Shiny Happy People Holding Hands
“Hello you!” I said when I saw her. “How’ve you been?”
She said she was on a new path in life and feeling very good about it. She had broken up with her boyfriend and was looking for someone new, someone real.
“You look terrific,” I commented.
“I feel great,” she told me. “I’ve been working out, getting in shape, and I lost fifteen pounds since I stopped keeping Shabbos. All I did on Shabbos was sit around and eat."
I was disappointed. And, in uncharacteristic fashion, I let her know I was disappointed. Because I believed she knew better. She was better. “How could you do a thing like that?” I asked. “How could you just give up Shabbos?”
“Well, you know,” she said cheerfully, “Shabbos just wasn’t doing it for me anymore.”
Aha. I see.
It seems that for the last several decades, the Jewish outreach establishment has been guilty of a certain amount of deception. They’ve been selling Torah and Judaism under a pretext—the doctrine of happiness. “Become religious and your problems will vanish,” they all but shout. “Living a life of Torah is true freedom, true happiness.”
Well, yes it is. But.
Here’s a hard fact to swallow: Judaism is not always pleasurable, not always convenient, not always spiritually uplifting. Sometimes even—brace yourselves!—Judaism is a real drag. It’s burdensome. It’s inconvenient. Sometimes Judaism just doesn’t “do it” for us.
G-d will always challenge our commitment to His Torah. Sometimes those tests will be small (a little loshon hara here, a little angry outburst there); sometimes they will loom large (Do the Rabbis really have the authority to tell me what to do? Does G-d really care about every little thing I do?)
If we are intellectually honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge the irrationality of questioning God when we are feeling down and out, but not when we are feeling positive and motivated. However, that’s not the way many of us operate. As long as Judaism is “working” for me, I’m in. I believe. But as soon as it gets to be “too much,” as soon as that emotional high departs, I’m done.
Our relationship with G-d is compared to a marriage, and in marriage, love begins where infatuation leaves off. Love is a result of commitment, and G-d challenges that commitment. That’s not to say that G-d wants Judaism to bore and burden us, but He does want us to run that gauntlet every so often.
The Torah identifies these two poles. On the one hand is the Living Torah, the Torah of good clean living, which gives us a structured lifestyle—the troika of Shabbos, kashrus and taharas hamishpachah—that is conducive to long-term happiness. At the other end is the Torah of Truth, the vision of G-d’s world that we subjugate ourselves to His word and will—whether we understand it or not, whether we feel like it or not.
There are many descriptions of the Torah given in Scripture. Yet the word “Toras—the Torah of,” which to my mind is a distillation of the essence of Torah, happens only rarely. Sometimes the Torah is called Toras Hashem, the Torah of G-d; sometimes it is called Toras Moshe, the Torah of Moses. But the only two descriptive (as opposed to possessive) terms for the Torah are Toras Chessed and Toras Emes. These are the two sides of Torah.
Many times in life, G-d blesses us with kindness, with charity, with His everpresent love, and we feel the radiance of His closeness. Toras Chessed—literally, the Torah of Kindness—stands for that facet of the Torah which makes life warm and wonderful. Our days feel shiny, bright, and full of hope. Our classes are inspirational, our friendships motivate us to be good and to do good.
Then there’s the rest of life.
Often we don’t feel a thing. We don’t feel moved we don’t feel motivated, and we certainly don’t feel spiritual. Instead, we feel drained, put upon, frustrated, even angry. Judaism “just doesn’t do it for us anymore.” That’s where Toras Emes comes in.
On Sinai we swore our allegiance: “Naaseh venishmah—We will do and we will hear.” Sometimes the doing has to come before the hearing. Sometimes we observe even when we don’t “hear” what it’s doing for us. Sometimes we do what the Torah asks us through clenched teeth because the truth is it is the Word of G-d. And even when we’re not fully convinced that we know exactly what the truth is, we do it because we believe in the essence of Judaism. We believe in the Torah.
To quote those nice Jewish boys from California, “Wouldn’t it be nice…” Wouldn’t it be nice if every mitzvah we did gave us instant spiritual gratification? Wouldn’t it be nice if every Shabbos was a 25-hour period of emotional bliss? Wouldn’t it be nice if every time we sat down to study Torah we were overwhelmed by intellectual stimulation? Wouldn’t it be nice if every time we prayed we felt instantly connected to G-d?
But that’s not life—not even most of the time. So when those moments do come, savor them. But when they don’t come, just do the best you can. And never give up.