The most recent guest post at Cross Currents by Rav Dovid Landesman notes his concern with social problems in the Chareidi community. After a brief comment on how some music and dancing is against Chareidi standards of tznius, he notes:
More disconcerting than the dancing, however, was the drinking. It began at the chasan’s tisch where a number of bottles, stored in the proverbial paper bags, were passed around and quickly placed under the table whenever a waiter or suspicious looking adult came by. Unlike brown baggers, however, these bottles weren’t filled with rot gut; only single malt scotches and eighteen year old bourbon were deemed suitable.
I watched as water glasses were filled with two inches of brown liquid, drained and then refilled for another round. The bags reappeared during the seudah, necessary I guess because the hosts had not placed wine bottles on the three tables reserved for bachurim and the bartender would not serve without carding.
To add to my chagrin, the rosh yeshivah, the mashgiach and a rebbi from the yeshiva were seated with the bachurim and clearly saw what was transpiring. The boys made no attempt to hide their drinking from the rabbis and none of the rabbis made any apparent attempt to stop the drinking; as a matter of fact, at one point the rebbi joined with them in a l’chaim.
I finally could not take it any more and decided to talk to them. I was as non-confrontational as I know how and asked the boys why they drank. Three boys claimed that they had not touched a drop; later I discovered that they were the designated drivers. The bachurim looked at me with absolutely no understanding. Some of them were not coherent enough to comprehend my reasoning; others, somewhat less soused, pointed out that drinking made them less embarrassed and self-conscious and thus more capable of dancing without inhibition.
Rav Landesman has correctly identified a problem but while he might be concerned with it, I ould note that it cannot be seen in isolation from the other problems affect the Torah observant community.
I mean, look at the news. Frum Jews, who are supposed to be the example in terms of morality and proper behaviour to the rest of our people, are constantly in the spotlight over issues like theft, pedophilia, drugs, an obession over halachic minutiae in the name of driving more and more people from Torah Judaism, and let's not ignore the violence. Forget being a light unto the nations. We seem quite far from that most days of the week. How is it possible that a people pledged to the Ribono shel Olam, who study His Torah which is a book of morals, can be so far from the ideal we proclaim ourselves to be emblematic of?
There's an old Simpsons episode (and two Garnel points to the person who can name it first) in which a motivational speaker comes to Springfield and identifies the malaise hanging over the town. His catch phrase? Stop existing as a human being and become a human doing.
This, in my opinion, is what is the source of Orthodoxy's trouble today. For too many people, behaving al pi halacha is not something which is a source of joy and inspiration, something which nourishes their Yiddishe neshama. Rather it is a rote behaviour, performed more out of habit and guilt of being looked down upon by the neighbours than anything else.
How many of us really concentrate when making a bracha the way the Mishna Berurah advises us to? How many just mumble the words even as the first piece of food hits the teeth? how many people concentrate on their davening, imagining the Ribono shel Olami standing in front of us listening to our supplications? How many of us simply whisper our way through the words as quickly as possible to get out of shul early?
How many of us learn Torah in order to comprehend the wonders of God's creation around us? How many learn in order to know more than the next guy, or to be able to say a clever vort that will make others say "pshhhhhh"? How many of us internalize the moral lessons we learn in Tanach and Talmud? How many of us ignore them even as we memorize the words?
Too many of us have become Jewish beings. But this is not what we are supposed to be.
In the parsha this week we are told about how the Bnei Yisrael began to march from Har Sinai. Right after that part of the narrative, the two famous inverted nun's appear, separating two famous verses from the surrounding text. Chazal say that this is to separate different bad episodes from one another and immediately after the second inverted nun we are told the story of the burning at Taveirah. But Ramban notes that there is no preceding puranos, bad episode so what are Chazal talking about? He concludes that the manner in which Bnei Yisrael left Har Sinai is the hidden bad episode. In the well-known words of Chazal, they ran away from the mountain like children running away from school, fearful that if they remained around Sinai God would find even more rules for them to observe. This showed that they had missed the entire point of matan Torah. If God is perfect, and His Torah is perfect and the way to gain the highest level in Olam Haba, then they should have desired to remain at har Sinai, under the cloud that contained God's presence, forever. Their running away showed that they had indeed received the Torah, but as a burdensome list of rules instead of God's revelation.
For a year they had studied at God's feet at Har Sinai as Jewish beings. Now the time had come to put into action all their preparations and to enter Eretz Yisrael where they could observe the Torah in full as Jewish doings. And in this task they faild to make the leap.
What happened next is well known. One stumble after another until finally they were condemned to die in the wilderness.
It would seem to be God's will that we perform his mitzvos not because we have to, because we know nothing else or because we're afraid of what the neighbours will say, but because we want to. Because by doing so we develop a connection with the Ribono shel Olam that nourishes our soul. Jews are not mean to just be, they are meant to do.
This then would explain what Rav Landesman saw at that wedding. When one is content to be a Jewish being, when there is really no inner connection between performing mitzvos and the essence of the Jew himself, then his behaviour will not distinguish himself from any of the other peoples of the world. They steal, we'll steal. They'll lie, we'll lie. And we'll even find where in Shulchan Aruch it's permitted! But this is all a perversion of what Torah is supposed to be.
To elevate ourselves morally we must do the Torah, not bjust be mitzvah-observant Jews. May God give us the strength to rise above our petty natures and fulfill His will in this world.