So Much to Do, So Little Time
A few years ago a Canadian radio station aired a
documentary series that looked at early twentieth century inventions
touted as products that would "change your life." There is no doubt
that the last one hundred years have been replete with products and
inventions that have indeed altered the way we live. It's hard to
imagine what life would be like without disposable plastic wraps,
containers and bottles-can you believe
that milk once came in a glass bottle? From telephones to fax machines
and then to e-mail-who knows what's next? Maybe "Beam me up, Scotty"
is just around the comer.
There is one part of that documentary that still
stays with me: It's the piece about early advertisements for the first
sewing machines. It seems that the assumption underlying the content
and tone of those ads was, what will women do with all the free time
they will now have on their hands? It was clear that the sewing
machine would usher in an era of leisure totally unprecedented in the
history of mankind.
The irony, of course, is that with the plethora of
devices and services designed to save us time and increase our
efficiency, we seem to have less time and be more harried than ever
before. It's a catch-22, of sorts. The more time we have, the more we
can do, and the more we can do, the more time we need. Hence, we try
to fill every hour saved by our PC with two hours of other work or
fun (mostly work), thus pushing us to discover ways to create another
additional hour of time to accommodate the increased load. This deadly
cycle soon spawns a new generation of time-saving inventions, which
are again followed by more activities to
fill the new empty spaces. The result is that what once took a week
now takes a day and what once took a month or more, is now only a
Are you still puzzled at the fact that we are a
society running on empty? We are forever burning ourselves out trying
to manage our time and compress many years worth of activities into
just one twelve-month slot. Eventually, something has to give.
Judaism: Caught in the Squeeze
There exists today an intense competition over who
and what will fill the ever-shrinking discretionary time in our
schedules. Where once Judaism was printed in strong, bold letters
across our calendars, today it is lucky to get "penciled in" for even
a few days in the entire year.
If Judaism were a corporation, I would assert that
it has done a miserable job of marketing itself to the
sophisticated, discerning consumer of the last half of the twentieth
century. It is my contention, however, that the issue is one of
marketing and packaging, not one of product quality. This doesn't mean
that Judaism should suddenly take to the airwaves with a slick Madison
Avenue ad campaign (although it's a thought), but rather that we
should look at the medium through which the message of Judaism has
been communicated these last several
decades and see if we can't understand the problems and offer a
Just Do It and Don't Ask Questions
The dominant medium for communicating Judaism to this generation
has been the synagogue or community Hebrew schools. Whatever Jewish
education most Jews possess today came from those after-school or
Sunday morning classes that we all swore we would never subject our
children to. Another medium was our parents or grandparents. While no
one can dispute that their hearts were deeply rooted in the right
place, the fact remains that even the deepest of sentiments in no way
readied them for the task of articulating Jewish values in a relevant
and cogent manner. More often than not, their fallback position was,
"We do it because we're Jewish and that's just the way it is." And for
better or worse, such an argument no longer
carries the weight it once did.
"We find ourselves in a bewildering world. We want to make sense of
what we see around us and to ask: What is the nature of the
universe? Where is our place in it and where did it and we come
from? Why is it the way it is? Up to now, most scientists have been
too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what
the universe is to ask the question why."
---- Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History Of Time
The same, I believe, can be said about Judaism today. As educated
adults who happen to be Jewish, we tend to look at our religious
heritage and find it to be rather bewildering. We would like to make
sense of it, to find for ourselves a place within it, but we just
aren't sure what to make of the whole thing.
To a degree, the quandary of Jewish identity also stems from a
prominent focus on the what and how of Jewish life at the expense of
the why. A great problem is that Jewish education has stressed the
mechanics of Judaism (the what and the how) and has neglected the
reasons, meaning and spiritual ideas behind Jewish practice (the why).
In a world where people carefully consider which activities will fill
their time, you had better give them a darn good reason for choosing
High Holiday services over the World Series, or quite frankly, you
don't stand a chance! Of course, there is always good old-fashioned
Jewish guilt. But it would be tragic if the Jewish people; the people
who gave the world monotheism and the universal dream of, Nation shall
not lift up sword against nation, were left with nothing to appeal to
other than the specter of callously bruising the tender feelings of an
aging parent or grandparent. Surely there is something that can
sustain us other than guilt.
The Why of Being Jewish
The Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit is just the tip of an
iceberg. Its purpose is to demonstrate that Judaism has nothing to be
ashamed of when it comes to the superior quality of its intellectual
and spiritual content. The Survival Kit assumes that if people were to
possess a mature understanding of what Judaism has to say to our lives
today, then it would easily hold its own in the fiercely competitive
environment in which we live.
As I alluded to earlier, every aspect of Jewish life consists of
three primary components. These are what, how and why. Let's take
Passover as an example. What do you do on Passover? You make a seder.
How do you make a seder? You get a box or two of matzo, some wine, a
few Maxwell House haggadahs; you shlepp your family to the table; and
presto, a seder! Then comes the issue of why. Why do we do all these
things at seder? Why four cups of wine and not five? Why do we recline
and so on?
Isn't it obvious that if we never meaningfully address the question
of why, then eventually our Judaism will become a hollow sentimental
ritual at best, a dreary burden at worst? In Jewish law it is
considered torture to have someone perform a purposeless task. To
carry out a mindless function with no comprehension of the purpose it
fulfills is fine if you are dealing with automatons. For Jews, as for
all people, it is ultimately
debasing and inspires either total lethargy or violent revolution. The
Jewish community today is confronted with both of these responses on a
The Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit is a partial attempt to
address the issue of why, within the context of the High Holiday
services. According to the most recent statistics, the majority of
Jews today no longer have any synagogue affiliation whatsoever. In
fact, so many young Jewish parents are disillusioned with Judaism that
over half-a-million Jewish children are being raised with either no
religion or with a religion other than Judaism. I would be surprised
if more than 40 percent of Jews in America attend Rosh Hashanah and
Yom Kippur services anymore. I would be even more surprised if more
than 20 percent of those who do attend don't start looking for the
exit shortly after their arrival. How can a day in synagogue possibly
or inspiring if you don't understand the meaning behind the prayers
you are reciting or the concepts upon which the holiday is based?
This book has been written for three types of people. Firstly, it
is for people who have given-up on formalized Judaism and who are not
planning to attend synagogue this year. If this is you, then I want to
make the following promise: This book will give you a radically
different understanding of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and perhaps your
entire Jewish identity. Read this book-I dare you-and you will find
that there just might be a side to Judaism, and even to synagogue,
that you can learn to enjoy and look forward to.
Secondly, if you are planning to attend services but are dreading
the experience, then again, this book has been written for you. What's
more, I would suggest you read it twice. Once during the weeks before
Rosh Hashanah and again during the services themselves.
Lastly, if you are among those who already have some sense of the
meaning of these holidays, then I think that you perhaps more than
anyone else will find the Survival Kit to be a worthwhile intellectual
and spiritual supplement to your experience in synagogue this year.
Wishing you a Shana Tova, a sweet new year.