Parshas Ki Teitzei (5771)
They tell a joke about a group of non-Jewish workers who were being supervised by the Jewish administrator of a synagogue as they labored under the intense sun building the shul’s large Sukkah. One of the men stopped working for a second and asked the Jewish fellow what this strange structure they were building was being used for. He explained to the worker that the ‘structure’ is called a Sukkah and that it was needed for the upcoming eight-day Jewish holiday of Sukkos. The worker was incredulous. He said to the administrator, “Do you actually mean to tell me that this hut that we are breaking our backs building for so many hours is only being used by you Jews for EIGHT DAYS A YEAR?!” The administrator responded, “That’s nothing! … You see the huge synagogue building over there?….THREE DAYS!!!!”
Now this might be a funny joke, but it’s really not that funny when you think about it. As we know, the “High Holiday Season” is just around the corner, and for most Jews around the world, the two days of Rosh HaShanah and the one day of Yom Kippur will likely be the only days of the year in which they will step foot into a synagogue – outside of the occasional shul flea market or bazaar or maybe to vote during an election.
What makes this so tragic is the fact that it represents a great distortion of what Judaism in general, and synagogue attendance in particular, is truly all about.
Many Jews seem to view their Jewish involvement as some sort of “club membership” in which they are part of this (exclusive?) club of which their grandparents or great-grandparents were prominent and highly involved members, and to which they want to maintain a connection even though it is largely irrelevant to their own lives. To that end, showing up at the synagogue three days a year during the High Holidays will suffice.
I only wish I could tell all these well-intentioned Jews – my fellow brothers and sisters - that Judaism is not a club membership but a relationship.
As we recite twice daily in the Shema – what some like to call the “Shmantra” of the Jewish People – which describes and defines the nature of the love relationship that we are meant to have with G-d: “And you shall love the Lord, your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources. And these matters that I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children and you shall speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise” (Deuteronomy 6:5-7).
These powerful verses of the Shema tell us that Judaism is all about maintaining a close relationship with our Father in Heaven. And when you want to have a relationship with someone, seeing him three days a year will just not do. Rather, G-d and Judaism have to be on our hearts “while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise” and we need to pop into the synagogue a little more often if we want that relationship to grow and thrive.
The problem is that most Jews – even those who attend synagogue services on a daily basis - were never taught this as kids. I guarantee you that if you took a survey of what Judaism is all about, most Jews would never say that it is about a love relationship with G-d. Fear of G-d, maybe, but love?
Ironically, much of this distortion stems from the High Holidays themselves. After all, the major focus is on the Day of Judgment and the Day of Atonement and guilt, repentance, etc. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lotta love there, does there?
What is hardly stressed in Jewish education is that the entire High Holiday season would not be possible, or even necessary, if not for the love relationship that G-d wants to have with us.
As the classic Jewish commentators point out, the four letters of the word Elul (the Hebrew name of the month preceding the High Holidays and which we are in presently) are the first letters of the four words “Ani L'Dodi V'Dodi li ― I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me" (Song of Songs 6:3).
What this means is that G-d loves us and wants us to love Him - and because of this love relationship, He wants to bring us closer to Him. Yet all the sins and mistakes we have made throughout the year are obstacles that get in the way of that love. So G-d provides us with Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur – days on which we can focus on G-d’s Presence in the world and in our lives, and work on improving ourselves and repenting for the mistakes we made during that past year that created distance between us and Him.
This whole “love relationship with G-d” thing might sound new or different to some of you – certainly not the way you heard it from your teacher in Hebrew School – but it truly is what Judaism is all about.
So what to do now that most Jews were never taught this most basic and fundamental Jewish idea that this world is all about love and our relationship with G-d??? ….Teach it to them now!! …. As they say, it’s never too late …
To that end, I would like to recommend reading a fascinating eight-part series called World of Love by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, one of the great personalities of our time. [Click here to read it: http://www.aish.com/jl/p/wl/48929907.html ]. This mind-blowing series will give you a glimpse into the true nature of G-d and His purpose for creating us and His great love for us.
It is my fervent hope that this High Holiday season, more and more of my fellow Jews will come to see G-d and Judaism the way they were meant to be seen – and will want to ‘renew’ their love relationship with their Father in Heaven.