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07/10/2019 03:39:00 PM


One Sunday morning, many years ago, as parents came to pick up their kids from the Hebrew School where I taught, I overheard a conversation. "How was class?" A father asked his son. The child began to whine, "I hate Hebrew School. It's boring and stupid, the teachers are mean and the kids aren't nice. I don't want to go any more." The father stopped, turned to the kid and said, "Listen, when I was your age I went to Hebrew School and I hated it. It was boring, the teachers were mean, the kids weren't nice, but they made me go, and now, you're going to go too!"

What a tragedy. What a catastrophe. To have raised a generation of children who associate Judaism with coercion, boredom, and emptiness.

When my grandparents described the painful condition of the Jewish people, they would shake their heads and sigh, "Shver Tsu Zein a Yid." "It's hard to be a Jew." To them, being a Jew was a privilege, but the world made it so difficult, so painful. Somehow, we've turned this around. No longer description, it has become prescription: Shver Tsu Zein a Yid. For anything to be authentically Jewish, so many seem to feel, it must be hard, painful, difficult: "No chrain, no gain."

A friend of mine, a Jew by choice, was invited to address to a community commission researching outreach to converts. After her statement, a prominent community leader questioned her:
-- "You say that you keep a kosher home. Don't you find that very difficult these days?"
-- "No," she replied, "with new labeling of packages, it's actually getting easier."
-- "Well, certainly, you find it very expensive."
-- "No, not really, you just shop wisely."
-- "Well, doesn't it severely restrict what you can eat?"
-- Catching his direction, she explained pointedly, "Kashrut brings to my kitchen and to my home a level of sanctity and Godliness that is precious to me and to my family."
-- "Well, obviously," the chairman concluded, "you don't keep strictly kosher!"

Shver Tsu Zein a Yid. If it doesn't hurt, it's not really Jewish. I once gave a sermon in a synagogue on a Shabbat morning. A woman came over afterwards and said, "Rabbi, I enjoyed your talk so much, I had such a good time, I forgot I was in shul!" Oy.

Mordechai Kaplan's classic text, Judaism as a Civilization, opens with a sad observation: Once Jews accepted Judaism as a privilege, now they regard it as a burden.

This is a twisted, tortured, contorted form of Judaism. In the face of such an attitude it is no wonder that when asked in a national study of the Jewish population, "What is your religion?" 1.8 million Jews answered "None". After all, if Judaism is only a painful burden, who needs it?

It is time we recover Jewish joy. And this holiday of Sukkot, called by the tradition zman simchateynu -- our season of joy -- is a good place to begin. It is a mitzvah, a divine imperative, to know Jewish joy. It is a sin to have twisted Judaism into a dry, joyless, morbid burden. Jews must learn to say to their children and grandchildren in the most unequivocal of terms: "I do Judaism because it brings my life purpose, beauty and depth. I do Judaism because it makes me happy." As we will read next week: "You shall rejoice in your festival with your son and your daughter...and have nothing but joy." (Deuteronomy 16:13-15)

My greatest triumph as a rabbi came one Sukkot when a little kid came and whispered in my ear:

"Rabbi, I feel sorry for my neighbors."

"You feel sorry for your neighbors? Why?" I asked him.

"Look what we get to do today, Rabbi," he declared. "We get to eat in the Sukkah, sing the prayers and march with the Lulav and Etrog. We're together as a family and with all our friends. Rabbi, for us today is Yontif, but for them, it's just Thursday!"

May all Jewish children feel the same. Hag Sameach.


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Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780