Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Work it good

Nowadays, you have a lot of people who want to live a Shir HaShirim type of Judaism. Everything is beautiful - it's all "Ani l'Dodi" and "hinach yaffeh einayich". It's very emotional and idyllic, taking place in a paradise "basi l'Gani". 
But we sometimes forget that there's also a Megillas Rus type of Judaism - with people working very hard, day in and day out, in the field. Where consistency and perseverance is key, and those who can't make the cut fall to the wayside. It's difficult, but it's real. 
Yes, Shir HaShirim starts off wonderful but what happens at the end? "B'rach Dodi," and we don't know if He's coming back. But Rus starts with terrible conditions: famine, poverty, death - but how does it end? "v'Yishai holid es David" with David HaMelech. Moshiach...
Paraphrased from a comment made by Rav Moshe Weinberger in this shiur.

Someone told me a very important principle when I started school: "You take out of your experiences what you put into it." This is especially true when success is dependent in large part by how much effort is expended. The sad thing is that simply earning a degree in higher education is not necessarily indicative of competence or ability. This is one reason why certain degrees (Doctoral programs and M.D. programs specifically) have such a high degree of selectivity and on top of that a tremendous amount of work that requires great sacrifice of one's leisure and family time. By making it so difficult they set the bar higher than the less-motivated will be inclined to reach.

This yesod has so much significance for our generation. We live in a world where things are made to be increasingly more convenient, but that ease comes at a major cost.

If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Quick fixes and sudden windfalls are rarely sustainable, and nothing replaces hard work.

The same applies to our relationship with God. I personally find it difficult to fathom how people can expect anything remotely lasting to come about from hiring someone to come in for a fleeting "weekend of inspiration". Barring some sort of "real" connection with said entertainer*, it seems to me to be the equivalent of folding one's arms, leaning back, and waiting for it to come. "Here we are now, entertain us."

I don't believe in contracting out inspiration.

I don't mean to discount anyone's enjoyment and inspiration, but I just don't see it as being real. Especially when it's book-ended by lavish meals, and restricted to specific time constraints.

I know it sounds very cynical, and to be honest, it bothers me somewhat that I feel this way. But I recognize that this comes from a realization that inspiration is a delicate blend of hard work and spontaneity, and a facsimile of such an occurrence is weak and ephemeral. That is not to say that it is devoid of value, because I  have seen it serve as a catalyst for growth - but those instances were rare. Exceptions to the rule (that perhaps prove the rule).

* that's a hedging phrase, but I'll elaborate in a different post, God willing.


Micha Berger said...

My fundamental issue is that you're presenting what I believe to be a false dichotomy -- your choices do not exclude each other.

The same author who wrote Shir haShirim also wrote Qoheles and Mishlei.

Your plaint reminds me of R' Avraham Elya Kaplan's in his essay "Shetei Derakhim" (tr R' Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer) on the contrast between R' Yisrael Salanter's path and that of the Lub Rebbe Rashash:

Mussar does not disagree with Chassidus. Mussar is often satisfied with the Jewish strength of Chassidus; its capacity not to submit to the environment; its heartfelt openness bein adam l'chaveiro that softens petty superficial European etiquette; its readiness to dedicate itself to a lofty purpose, and so easily sacrifice for that purpose normal conditions of life; its youthful fervor in mitzvos, which extends well into old age. Mussar, however, also has a significant criticism of Chassidus: It sees Chassidus as too external, too theoretical and abstract. The Chasid deludes himself into thinking that he is getting more out of Chassidus than he actually is. Chassidus deals with profound thoughts and great deeds, but it remains outside the essence of the Chasid. Chassidus penetrates the depths of the greatest Torah problems - between both Man and G-d, and between Man and Man - but it penetrates too little the self of a person, so that he might engage in a reckoning as to where he stands in relation to his World and in relation to his obligations in his World... The average Chasid deludes himself into thinking that a nigun that he sings wells up from his heart, and that the dveykus that he experiences has its source in his soul, even though it is entirely possible that these are transient moods, not associated with his true essence.12 One should not judge hastily. We cannot say even to the simplest Chasid, when he experiences dveykus, that he does not truly cleave to G-d. But that constant self-critique: "Perhaps I am deluding myself;" the query that should accompany every step in life: "Have I not strayed in this instance from the path?"; and, finally, all that is encompassed in the thought that serves as a necessary precondition for Shivisi Hashem l'negdi tamid ["I have placed G-d before me always"], namely, the thought, "I have placed my "self" before me always," - all this is more prevalent in Mussar than in Chassidus...

But RAEK had nothing against the role of music -- there is sheet music and song lyrics in the collection of his writings. Also, he later recognizes that the rabbeim engaged in self-reflection. Don't take the absolute all-or-nothing phrasing here literally.


Micha Berger said...


But to quote R' EE Dessler (MmE V pp 35-39, again -- as translated by RYGB):

In our times: The qualities of "Emet" that personified the Ba'alei Mussar [Mussar Masters] are already extinct. We no longer find individuals whose hearts are full with profound truth, with a strong and true sense of Cheshbon HaNefesh [complete and rigorous reckoning of one's spiritual status and progress]. ... Contemporary Chassidus lacks the component that was once at its core: Avodas Hashem with dveykus. All that remains is the external form of Chassidus, something that appears like hislahavus. There is nigun, but the soul of nigun is no longer. Hitlahavus in davening is almost a thing of the past.

For today's era, there remain only one alternative: To take up everything and anything that can be of aid to Yahadus; the wisdom of both Mussar and Chassidus together. Perhaps together they can inspire us to great understandings and illuminations. Perhaps together they might open within us reverence and appreciation of our holy Torah. Perhaps the arousal of Mussar can bring us to a little Chassidic hislahavus. And perhaps the hislahavus will somewhat fortify one for a Cheshbon HaNefesh. Perhaps through all these means together we may merit to ascend in spirituality and strengthen our position as Bnei Torah [adherents of a Torah centered lifestyle] with an intensified Judaism. May G-d assist us to attain all this!

Yes, these moments of Shir haShirim are by themselves insufficient. But so as a complete plan for a lifelong trek up the Har Hashem without them. There is no Mishlei without Shir haShirim, just as (unfortunately?) there is no Mishlei without times of Qoheles.

Shmuel said...

Reb Micha -

I am not trying to present any dichotomy, nor am I dismissing the role of music as a template for avodah. Quite the opposite, in fact; I am a big believer in the intense spiritual power of music.

>>The same author who wrote Shir haShirim also wrote Qoheles and Mishlei.

I don't think Rav Weinberger was professing on "type" over the other, but pointing out the same idea that one cannot exist without the other; they go hand in hand. His main plant was the preoccupation of today's generation with how any element of Judaism makes us "feel" at the moment, and placing primacy on that feeling, irrespective of our obligations that need to be fulfilled. That is dangerous.

As far as Rav Dessler's suggestion - of course we have to be willing to take whatever tools we can find and put them to use. But I don;t believe that Rav Dessler meant in a manner that resembles throwing things at the wall and seeing which things stick. Even when exploring avenues of avodah, it cannot be done "willy-nilly" but rather with context, and effort.

To me it seems untenable that anything lasting or truly of any value will come about from a contrived event that asks for very little of those attending, and knowingly constricts itself to a set schedule so as not to impinge on the lavish meals that have been arranged as part of the event. It seems like a contradiction in terms.