By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour
“If only someone would feed us meat!” Amazingly, though they braved difficult travel conditions, the desert heat, and the threat of warfare, after miraculously escaping Egypt, some of Beneh Yisrael complained specifically about the manna, the wondrous bread that fell from the heavens each morning to feed them and their families.
“We remember the fish which we ate in Egypt, free of charge… But now, our lives are empty, there is nothing! Our eyes can look upon nothing besides the manna!” (Bamidbar 11:4-6).
It seems to defy any logic. How could any member of Beneh Yisraelpossibly complain about the manna? Here they were, a nation numbering several million people traversing an arid desert where there was no food and no possibility of planting anything. And every morning, without fail, Gd sent them a free package of food that could taste like anything they wanted. They didn’t have to work or expend any effort; it fell outside the camp each morning, like clockwork. The food was nourishing and perfectly suited for sustaining them. In fact, the Sages teach that the manna did not produce any bodily waste; it was so perfect that no part of it had to be excreted from the body. And, as the Midrash relates, even the gentiles derived benefit from and appreciated the manna’s unique quality. The leftover manna would melt and form rivers, from which the animals in the surrounding regions would drink. When the people would hunt these animals and partake of their meat, they would taste the sweet flavor of the manna, and give praise to the Almighty for sending this extraordinary food from the heavens.
How could anyone from Beneh Yisraelpossibly take for granted – let alone complain about – such a remarkable gift?
It’s been observed that human beings are “creatures of habit.” We tend to continue doing things the way we’ve grown accustomed to doing them, and we are often impervious to change. As the saying goes, “Old habits die hard.” Once a habit is formed, it is awfully difficult to break or change.
Of course, this pattern of habitual behavior is either good or bad, depending on the habit. Living as a part of a religious community leads us into certain habits of observance, such as prayer services, Torah classes and Shabbat, and this routine has served us well and helped ensure the perpetuation of our traditions. It says in the Book of Shemuel I (2:9), “Raglei hasidav yishmor – The legs of His pious ones He protects”. But though the word raglei seems to come from the Hebrew root regel (leg), it may also refer to the root ragil (accustomed). Thus this pasuk has also been interpreted to mean, “The accustomed ways of His pious ones – He protects.” Gd protects those who are piously devoted to Him because of their “hergel,” the habits and routines to which they have become accustomed. It is their habitual dedication to Torah and missvot that renders them worthy of His special blessing and protection.
On the other hand, we all have certain bad habits that are very difficult to break because they have become so ingrained in our routines, to the point where they’ve practically become second nature. Our natural tendency to follow habits works to our detriment when we develop negative patterns of behavior that need to be reversed.
But there is another, perhaps less obvious, risk of the habits and routines that we establish. Even when it comes to good habits, the daily routine and second nature automation of these behaviors pose a formidable spiritual danger.
This is what happened to those among Beneh Yisrael who beseeched Hashem for meat in the dessert. They were excited about the manna – the first day, the second day, the third, and probably for several months thereafter. But with time, the excitement faded and waned for many. No matter how wondrous and precious a commodity is, one loses excitement when he has it for an extended period of time. Beneh Yisraelwere, without doubt, awed and overjoyed when they first received their heavenly bread. But even a miracle of this magnitude could not sustain everyone’s enthusiasm over the long haul. Eventually, many found it boring and began waxing nostalgic about the provisions they consumed under their Egyptian taskmasters.
There’s an old cliché that says, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Regular, prolonged exposure to even something beautiful or precious has the effect of diminishing one’s excitement to the point where he even finds it contemptible. This is what happened to the complainers among Beneh Yisrael in their feelings toward the great miracle of the manna – and this is what all too often happens to our attitude toward Torah and missvot.
The Weekly Sunday Trial
A certain rabbi envisioned a heavenly tribunal that convenes every Sunday afternoon throughout the year, in which the Jewish people are the defendants. Week after week, the prosecuting angels gleefully look down from the heavens upon the strict decorum maintained in the world’s churches on Sunday morning. The worshippers are silent and attentive throughout the service, exhibiting seriousness, discipline and etiquette. The prosecuting angels immediately call for a hearing against us, the Jewish people, who just the day before, on Shabbat, spent the morning in the synagogue amid private discussions about the latest sports scores and developments in local politics.
“Look at the difference between the Jews and the gentiles!” the chief prosecutor argues. “The Jews show such little respect for their prayer service – as opposed to the gentiles, who sit and participate with great reverence and respect!
Just when it appears that the Jews will be convicted and sentenced, the defending angel jumps up to argue on our behalf.
“You’re forgetting one crucial difference!” he shouts, pointing a finger at the prosecutor. “The Jews go to the synagogue each day of the week. They pray three services each and every day, and they are also there for daily and weekly Torah classes. They come to the synagogue so often that they feel as comfortable and at ease there as they do in their living rooms. This is why some of them may occasionally lapse into mundane chatter. But the gentiles are only required to show up once a week; it’s much easier to sit with decorum and respect for a short time once every seven days!”
And thus, week after week, the Jewish nationis spared…
But while the defending angel certainly has a valid point, clearly this is not how it should be. Yes, we should be proud of how often we attend prayer services and Torah study sessions in the synagogues, to the point where we feel very comfortable there. But specifically because we feel so comfortable we must also work to thwart the natural process ofhergel, the corrosive effects of familiarity on our sense of awe and excitement. Otherwise, as we unfortunately see in so many of our synagogues, the quality of the prayer and learning declines. The tefila becomes mechanical and robotic, or, worse yet, it becomes secondary to our socialization.
Ironically, our admirably consistent devotion to religion can be its own worst enemy. Because we are so committed and perform the missvot each day, we run the risk of growing bored and disinterested. Religious observance can become stale, bland and tedious. And when that happens, it does not take long for a person to give in to his boredom and leave the fold. Torah commitment without gusto and fervor has little chance of enduring. No one enjoys food without seasoning. Similarly, people will not likely remain committed to Torah observance if it lacks zest and excitement. And this is precisely why the natural process of hergel, which on the one hand is so crucial for religious life, is also so dangerous. Our religious routines keep us consistent, but they also threaten to destroy our excitement and zeal.
Compare the sight of a bar missva boy strapping on tefillin for the first time with the sight of an ordinary adult putting on tefillin. The bar missva boy’s eyes are beaming with excitement, and he focuses his mind on every wrap around the arm. Most adults, by contrast, are still half asleep as they robotically don their tefillin, their minds wandering in all directions. The daily routine and habit take their toll on a person’s passion and enthusiasm toward missvot.
King David’s Prayer
The great sadikimhave long been aware of the dangers of hergel, and aspire to retain their zeal and vigor in religious life. In one of the most famous verses in Tehillim (27:4), King David points to this concern as his primary request: “If there was one thing that I asked of Gd, this is what I would ask – that I would sit in the house of Gd all the days of my life, to behold the pleasantness of Gd and to visit His Sanctuary.” King David longs to “sit in the house of Gd all the days of my life,” but also to “visit His sanctuary.” How could he “visit” the House of Gd if he is there every day? The answer, as many rabbis noted, is that this is precisely King David’s prayer: to feel like a visitor even though he is there every day.
Foreign tourists who visit New York are enthralled by the Empire State Building. It’s one of the first destinations after checking into the hotel. Most New Yorkers, however, have never been there and have little or no interest in site. Living every day in the city, the presence of this national landmark evokes no special feelings. But for the tourist visiting from afar, the chance to see and experience this landmark is a privilege, an opportunity that cannot be missed.
King David’s greatest wish was to feel like a “tourist” in the bet midrash even though he is there “all the days of my life.” He longed to retain that special feeling of enthusiasm each and every day, that Torah study and practice will remain exciting and invigorating, despite the daily routine.
The Talmud relates that Rabbi Eliezer was once asked why he was deserving of long life. He answered, “No one ever arrived at the study hall before me, and I never slept in the study hall, neither a long sleep nor a short nap.” Rabbi Eliezer never lost his zeal and enthusiasm for learning. He showed up early each day, year in and year out, as though it was his first day in yeshiva. And throughout his studies, he was alert and focused, thirstily absorbing each word as though he hadn’t learned before in his life. He never fell asleep because each word of Torah was precious and exciting. His interest was piqued at all times. Rabbi Eliezer mastered the art of “levaker behechalo,” of “visiting” the yeshiva even while spending every day there.
How do we do it? How do we stay excited about something we do each and every day? What strategies are there to ensure that our Torah observance does not become boring, stale and tedious? What can we do to retain the vitality and vigor of Torah life?
The Halftime Pep Talk
Life, especially contemporary life, moves too quickly and often does not allow us time to stop and think about what we’re really doing. We get caught up in the frantic marathon of the day-to-day, trying to accomplish more and more, such that we don’t think about the meaning and purpose behind it all. And if we don’t keep in mind the meaning and purpose of life, our routines will feel bland as we mindlessly go through the motions.
We can see the truth behind this critical message from an unlikely source – Pharaoh. When Moshe and Aharon first confronted the Egyptian monarch to demand Beneh Yisrael’s release, he flatly refused and decided to increase their workload. He announced, “Let the work be intensified upon the people so that they engage in it, and let them not deal with false matters” (Shemot 5:9). Pharaoh’s clever scheme was to impose upon the slaves such a demanding workload that they would have no time to harbor aspirations of freedom and redemption. He reasoned that the round-the-clock pressure would wholly occupy the slaves’ minds and prevent them from entertaining thoughts of spiritual ideals, or dream of life as a free nation in their homeland.
Unfortunately, many of us can relate to Pharaoh’s nefarious plan – the only difference being that it is the Yesser Hara(evil inclination), rather than a human enemy, who plots against us. One of the most effective weapons in the Yesser Hara’s arsenal is an overloaded schedule. We are led to fill our time to the brim so we have no chance to think, to contemplate, to assess our direction in life or to get some perspective on what we’re occupying our time with, and why. Without perspective, we lose sight of the spiritual purpose behind what we do, and our Torah observance then becomes mechanical, devoid of any feeling.
This is one of the primary concepts underlying Shabbat, and one of the reasons why the Torah treats Shabbat desecration so seriously. Intuitively, we might wonder why Gd had to command us so sternly to stop working one day a week. Who wouldn’t welcome a Shabbat, a day when we are free from worrying about professions and businesses, when we can enjoy spending time with our families and friends, praying and studying Torah? In truth, however, if not for the Torah’s strict statutes pertaining to Shabbat, we would likely continue working non-stop. The Yesser Hara would convince us to work throughout the week so we would not have to stop and think. Shabbat affords us the opportunity – and in fact forces us – to consider the higher purpose of all that we do during the week. It takes us out of the rat race of life so we can spend some time focusing on what really matters.
During the week, as well, we need to allocate some time for contemplation. The Mussar movement emphasized the importance of spending at least a few moments each day learning or hearing words of religious inspiration, freeing our minds from the grind of life’s pressures and injecting renewed spiritual vigor and energy into our daily routine.
The great football coaches of the NFL, make active use of this concept. When the team has a few spare moments during the halftime break of every game, the coach frequently uses the opportunity to deliver a charged “pep talk” to the players. Often, the coaches message is not even particularly novel. He simply encourages the players to play hard and try their earnest to win. Don’t they know this already? Do NFL players need to be reminded that their job is to win? Apparently, they do. During the heat of the game, they can become so focused on the particulars that they lose sight of the ultimate goal – victory. The halftime pep talk serves to inject energy and vigor into the players by drawing their attention to the goal which they are out to achieve.
We, too, need regular “pep talks.” From time to time, we need to stop and refocus, think and contemplate about the purpose behind it all. Very often, even a simple, one-minute talk or insight can entirely reshape our perspective and infuse new life and energy into our Torah observance.
Additionally, there is no greater source of excitement and enthusiasm than Torah learning. Torah is so vast that there is always something new to learn, new material to absorb, and new insights to reflect upon. Regular attendance at Torah classes is perhaps the greatest protection we have against the effects of hergel, because Torah never gets boring. It never fails to give us something new and interesting to think about. If we want to stay excited about Judaism, then we must continue learning about Judaism.
Among parents, there is a special responsibility to ensure that children will follow the Torah traditions taught in the home. The best tool we have to inspire our children is to exude excitement and vigor, to show them by example the unparalleled joy and gratification that can be experienced by serving our Creator. If they see our enthusiasm in performing missvot, they will be driven to follow our example of Torah commitment, so that they, too, can enjoy that special feeling of joy and contentment that only Torah life can provide.
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