Parshas Yisro (5769)
There’s an old joke they tell about a Jewish guy who buys a horse. The fellow who sells it to him tells him that this horse is different than other horses – it is trained to start moving when you say “Baruch Hashem” (Thank G-d), and only stops when you say “Shema Yisrael” (Hear O Israel …).
The new owner is all excited with his new purchase and gets on the horse and practices. “Baruch Hashem” he says, and the horse breaks into a trot. “Shema Yisrael” he announces, and sure enough, the horse stops.
One day as he is galloping on his horse through the forest, having the time of his life, he sees that the path ends up ahead with a steep cliff. Suddenly he realizes that he has forgotten the two-word formula needed to make the horse stop. “Shabbat Shalom” he squeaks, desperately. The horse keeps going. “Um – Adon Olam” he intones. The horse keeps going. “Eh – Todah Rabbah”. But the horse keeps galloping.
Realizing that he is about to die, he does what any good Jew would do when confronted with certain death. He screams out, “Shema Yisrael”. As trained, the horse stops suddenly – barely a foot from the edge of the cliff. Shaking like a leaf, he pulls out his handkerchief and wipes the sweat from his forehead. “Whew" he exclaims, "Baruch Hashem!"
This might be a joke, but the truth is that the Jewish people have been saying both Baruch Hashem and Shema Yisrael for well over 3000 years now. In fact, the first person who ever said Baruch Hashem to express his thanks to G-d upon hearing good news was none other than Moses’ father-in-law Yisro, who, in this week’s Torah portion, when hearing how the Jews escaped from slavery in Egypt in a miraculous way, declared: “Baruch Hashem … Blessed is G-d, Who has rescued you from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh … (Exodus 18:10).
And ever since then, we Jews have always lived with these two expressions on our mouths – saying Baruch Hashem as an expression of thanks when good things happen, and saying Shema Yisrael as an expression of faith when things aren’t exactly working out the way we thought they should. [Actually, there is a Biblical commandment to recite the Shema Yisrael prayer twice a day – morning and evening – to constantly remind us of our faith in the One G-d Who controls all – the good, the bad and the ugly.]
However, somewhere along the way, things seem to have changed for the Jewish people. Whereas most Jews today still say Shema Yisrael and turn to G-d in bad times – such as when they are dying, or at the Shiva (seven days of mourning after the death) of a loved one, or on Yom Kippur when they subconsciously feel that they are being judged for life or death – far fewer Jews can be heard saying Baruch Hashem when they experience good news and joyous events in their lives – like when they get the job they were interviewing for, or give birth to a healthy baby, or when they win the lottery.
It is almost like we blame G-d for the bad things, yet we don’t attribute the good things to Him. And I believe that this attitude is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, it is simply unfair (not to mention theologically inconsistent) to ignore G-d most of the time when things are running smoothly, only to pull Him off the basement shelf and invite Him in to our lives when we are going through difficult times and are at a loss to understand why bad things happen. G-d doesn’t only want to share in our lives on Yom Kippur or at a Shiva home when we’re all sad and depressed. He wants us to invite Him over for our Simchas and festive occasions as well. After all, He played a big role in the good stuff too.
Secondly, if the only time we invite G-d and religion into our lives is when we’re fasting and mourning, what are the chances that our kids (who are taking in everything we do and forming their attitudes towards Judaism based on what they see us doing or not doing) will want to have any part of this “Jewish stuff” when they grow up?? If all they see growing up is Yom Kippur but not Purim, Shiva but not Sheva Berachos (the seven days of feasting after a Jewish wedding), Fast days but not Feast days … they are guaranteed to “opt out” of their Judaism as well as their connection with G-d as soon as they are able to.
We need to start showing our kids the joys – and not just the “oy”s – of living a Jewish life if we are to ever hope that they will embrace it later on. Let them see us enjoying our Judaism, and how much fun it can be. As Rabbi Mordechai Becher points out in his informative book Gateway to Judaism: The What, How and Why of Jewish Life: Eighty days of the year we are commanded (by the Torah and the Rabbis) to feast, while we are forbidden to eat or drink for only six days a year – a ratio of 13:1! Judaism clearly rejoices in life and in elevating the physical more than in mourning and asceticism. And we need to reflect that joy in whatever Judaism we incorporate into our lives.
It is time for us to bring back the traditions that our ancestors and grandparents have been following for thousands of years – and to change from being only “Shema Yisrael Jews” who, in moments of crisis and confusion, tearfully express their faith in G-d, to once again becoming “Baruch Hashem Jews” who constantly thank G-d for all the good with which He has blessed us, and who recognize how wonderful it truly is to have G-d and Judaism in our lives.