Why are there not lines outside shuls begging to get in?
I remember so vividly, about 25 years ago, as a rabbi in Buffalo, NY, when a Buffalonian living in India came to see me.
His name was Irving Goldstein, but he called himself by some Indian name. He was the National Director of Hari Krishna Education, a job I guess similar to mine at the OU for many years. (I served for six years as the National Director of Jewish Education for the Orthodox Union). He was a highly intelligent, deeply spiritual man interested in only the loftiest heights. I was able to understand this man, and after hours of conversation I stopped noticing the ridiculous robe and the clay on his forehead. The only thing I couldn’t understand was why a Jew, with thousands of years of spiritual tradition behind him, would go all the way to India to find the meaning of life. He told me the saddest thing. His journey had begun with Judaism. While in university he developed an enormous thirst for spirituality. He found his soul and wanted to learn more about it. He wandered from the Hillel house to the Chabad house, from temple to Shul. He couldn’t find meaning! So he crossed the deepest sea, and he climbed the highest mountain. Maybe it was there.
I gave him a Chumash and he gave me a Bhagavad-Gita. We agreed to read each other’s book seriously. After a couple of months, Irving sent me pages of comments on the entire Chumash. (I misplaced my Bhagavad-Gita and stuck with Bava Metziah.)
The meeting had an everlasting effect on my thinking. It made me wonder and wonder. If we are the children of G-d, if we stood at Mt. Sinai, if we have a tradition dating back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, if we are the masters of the Kabbala – then why are there not lines outside shuls begging to get in? Does Judaism satisfy our spiritual needs?
The hard answer may be that many of our Synagogues, Jewish Centers, and even our outreach centers, are just not doing it for many people. There is perhaps a part of Judaism that is not being presented. We don’t need the robes, the chants, the gurus, or the asceticism. But we do need peacefulness, holiness, integrity and a wisdom for life.
In this week’s Parsha, Moshe speaks to the Jews. He says, “I’m going to die today! This is the last you will hear from me. These are my parting words. There will come a time that you will ask: “Why is G-d so angry?” The answer will be: Because you have broken His covenant and worshipped other gods, gods that you didn’t know.”
Idolatry is the worst sin. It is a philosophical error. It’s stupid. It’s false. But why does Moses categorize paganism as “gods that you don’t know”? What does our knowing them have to do with this? Would it be better somehow if we studied pagan gods and knew them?
The answer to this is very deep. G-d’s anger with us over other gods is not that we have made a philosophical error. G-d is making a different point. “Knowing” in Biblical verse refers to an intimate and deep relationship. Adam knew his wife Eve. We don’t find “yoda” referring to forbidden or casual relationships, only the deepest. G-d is saying to us: ‘I have an old and deep relationship with you, we go way back. I took you out of Egypt, I fed you in the desert, and I was close with your great grandparents. What are you doing with other gods that you have absolutely no relationship with? These are gods that you don’t even know!’
In other words what seems to bother the Master of the Universe is that we go elsewhere and that we don’t look into our own backyards for the greatest secrets of life. And to us, all of us that live in Monsey, LA or even in Jerusalem G-d is saying: ‘Deliver the goods!’
This last Shabbos of the year is perhaps the most important one. Let’s accept upon ourselves for the coming year, that we do something towards bringing holiness into our lives. That never should there be a man, woman or child that walks through the door of a synagogue or our home and is not moved by the experience.
My family joins me in wishing you all a kesiva vachasima Tova!