Don’t forget to use Torah for intended purpose

I am a firm believer that a connection to Torah not only enhances a person’s morality, but that it is the greatest character-building tool at humanity’s disposal. Between its everlasting ethical teachings and principles to its morally enlightening stories of the great men and women of our past, we are given a vision of a moral life to aspire to and laws to help guide us along that very path.
That being said, it is no wonder that new students of Torah find the presence of morally deficient observant Jews incredibly perplexing. These students have come in contact with Jews who, as fastidious as they are in their performance of the ritual laws, utterly fail in their obligations to their fellow man. There is the religious relative whom they are sure would never dream of missing a day that didn’t commence with the donning of tefillin and the recitation of holy prayers, who is nevertheless known as an unscrupulous businessman, and the Orthodox couple they are friendly with who just can’t stop yelling and antagonizing each other.
To many it remains as a mystery — how can one live a dedicated, religious life on the one hand and remain a callous, bad-tempered and unscrupulous individual on the other?
While recently thinking about this question, the analogy of a mirror struck me as most appropriate. You see, Torah is like a perfectly shining mirror hanging on the wall. By affixing the mirror in a prominent place, you are likely to stop in front of it and take a good look at yourself before leaving the house. Is your hair right? Did you miss a button? You might even notice something of greater importance, like a new mole growing on your neck that requires a trip to the dermatologist. While hanging the mirror on the wall doesn’t guarantee that you will look better than before, it definitely increases your chances!
It’s important to recognize, though, that not everyone who lives in mirror-filled houses benefits equally. You see, some people didn’t “choose” to affix those mirrors on the walls themselves. They were rather born into a family that hung mirrors all over the house. And while they undoubtedly utilized the family mirrors on occasion, mirrors on the wall became more a matter of family custom than anything else — their utilitarian value having long been relegated to secondary function. When they grew up and it came time to build a house of their own, fresh mirrors were quickly put up, of course, for such was the minhag, the custom, but it didn’t take long for the mirrors to become an afterthought once again.
To the sensitive soul, the Torah cries out to be studied every day and presents its student with a list of blemishes, imperfections and deficiencies that must be addressed before he leaves this world. This daily process of profound self-examination and heartfelt study certainly benefits the individual at hand in a most profound way. But for the individual for whom the Torah and Torah living has been reduced to a matter of culture, no longer a central life force, the Torah becomes like that forlorn mirror on the wall, always there, but never being used.
It’s hard to imagine, but culturally religious Jews do indeed exist! A person can play the part, wear a beard and payos, dress in modest clothing and observe the Shabbat, but unless the Torah is utilized as more than just a tool for fitting in with one’s community and family, its majestic powers remain untapped, and the reputation of God and His Torah suffer in the process.
Of course every person and every situation is unique and no one explanation, even a good one, can account for every scenario. For some, the Torah is truly front and center in their lives, but they have difficulty escaping the many rationalizations which paint their unbecoming behavior as acceptable or even meritorious and stop the wheels of teshuvah, repentance, from ever turning. Who knows, maybe the individual you are pointing toward is actually working diligently on changing her character traits, but her process is mostly being done in private, away from the peering eyes of all those around her.
At the end of the day, it is precisely because of the frailty of humankind that the Torah was given to man, but like any good product it cannot help you if you do not use it. The problem is with people, not with Torah! As for us, it is our job to proudly hang the mirrors of Torah throughout our homes and to teach our children that those mirrors were affixed in the hopes that we would utilize them every day, perceive their personal messages for us and ultimately make ourselves into better people and better Jews.
Let’s make sure that our children know the difference between bagels and matzah balls, strong fixtures in our Jewish culture, and the Torah, which is so much more.

Leave a Reply