July 23, 2024
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July 23, 2024
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The sounds of the shofar pierce the early-morning hours in shuls around the world this month. It is a clarion call to action. A wake-up call, in the lexicon of the Rambam, to those who slumber blissfully unaware of the hard work necessary to prepare for the awesome Days of Awe.

It is not sufficient to just show up and go through the motions of davening. If we are the same on the 11th of Tishrei as we were on the 1st of Elul, we haven’t really accomplished anything. We are given a month to prepare, and then another 10 days. It takes time to effect a real change. Ask any therapist or anyone who sees a therapist.

The recently concluded summer Olympics showcased many fine athletes who trained their entire lives for a few seconds of intense activity that might lead to glory. It’s a long, arduous road that each has traveled to reach this stage. It’s not much different for us. We are all training ourselves for that ultimate test. The preliminaries take place each year. The classic ba’alei mussar stress how important it is to constantly work on ourselves to improve. It is not a quick transition but rather a journey. Perhaps the analogy is to a long-distance runner. That is why, perhaps, the shofar is more of a starter’s pistol. It signals the annual marathon of introspection and behavior modification.

What is it that we need to do? Certainly to study more Torah, observe more mitzvot and observe those that we already do with more care and enthusiasm. Charity, caring and respect for others, and sincere prayer are also priorities. If Jews did this we would all be in a better place. But we should also be concerned about the lack of intellectual rigor that plagues many of our co-religionists.

A teacher once asked her class why they believed in God. One child answered, “I guess it just runs in our family.” For too many, faith or belief or certain levels of practice are taken for granted. Others profess no belief system or claim to have grave doubts. Worse still, are those who do not seriously investigate the possibilities of divinity or of a divine truth. Some call themselves atheists, agnostics or just the average person.

The causes of doubt and denial are not new. In the introduction to his classic work “Beliefs and Opinions,” Saadiah Gaon, the great 10th-century philosopher and rosh yeshiva, offers eight reasons why people possess these doubts.

 The first factor facing those who have questions is reluctance to think deeply about these issues. People are afraid of the truth because its mastery requires great mental effort. In other words, it is easier, more convenient and less demanding to go to a movie, watch television or play golf than it is to really contemplate, grapple with and investigate the significant issues of life and faith. Such avoidance is a cop-out, an escape. Eventually it catches up, be it at an untimely funeral or at some other crisis in life. Nothing worthwhile is possible without effort. If one desires understanding and knowledge, then he/she must work hard to achieve it.

A second and cognate factor contributing to doubt is hostility to thinking about it in the first place. Whenever an important idea is presented, people tend to push it aside after a perfunctory effort as inconsequential.

The third reason that generates doubt, uncertainty and apathy is our preoccupation with satisfying our basic appetites. Food, drink and the quest for material wealth occupy all of our time. Being busy has become an end in itself. Spiritual matters have no place in modern man’s scheme of life. Causes, pursuits, hobbies and the new leisure society have depleted our resources and blunted our capabilities.

When the dessert becomes the main course, the cavities begin to form. Even though the sweets are rich in calories, they inflict serious damage over extended periods of time. What was once real leisure is now total involvement and commitment. The golf and football widow are examples of this sociological phenomenon. The results of today’s over-indulgence in the pursuit of pleasure and immediate self-gratification is a tremendous cavity—a gap—a loss of spirituality.

There are those who do reflect. However, often they do not take the time and effort required. Hence, their efforts are inadequate. They are sincere and mean well, but they do not follow ideas to their conclusion. Indifference sets in when the going gets rough. This is cause number four.

Pride and conceit are the fifth column leading to doubt and non-belief. Man, by nature, never likes to admit ignorance, or the fact that what he/she has been doing for many years is wrong. Individuals are so sure of themselves. They cannot ever be wrong. They know everything, therefore they refuse to acknowledge that the truth can be other than what they say it is.

The measure of a person is his/her ability to perceive and accept the truth, even when it is contrary to a previously held belief. “Aye, there’s the rub.” For many, this is too big a pill to swallow. So, rather than face it, they dismiss it as invalid. All that is required is that we be honest with ourselves (the essence of teshuvah), but, alas, this utopian vision is not yet within our grasp.

The sixth and seventh reasons are common enough. Hearing “good” arguments from a non-believer who is skilled in oratory, forensics, argumentation and syllogism has caused many to stray from the company of the faithful. Similarly, hearing a poor defense of faith from a believer will also “convince” people of the weakness of all arguments in favor of belief. Needless to say, an item of quality will endure regardless of its salesman. Intrinsic value is not measured by presentation but by its very properties.

The eighth and final reason that Saadia Gaon offers as a basis for doubt is association. If a person professes religiosity and is later found out to be a fraudulent hypocrite, then some might infer that all religion is phony. If someone is odious and also happens to be religious, then quite often the hatred is transferred to his/her religion. Frequently, people still entertain uncomfortable childhood memories of stern religious authority figures. These are also channeled inappropriately into a dislike for the religion itself.

The month of Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance are a journey into our souls. Not just for the annual breast beating of Yom Kippur but for life. People’s reluctance to face themselves honestly is a major hurdle. There are legitimate areas of religious concern. Apparent contradictions in Scripture, the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous, indiscriminate death, and other theological issues are discussed at length by all great religious thinkers. These are intellectual difficulties as opposed to the eight emotional categories enumerated above. Intellectual issues can be discussed and explained. Emotions and opinions based on emotions lack a firm foundation upon which to base one’s life.

A pagan once came to Hillel and asked to be taught Torah while standing on one leg. “Do not do to your neighbor that which is hateful to you. That is the essence. All the rest is commentary; go and study.”

By Wallace Greene

 Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene is somewhere between Navaradok and Slabodka.


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