows he is stealing. Teach our kids that if they steal, no matter how many other mitzvahs they do, in their own eyes, they cannot then consider themselves to be a good person, no exceptions.

    I am uncomfortable in those restaurants that don’t make you pay when served because I am always worried that I’ll forget to pay. And if I don’t pay for my meal, then I’ve stolen from the owner, and I do not want to be a thief. Sure enough, it happened about a year ago. When I remembered, I had to make a special trip back to the restarant to pay for my slice and soda. He seemed rather suprised that after about a week, anyone would come back and pay. It’s a really sad indictment of the training that our parents and yeshivas give us that he was surprised. It didn’t seem to me to be all that great of thing to do.

    I was just doing what I thought a good person does. And I believe before I can call myself a good Jew, I’ve got to be a good person first.

    But I still think that there are some people who are just broken in this respect. I know a guy who, last time I heard about him, was sitting in jail. The amazing thing about his story is that he got caught once doing the same thing and got into some trouble for it, but I don’t know if he went to jail for it the first time. What I can’t understand is, after getting caught the first time, how could he think that he could get away with it a second time, why he’d risk it. So, I think that some people just don’t have any sense of right or wrong, no sense of personal pride, or they are so arrogant that they think that can get away with it. There just seems to be something broken or missing in their way of thinking. For these sad cases, there isn’t much that can be done. I am not talking about these kind of people because they are a special case.

    So, all those reasons you give are true. I just think there should be one more reason to do the right thing.

  4. Daniel B. Schwartz says:

    Rabbi Rosenblum writes:
    “Yet when it comes to hartige tefillah (heartfelt prayer), we cannot compare to the simple Jew of just a couple generations ago.”

    R E P L Y
    Of course we can;t comapre. In the past fifty or so years, we have actively abandoned the traditional music, the nusach of prayer. The nussach, a two thousand year old tradition which bound our prayers up with those of of our forbears is gone. And with it, has gone with soul stirring prayers of days gone by. Indeed we no longer even remember the melodies Jews of two generations ago used when praying. Those melodies stirred them to greater concentration on their prayers. We no longer appreciate the efforts of those few people who still try to interpret the text of the Siddur using the traditional prayer modes. We now call such homiletics “silly chazzanut.” Even great rabbis deride the traditional expositors of Nussach hatephilah. In exchange for the time hallowed sound of our pryers we have been given trite, mind numbing little ditties. Mimkomcha Malkeinu Tofiah now sounds like a funeral dirge and Kvodo moleh Olam like Jack and Jill Went up the Hill. So long as our worship is nothing more than a two hour “Sing Along with Mitch” in Hebrew, pandering to the lowest aesthetic common denominator, our prayers will be equally superficial and meaningless. We have cheapened davening. G-d is a “bocher b’shiriei zimrah.” I doubt He’s very pleased by our current repertoire.

  5. Daniel B. Schwartz says:

    Rabbi Rosenblum writes:
    “Yet when it comes to hartige tefillah (heartfelt prayer), we cannot compare to the simple Jew of just a couple generations ago.”

    R E P L Y
    Of course we can;t comapre. In the past fifty or so years, we have actively abandoned the traditional music, the nusach of prayer. The nussach, a two thousand year old tradition which bound our prayers up with those of of our forbears is gone. And with it, has gone with would stirring prayers of days gone by. Indeed we no longer even remember the melodies Jews of two generations ago used when praying. Those melodies stirred them to greater concentration on their prayers. We no longer appreciate the efforts of those few people who still try to interpret the text of the Suddir using the traditionla prayer modes. We now call such homiletics “silly chazzanut.” Even great rabbis deride the traditional expositors of Nussach hatephilah. In exchange for the time hallowed sound of our pryers we ahve been given trite, mind numbing little ditties. Mimi komcha Malkeinu Tofiah now sounds like a funeral dirge and Kvodo moleh Olam like Jack and Jill Went up the Hill. So long as our worship is nothing more than a two hour “Sing Along with Mitch” in Hebrew, pandering to the lowest aesthetic common denominator, our prayers will be equally superficial and meaningless. We ahve cheapened davening. G-d is a “bocher b’shiriei zimrah.” I doubt He’s very pleased by our current repertoire.

  6. Garnel Ironheart says:

    An excellent article and one we should all take to heart.

    But before you praise the Swiss too much, remember that the same sense of shame that prevents them from queue jumping also prevents them from ever making moral choices and fighting evil. Remember that the worse villians of history receive the same welcome and help from the Swiss as the most righteous. Thus their shame has its dark side too.

  7. mycroft says:

    “In some respects — dikduk in mitzvos, for instance – we may even be greater than our immediate predecessors. Our grandparents’ mitzvah observance followed a mesorah passed down from generation to generation. We, however, learn halacha from seforim, and try to fulfill all the different shittos in the poskim, not just the tradition of our parents.

    Yet when it comes to hartige tefillah (heartfelt prayer), we cannot compare to the simple Jew of just a couple generations ago”

    The point was made in R Chaim Soloveitchik’s classic article about 15 years ago-there were 2 almost identical versions one in A volume about Fundamentalism and one in Tradition.
    Of interest is that in the first one published the Fundamentalism volume he tells a story about his time in a Yeshiva for Yom Kippur where he felt that although the students were experts in halacha and certainly mdaktek bmitzvot de did not seem to feel the prayer was for ones own life compared to the schul which had non religious people that he grew up. Of interest, of course, that in the Fundamentalism volume published by U of Chicago Marty editor he names the Yeshiva while in Tradition he doesn’t.