ISRAEL INSPIRED: When faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain, it is destined to crumble and wither away as an ancient idol*.
Have you ever read the final prayer Jews traditionally say before leaving the succah? “Just as I have fulfilled the obligation and dwelt in this succah, so may I merit in the coming year to dwell in the succah of the skin of Leviathan.” Even when I put on my rabbi hat, I find it challenging to explain what the Leviathan is, why we want to make a succah out of its skin and why I’m hoping to sit in that succah next year.
When I was sitting in my succah surrounded by my children reciting that mysterious prayer, I felt something profound. Although Judaism teaches that the new year begins with Rosh Hashana, reality in Israel dictates that life begins, as they say, “after the holidays.”
The mystics explain that the perplexing final prayer, as well as others throughout the holiday, direct our attention toward an ultimate vision for the future of the Jewish People. After the holidays, our life is meant to begin with the end in mind.
As we contemplate the prayers for the “fallen succah of David” or the future Leviathan, we are essentially meditating on the long-term vision of Jewish destiny. Since the expulsion of the Jewish People from the Land of Israel in the days of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, Jewish life can be compared to the experience of walking through a tunnel.
Homeless, landless and dispersed around the world, we began our walk through the tunnel of exile.
When we entered the dark and unknown, the glorious light of our past continued to illuminate our way. As our journey through the tunnel continues, we reach a point when the light shining through the entrance behind us is no longer enough to guide us safely to our destination. At that point, we raise our eyes and begin to see the glimmer of our final destination.
In this way, Judaism is not only a religion. It’s a way of thinking and a way to encounter the world.
Religion has declined in the modern world not because it was refuted but because it became irrelevant, dull and insipid. When faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain, it is destined to crumble and wither away as an ancient idol.
THE DECLINE has become painfully apparent for American Jews. The New York Times recently published the most comprehensive study done on American Jewry in more than 10 years, with dire conclusions.
“The intermarriage rate, a bellwether statistic, has reached a high of 58 percent for all Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews – a huge change from before 1970 when only 17 percent of Jews married outside the faith.
Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.”
It seems as though the only Jewish community in America that has been able to successfully transmit Judaism to the next generation is the smallest of all denominations, the Orthodox. They are being challenged as well, on a totally different front.
For example, several weeks ago I had a discussion with an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in America. He was explaining why he opposed saying the prayer for the State of Israel in his congregation. I asked him, “Is there any other country in the world that needs our prayers more than Israel? How can we, the Jewish People, not pray for Israel’s peace and security? If you want a more Jewish Israel, then pray for Israel’s spiritual growth.”
He countered by saying he can’t utter the prayer because of the statement “Bless Israel, the beginning sprout of our redemption,”; he didn’t know that Israel in its current state is the beginning of Jewish redemption.
I begged, “Rabbi, no one knows what the future holds, but why don’t you change the prayer. Have your congregation say, “Bless Israel, may it be the beginning sprout of our redemption.”
The rabbi hugged me, kissed me and respectfully walked away.
ON THE one hand we have Jews who have chosen to abandon the majesty and greatness of Jewish life. They have relinquished the spiritual wisdom of prophets and a connection to a history and heritage unparalleled in any other culture. At the same time there are committed and passionate Jews who are taking drastic measures to avoid the poisons of modern society.
Although their intentions are noble and their dedication admirable, by solely and exclusively glorifying our past they have lost the ability or willingness to see the miracles of today and the potential of tomorrow.
Although many Jewish religious leaders around the world from every denomination are trying to battle assimilation, the purpose of Judaism is not self-preservation.
The true goal is laid out for us in the ultimate vision that we are meant to contemplate as we begin our new year, and the mysterious and profound prayers our people have uttered for centuries are our reminder.
The Jewish People has survived and returned to Israel, not to create just another democracy that happens to be in the Middle East. Our hopes are not to create a Hebrew-speaking Canada as we continue our journey through the tunnel of time. Our vision must be illuminated from our past, but no less so by the bright light of what should and will be in the future – a nation that will serve as a shining example for all humanity.
*Inspired by Dr A.J Heschel – Religion has declined in the modern world not because it was refuted but because it became irrelevant, dull and insipid. When faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain, it is destined to crumble and wither away as an ancient idol.
The author is an educator, film maker and Israel advocate. He is currently the deputy director of the World Mizrachi Movement.