Doing Ritual Without Being Habitual
This Parsha is a long speech given by Moses reiterating the basic deal the Almighty offers us: if we observe the mitzvot—even the “small” mitzvot—He will keep the promises made to our ancestors. A public speaking evaluator might analyze it in one of two ways: Moses’ speech was meticulously prepared with conscious effort to repeat certain points or it was spontaneous, straight from the heart. No matter what one believes, the speech is incredibly repetitive and keeps dwelling on the same seemingly clear message over and over again; G-d’s promises are conditional. The idea that G-d expects nothing from us is not a Jewish idea.
An objective onlooker sees this as a speech by an old man who is the last of his generation to the younger generation who are going into a new land. He is worried they will fail because they won’t be able to withstand the challenge of wealth due to the bounty of the land. Too much success carries with it the challenge that people grow complacent and think they alone are the source of their success. A historical phenomenon with many individuals and societies is that when their financial and social situation improves, their priorities shift and so too do their values.
Although Moses was speaking to the people of his generation, people who had lived in the desert for decades and were now about to enter the Land of Israel, his message is also instructional for modern day Jewish parents who want their children to stay on the Jewish path. Maybe habitually doing certain Jewish rituals (mitzvot) by rote, without passion was enough for the old timers, (their European grandparents) but it won’t work for their children. Outwitting History is an engrossing account of how its author, Aaron Lansky, and a few friends saved millions of Yiddish books owned by old Jews living (mostly) in Brooklyn who had no one to give them to. These books had virtually no meaning to the next generation and one of the things the author laments is how this beautiful old Jewish culture was heading toward extinction. These old Jews grew up in a culture where basic religious practices and values were a given and even if one opted out of being religious, he or she still retained a Jewish lifestyle. Making Kiddush, going to shul, the holidays as well as mourning rituals such as shiva, getting married and starting a family were an integral part of the lives of that generation. Habitually doing Jewish rituals (mitzvot) might have been enough for the old timers, but it didn’t work for their children and grandchildren. The new land of America was no place for that old school Jewish identity; it just didn’t work here.
We’ve been expelled from almost every country in Europe, and many others as well. Our lives have been in danger for centuries, yet even though we didn’t have an army, country, or masses of people to fight, we have survived miraculously for centuries. Is our survival just a string of coincidences or is there a Higher Power protecting us? That is a question Jewish parents should be asking their children (and themselves). It is the subject of the Passover Seder (“In every generation they stand up against us to destroy us but G-d saves us from them.”) and the main part of the Chanukah sand Purim stories, as well as the other Jewish holidays. We are successful parents if we engage—challenge—our children as Jews and not be frightened to talk about G-d and the role He has played in our history. G-d has kept His part of the bargain but have we kept ours? The fact that Jews are still here is a miracle but this generation as a whole no longer has a desire to be Jewish or allow the G-d concept to enter their lives. Can Judaism survive if G-d, Israel, and our collective memory are omitted from the Jewish equation?
Moses’ final speech is given to a nation with a new reality. Living an extraordinary existence in the desert had the benefit of making it impossible to omit G-d from their lives due to the daily miracles they witnessed. This era was coming to an end; they would soon need to fight wars, plow, plant, and harvest crops and learn to live a regular existence in Israel. They needed to know that although the lush land was flowing with milk and honey, they still needed to keep G-d and Judaism in their lives. When they fought a battle, they needed to be armed, trained, and use every war tactic they knew, yet at the same time they were meant to pray and realize that ultimately G-d was on their side and they could not have done it without Him. He did His part and, by observing the mitzvot, it was up to the people to acknowledge His role in their lives.
How can we make mitzvot significant for us? We learn about them. What advice would you give to someone frustrated by watching professional basketball because it doesn’t make sense to him? We would tell him to learn about it and understand its rules and how they are vital to the game. Without them, basketball is a meaningless ball tossing ritual. Only a fool would make a decision about basketball without knowing anything about it. Education is what gives meaning to things and Judaism is no exception. The best way to have proud Jewish children is to make yourself a proud Jewish parent. Doing rituals might have been enough for the old timers but we need to understand the why, when, and how of them; this is a serious fact of Jewish existence. Let’s embrace our identity by being the best parents, friend or educated adult role models we can be for the next generation.