Our spiritual work during these difficult times, part 2

By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried

Dear Rabbi Fried,

In a recent column you answered our question of what we should be doing during a time like this filled with hatred toward the Jewish people. You said that during a time when they are proclaiming that Israel should be wiped off the map (i.e. from the river to the sea), there is an existential threat to our people. When they are attacking our entire people, that is a wake-up call to remind ourselves what it means to be a Jew. You said to be Jewish means to be holy and said you would explain this further. “Being holy” could be understood in many ways and it sounds like a very elusive concept. We are waiting for the explanation!

Sheila and Martin

Dear Sheila and Martin,

What we began to explain is that when the Gentile world is attacking our separateness, we need to recognize and embrace our separateness. This is not a time to attempt to convince them that we’re the same; they are already rejecting that. Many Torah sources point out that when we try to be the same, the nations of the world will remind us that we’re different, albeit in a very dissimilar way than if we would have acted differently of our own accord as a light unto the nations. When they do remind us, we rather need to look inward and refocus on in what way are we, in fact, different.

One of the differences that we need to focus on is that of holiness, as you mentioned. That is manifest in the mitzvos we perform. Rabbi E.E. Dessler, one of the great Jewish philosophers and sages of the past generation, has an essay “Mitzvos as ‘Life’ and Mitzvos as ‘Apparel’” (Strive for Truth, Vol. 1, p. 43).

One can perform a mitzvah with inwardness of heart, with feeling and, at times, self-sacrifice. This is what is called “life” since it adds to the personality a point of holiness which was not there before. Whenever one grows, there is life.

There is another way of performing a mitzvah, as the result of one’s upbringing, by rote. It’s something to do “just because” that’s what you do. This type of mitzvah is called “apparel.” Although lacking in inwardness, it still carries value, preventing one from falling lower and, at the least, maintaining a structure of observance. Still, one does not grow from that, so there’s no real life present.

Even one who has struggled to achieve a level of mitzvah observance at the outset may eventually fall into a life of rote and maintain their observance as apparel. In fact, the “evil inclination” will often do just that; it knows it can’t sway this person away from observance, as he or she is too invested in it. It can, however, influence the observer into laziness and remove the life from the mitzvah.

There is yet a more insidious level of observance as “apparel.” That is when one’s striving is toward physical pleasures, creature comforts and sometimes worse. But those lusts and desires could be masked by the apparel of holiness! One could be a glutton but proudly show that all the foods consumed at his binge are strictly kosher! The examples and the list of possibilities go on and on.

Leading sages of our generation have said that this last idea is one of the main challenges of our generation. Due to the level of prosperity largely unknown to Jewish communities in previous generations, even many of the observant are falling prey to the enticements of the physical world now available to us on unprecedented levels. Living this way renders our mitzvos to be mere apparel masking a Gentile way of living, thereby erasing the divide of holiness which is what truly separates us from the nations of the world. (See Ramban/Nachmanides in his intro to Parashas Kedoshim.)

Do we strive for wealth just to be wealthy and tzedakah is a necessary, at times irritating, byproduct of our wealth? Or do we strive to be able to help others and give tzedakah and the giving of charity justifies wealth? We need to look at all of our lives, our possessions and our mitzvos in that way. That is holiness and separates us from the other nations. It justifies our very existence as a holy nation, during a time when others would like to see us cease to exist. With this we have eternity and it is they, not us, who will be relegated to a mention in history books along with all the previous nations who expressed a similar sentiment toward us!

Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of DATA-Dallas Area Torah Association.

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