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Nitzavim-Vayeilech 5773-2013

“They’re Not Laughing At Me Anymore!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s double parashiot, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, Moses gathers all the People of Israel together, re-enters them into the Covenant, and delivers a most resounding message that is intended to serve as a guide for the people throughout their own lives and the lives of their descendants.

At one point in his passionate oration, Moses says to the Children of Israel, Deuteronomy 30:6, “Oo’mahl Hashem Eh’loh’kecha et l’vah’v’cha, v’eht l’vahv zahr’eh’chah, l’ah’ha’vah et Hashem Eh’loh’kecha b’chol l’vah’v’cha oov’chol nahf’sh’cha, l’mah’ahn chah’yeh’chah,” And the L-rd your G-d will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, to love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.

The words, “that you may live” seem to be extraneous. Moses, however, is speaking to all contemporary and future generations of the People of Israel, assuring them that the Jewish tradition and the traditional Jewish lifestyle is valid and effective. The Jewish lifestyle greatly enriches one’s life. It gives meaning to one’s existence, improves one’s family relationships, and, in certain circumstances, even enhances economic success.

Further in his message, Moses declares (Deuteronomy 30:1): “Kee ha’mitz’vah ha’zoht ah’sher ah’nochee m’tzah’v’cha ha’yom, loh nif’layt hee mee’m’cha, v’loh r’cho’kah hee,” For this commandment, that I command you today–is not hidden from you, and is not distant. Moses declares that the commandment to live full Jewish lives is not in Heaven for you to say “Who can ascend to the Heaven for us to take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?” Nor is it across the sea for you [to say], “Who can cross the other side of the sea for us to take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?” Rather, the matter is very near to you–in your mouth and your heart–to perform it.

Moses, in effect, argues that the Jewish lifestyle makes extraordinary sense, that the rituals of Judaism work, that there is no need to seek out a guru in the Himalayas, to find new understandings and truths. “Kee kah’rov,” it is close, it is our birthright, it is our heritage, “B’fee’chah, oo’vil’vah’v’cha lah’ah’soh’toh” (Deuteronomy 30:14), You must articulate it with your mouth, accept it in your heart, and if you do so sincerely, you will be in a position to influence others, by bringing the magical message of Judaism and its efficacy to other Jews, and to the nations of the world.

In the spirit of this powerful message of Moses, I wish to share with you the following essay that I composed several years ago concerning the efficacy of the traditional Jewish lifestyle, which I hope you will find meaningful for the coming New Year.

“They’re Not Laughing At Me Anymore”
There was a time, not long ago, when folks would snicker when they heard that I was a practicing traditional Jew. They often referred to my lifestyle as primitive or medieval. I imagine they viewed me as somewhere between a lost soul and a misguided fundamentalist.

But something happened on the way to the 21st century, a practicing traditional Jew was nominated by the Democratic party to be their candidate for Vice President of this country and another is now serving as the US Secretary of Treasury! They’re not laughing at me anymore. I feel vindicated. In fact, people, lots of people, have begun asking me about my “unusual” lifestyle.

They’re intrigued by the fact that observant Jews don’t answer the phone on Shabbat, and fascinated by the modest dress of our men and women. They’d like to know how we’ve managed to keep our sons off drugs, and our teenage daughters out of the abortion clinics. They’re puzzled by the fact that they don’t see kids with yarmulkes on their heads filling their glasses at the popular “watering holes” in Williamsburg or “running wild” on the streets of Boro Park. While the Traditional world is by no means exempt from contemporary ills, they occur far less frequently. Even our little children seem to play less aggressively.

Each day, I’m more and more impressed by the way the ancient Jewish traditions prove their contemporary relevance. Even more impressive is how traditional families, given the unstable nature of society today, seem to communicate successfully and are able to effectively transmit these ancient values from one generation to the next.

Frankly, it’s not easy, and the struggle is never-ending.

One way traditional Jews attempt to create a sense of sanctity in their lives is by dumping the television set and/or the internet. Some of us have no idea what “American Idol” is, let alone “Mad Men.” Those traditional homes which do allow television and the internet, are quite rigorous in controlling its use. And wonder of wonders–despite this terrible deprivation, our children manage to graduate from many of the top colleges, gain graduate degrees at some of the finest schools–more often than average placing in the top 10% of the classes. The fact that they missed the Kardashian craziness and the debauchery of “Real Housewives of New Jersey”–and will be probably be deprived of the finale of “Breaking Bad,” does not seem to have resulted in any great cultural lacuna.

Society today seems hell-bent on decline and decadence. Eliminate sex and violence, and you’ve eliminated most contemporary entertainment. Most Americans have few alternatives to the trashy offerings of the day, but traditional Jews have an abundance of alternatives, many of them home-based or community centered. You’d be surprised by the popularity of the intense and stimulating discussions that take place at the Shabbat table, how scintillating the experience of family members studying Bible, Talmud, or philosophy together can be, and how moving the singing of Shabbat songs are for a family. Communal celebrations are popular and frequent among traditionalists. Holiday parties and wedding celebrations are feasts of unmitigated joy and ecstasy, absent the hangover.

I often hear myself saying that the world never needed Shabbat more than today. Shabbat is something that almost everyone can appreciate. Jewish tradition teaches that “quality time” is impossible without “quantity time,” and that’s exactly what the 25 hour period from Friday evening to Saturday night is for us. And I mean genuine quality time! No cell phones, no TV, no iPods, or internet access. We eat together, even talk to one another face-to-face (when was the last time your family did that?) and celebrate together as a family, every week. We hug our children and bless them, something we’d like to do every day, but don’t always get around to. Shabbat assures that it happens at least once a week.

Someone should suggest to our President that if he really wants to address many of the major issues that beset American society, he should encourage Congress to legislate a secular version of “Shabbat” for all Americans. Not necessarily Friday and Saturday. But let’s encourage families to spend time together with sufficient “quality time” so they can begin to rebuild society’s crumbling infrastructure.

One of the basic Jewish rituals, not often observed by non-traditional Jews, is kashruth. The neglect of the kosher dietary laws is unfortunate since these rituals have great meaning to contemporary life. Especially since most American Jews today live in urban settings, far away from the farms and from those who grow, produce and prepare our food, we tend to take both the environment and food production for granted. Jewish tradition regards food as a sacred gift from the Divine, to be acknowledged with blessings before and after partaking. For the practicing Jew, it is almost impossible to eat without bringing to mind an entire catalog of those involved in the food cycle: the earth, the farmer, those who may be hungry (both human and beast), those with whom we may be dining, and even those who serve the food, whether host, hostess, maid, or waiter. It’s absolutely startling to see how finely-tuned the traditions of kashruth are to contemporary sensitivities!

Although the rapid spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and AIDS are a serious concern for all citizens, these dreaded diseases are not, thank G-d, a major problem in traditional Jewish circles. This is largely due to the high percentage of traditional young people who practice abstinence before marriage. In fact, not only is the practice of premarital abstinence being vindicated lately, but even the traditional dating and courting customs are resonating triumphantly. Some of our friends are shocked to hear that most traditional young Jews are married by their early or mid-20s, and that it is not uncommon for some of our children to have children of their own by their early twenties. Yes, teenage sex can be good for those who are mentally prepared for it–and married! And traditional living often has unexpected benefits for its practitioners. Recent reports from medical professionals regarding the efficacy of having children early and frequently, and its positive effect on women’s health, have brought more than a twinkle to traditional Jewish eyes.

Perhaps the most harshly derided traditional Jewish custom is the practice of matchmaker-arranged marriages. Yet, young people who come from traditional homes often prefer this method to the often dangerous dating scenes, the “meat market” environments and to the anonymity and perils of online dating. To be sure, this one is not easy to swallow. But, you’ve got to admit that utilizing third party consultants (matchmakers–Shadchans) who provide a young person with a more honest and objective opinion of a prospective mate, has a certain compelling logic. After all, Americans call upon consultants for many important needs: their businesses, their plumbing, and their health. Why not their marital happiness? And if divorce statistics are any indication, the success of the matchmaker method surely beats the pants off (pardon the expression) the Hollywood-inspired so-called “romantic” courting system, which is wreaking havoc on our society. Of course, there are unhappily married traditional Jews, and some marriages do end in divorce. Others often choose to stick it out, rather than terminate. But, isn’t it interesting that “sticking it out and working it through” has suddenly become a more frequently recommended approach in conventional counseling circles?

Charity is frequently a high profile feature of many religious communities, but traditional Jews focus on charity with a special passion. Our communities sponsor free ambulance services, free medical referrals, free soup kitchens, distribution of free food and clothes, and generous scholarships for schooling for those who cannot afford. It’s been estimated that the traditional U.S. Jewish community alone, some 450,000-500,000 Jews, contributes well over $2 billion(!) annually to charity and Jewish education.

Happily, many young Jews from secular backgrounds have begun adopting more traditional lifestyles. It is as if they’ve discovered that career is not the sole reason for living, and that Jewish tradition on so many issues has proven, time and again, to be right on the money. After all, have you ever heard a dying man complain, “Why didn’t I spend more time in the office?!”

I don’t care what you call it–“tradition,” back to basics, family values. It makes sense! For Jews and non-Jews alike.

And so my fellow Jews, remember the wonderful message of that great sage, E.T., popularized by Steven Spielberg–“Phone Home!” After all, Judaism is warm, wonderful, welcoming, truly meaningful–-and it works!

[If you’d like to “phone home” and personally experience the very special traditions that can be found in your own Jewish heritage, call us at NJOP, 1-800-44-TORAH.]

Postscript:

It may sound blasphemous, but I believe, that even if the Al-mighty Himself were to come down to me and tell me that Ephraim Buchwald has been living a lie, I still would not want to change my lifestyle very much. I would not want to give up the great gift of Shabbat, the opportunity to bond with my family and friends, or forfeit the very special sacred time that Shabbat affords me. I would not want to compromise the Jewish commitment to learning and study that enriches my mind and heart. I would not want to compromise the sense of concern for those who are widowed or orphaned, weak or impoverished, that all stem from my commitment to live as a Traditional Jew.

And, of course, how much more is this lifestyle meaningful, because I sincerely believe that it is Divinely ordained.

What more cogent message could we hope to hear in the weeks and days that precede the High Holidays?

May you be blessed.

Shanah Tovah.