Siz Shver Tzizein Ah Yid
There is a famous Yiddish expression, which, like all Yiddish expressions, is more of an emotive groan than a declarative statement: "Siz shver tzizein ah Yid--It's difficult to be a Jew." The expression may not be ubiquitous today, but decades ago it was a catchphrase of American Jewry. It is said that Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt"l, recoiled when hearing the expression; he felt that the attitude it presented led many Jews astray.
Rav Moshe believed that the joys and privileges of Judaism were being ignored by well-meaning parents, who did not understand why what they saw as noble sacrifice was viewed by their children as fruitless toil. Children, hearing their parents krechtz over their religion, were being trained to view Judaism as a burden. From there it was a slippery slide down the slope of assimilation. After all, who in their right mind would want to embrace a burdensome life? This was America! Consequently, these parents were rewarded with non-Jewish grandchildren.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that Judaism does present its difficulties. But what are they? Not working on the Sabbath Day--which was the ultimate test for an American Jew in the 1920s and 30s--is no longer one of them. Neither, for that matter, is keeping a kosher home. With the proliferation of hundreds of thousands of kosher products over the last thirty years, it's more difficult to avoid kosher foods than to embrace them.
So what's our problem?
The following is a list of the five most difficult charges that a Torah Jew faces:
1. Limiting, delaying, or otherwise squelching sexual urges: According to Maimonides, "there is nothing in the entire Torah that is more difficult for most of the nation than separating from arayos and illicit sexual encounters. The Sages teach that when the Jews were prohibited from arayos, they cried and accepted the command with trepidation and tears."
2. Being completely honest in all financial dealings: Robbing banks is not the only method of stealing. If you run a business or work in a sales capacity, you are constantly faced with gray areas. Did you give the discount as promised? Does the quality of the product meet its advertised standards. But it’s not only businessmen; everyone is confronted with corner cutting—especially on April 15. The mishnah states that one may wear kilayim to avoid appearing before the tax collector laden with goods. The commentaries all rush to point out that the mishnah must be referring to a disreputable collector, because one is not allowed to cheat the legitimate taxman, as "Dina demalchusa dina—The law of the land is the law." Yet, how many of us agree to get paid "under the table"—and then talk about it as if it's a legitimate way of making money? How many times has a store owner told you, when you pull out your credit card, "If I take that I have to charge you tax." I remind them that they have to charge me tax when I pay in cash as well.
3. Avoiding Chillul Hashem. You don't need to commit fraud or molest children to give Jews and the Torah a black eye. Whether it's cutting someone off in traffic, acting rudely in public, or simply forgetting to say thank you, your behavior reflects on the G-d of Israel. When you wear a yarmulka or a long skirt outside, you are advertising yourself as a member of the Chosen Nation, and you need to behave accordingly.
4. Praying. I don't know about you, but I find prayer to be one of the hardest mitzvos to perform properly. Here I am talking to G-d and I'm thinking about everything from movies to business to the phone call I have to make once I've taken my three steps back. A person of my educational background ought to remember that "Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except the fear of Heaven." When praying, one ought to pray. And sincerely so. Do you really believe that your life is in G-d’s hands and that you are talking directly to Him? I once heard a rav explain that one's day doesn't begin at 9 a.m.; by 9 a.m., it's effectively over—the die has already been cast through your morning prayers. Phoning in your prayers is not only a worthless exercise, it's also damaging because it's so disrespectful.
5. Not speaking loshon hara. We have seemingly come a long way on this one, what with the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation and all. Certainly this prohibition has been taken seriously by the education system. Nonetheless, the proliferation of communication devices, from telephone to internet, has created endless opportunities for chatting. And chatting leads to chatting about people. Other people. Combined with a secular culture that revels in trash talk and gossip, the sin of slander doesn't always impress us as the evil that it is. One solution, however, when confronted by such discussions is to do what I do. Simply say, "I’m sorry, but I would much rather talk about myself."