Following reality – i.e., the Torah – is synonymous with kindness, charity, and justice. And the greatest kindness is helping another person actualize his or her full potential, i.e., living in line with Torah.
We must be clear: we do not follow the Torah “for” God. He needs nothing, nor can man affect Him. We follow the Torah for ourselves. And the deeper we understand each mitzvah and ideal, the more we can do good for ourselves, and others. So we must continually strive daily to reflect on new Torah portions, and grow in our understanding of the laws and the lessons of the narratives. The greater our understanding and appreciation is, the easier will be the performance and the more success we will find conveying Torah’s benefits to others.
But many times we hear strong opposition from friends and family to leading an observant lifestyle. If however we become familiar with these rejections, we may find we are successful in helping others overcome their personal hurdles towards observance. I share my thoughts with you…hoping you too will share them with others. Do not be hesitant to discuss such matters, for remaining silent will cause others to remain non-religious, and waste their lives.
“I don’t want Restrictions”
With this statement, one suggests that a “restrictive” quality is harmful or undesired. Yet, any sane individual will restrict his or her diet if advised that they are killing themselves. People will restrict themselves from walking off a cliff. We get the idea: boundaries are in fact beneficial. But the error non-religious people make is remaining ignorant of how each mitzvah and Torah truth helps us. But even the phrase “helps us” must be set in proper context. It refers to helping us “become happy and live within reality”. This is where Torah directs us: to realize new truths, to help us avoid following falsehood and to redirect our energies typically immersed in sensual drives, towards a life of wisdom which is more fulfilling. If however one seeks a sensual lifestyle, chasing sexuality, wealth and fame, he or she must first reevaluate this lifestyle to understand why it cannot lead to happiness. Otherwise, they will view Torah as preventing them from achieving these desires.
It is vital that the first steps made with non-religious Jews are to, 1) prove the existence of God based on revelation at Sinai; and 2) prove that Torah is His word. Once discussed, any intelligent person will accept these proofs. But they will then face an emotional reluctance to making “change”. They wrongly associate this “pain” of change, with Torah. In truth, any change in life is difficult simply because our emotions become comfortable with repeated activity. So it is not Torah that is painful, but the “act of change”. Assure this person that this same “comfort of the familiar” will arrive in his or her attachment to repeated Torah acts. We must now guide this person to focus on what his mind told him is true, and to dismiss any emotions of avoiding observance.
Once a person starts seeing the truths of mitzvahs and the philosophical and psychological benefits of boundaries, they will abandon their original view that restriction is harmful. They will understand and agree that charity creates peace, and that God replenishes the charitable person’s bank account. They will learn from God’s acts with the patriarchs and matriarchs, that a perfected life is not lived alone…God is involved. Such historical truths must impress us. God’s guarantee of wealth due to charity further helps one release his attachment to money.
Studying Talmud and Prophets will enlighten a person to brilliant ideas that last longer and are more fulfilling than sensual drives that meet with pain when performed in excess. One will learn how marital and dietary laws train one’s emotions in restraint, which in turn render one more fit for lengthy study. All Torah laws are reciprocal, benefiting each other in ways seen, and unseen. We cannot arrive at a full knowledge of Torah, for only God possesses this.
Nature: an Example
Nature is a fine lesson. Discuss with a non-religious friend or family member how they admit of the perfect order of weather, plant life and growth, animal life, and the biological systems like respiratory, nervous, reproductive, circulatory, and digestive. Discuss how the Creator created all these. Impress upon them how these all target the goal of a planet where man can function properly and achieve all needs. And brilliantly, as the Rabbis taught, what we need most is most readily accessible and free. Air is needed most, for we die quicker without it than without water. And air is free. Water is also very available, but not at every location as is air. Water too is free. Shelter can be built from trees that abound in most countries, and clothing can be obtained through animal skins, wool and cotton. Necessary food is also abundant and free or relatively inexpensive, such as fish, fruits, vegetables and bread.
The point to all this is to convey that God’s actions are for man’s benefit. He also created the Torah. Hopefully this will open their hearts to viewing the Torah on par with other matters they admit are truly “good”.
“Religious People are Poor and Non-religious People Prosper…why bother being religious?”
First of all, no one knows who is truly religious or righteous, unless God tells us. We have no idea of people’s thoughts and actions. Externals are meaningless, and we should not support the notion of “religious clothing” or “religious appearances”. (Radak on Tzefania 1:8) If we wrongly accept such externals to be a true reflection of one’s inner self, this will only delude us further. God also warned the prophet Samuel not to value externals. The Torah too warns of this. Therefore, we are in no position to assess if someone is “religious” or “righteous” or is receiving his or her just desserts. Perhaps the religious person had sinned, and is now receiving a punishment here. Or perhaps he made a poor decision in business that led to his impoverished state. We must study at all times, if we are to possess any right to pose intelligent arguments. And if we haven’t studied God’s system of Reward and Punishment or psychology – both deep sciences – then we are not able to judge others. And even with these studies under our belts, we don’t know who is just and who is evil. God alone knows this.
And are the poor really suffering? A Rabbi about to die had mourned the fact that he left one item of food. That’s all he had left as he died, so why was he mournful? It was because he regretted having worked that extra, brief amount if time, for something that he never used. He deeply regretted wasting time from his true passion of study. This Rabbi clearly lived day to day. He was of the poorest of the poor. Yet…he lived a happy life. So we cannot judge one with little, as unhappy.
We must be careful not to project our own views onto others. Many people live simple or below average income because they are not compelled to fulfill the American dream of owning a home, traveling, or becoming wealthy and famous. Their dream is different: to pursue what they found offers them the most intense enjoyment. So they happily forgo – not sacrifice – the dreams of others. They are truly rich.
For 40 years, the Jews lived in the desert, receiving only their daily bread. No vacations. No new possessions or fancy homes. Why? Because God knows what man needs to be happy. He created us, and He provided that generation with an undistracted life of study. The Rabbis refer to that generation as a “dor dayah”, a “wise generation”. As a matter of fact, God’s original plan was that Adam and Eve have all they need, with no need to toil for human needs.
We have many stories available to us in the Torah, stories that are historically proven. We must make use of them to study how God does in fact relate to sinners and to those who follow Him. This would be the wisest approach for determining whether Torah followers live well or not. And to reject such study, is a clear declaration that this non-religious person wishes to deny the truth. We cannot help one who does not wish to learn. “An unexamined life not worth living” – Socrates. It is foolish to criticize a religious lifestyle, never having examined it.
The 1% Rule
Some may find elements in religious Judaism that are to them “distasteful” or inexplicable, and thereby justify their rejection of the remaining 99%. This is irrational. For if we find tremendous psychological and philosophical truths in Torah, but at times cannot explain other matters, the unexplained issues in no way affect the remaining portions as truths. Similarly, I cannot suggest Einstein is wrong on 99 issues due to an error he made in a single matter. All he has proven to date remains untainted. Either on that last matter he was wrong, or I am ignorant of his meaning. But in either case, it is irrational to reject the 99% that had been proven based on that 1% in question. Certainly with regards to God who cannot be ignorant or wrong, I must not reject all of Judaism when I locate a matter that eludes me. Instead, I should attribute great wisdom to God, and blame myself for my lack of understanding.
This 1% rule also applies to the majority of cases. Most people living an orthodox life with study and appreciation of wisdom as their primary focus lead very pleasant lives. Due to their analysis of what truly gladdens one’s heart and soul, they abandon luxury, excess, lusts, fame, fortune, and all matters that King Solomon exposed as bereft of any lasting or real happiness. Recall that God gave King Solomon miraculous wisdom at age 12. Pay attention to his words. The vast majority of intellectual people led lives immersed in happiness as they spared themselves the unnecessary efforts of accumulation of things never used, but passed on to others at death. These wise souls enjoyed what God intended we enjoy: a study of the universe and Torah. In contrast, those seeking Earthly desires were never satisfied.
So although we may find cases where someone ‘apparently’ religious was suffering, we must follow the rule and not the exception. And that rule is that religious life is the happiest life. We do not discount 99% of cases because of 1%. If we are left with a question regarding that 1%, this must be the case. Only God has all the answers. But our question cannot deny the great lives led by the remaining 99%.
The Shema guarantees success to those who follow the Torah. Proverbs 3:16 also promises wealth to the Torah observer. And the reason is simple: God wishes the good for mankind…that is why He created us – to benefit us. And when we live in accord with Torah, we are following what will most benefit us. Therefore, God will assist us with our needs so we might continue that life.
But if we reject the Torah, why should He help us to harm ourselves by leading a non-religious lifestyle? And as we said, we may see non-religious and even crooked people who prosper, but this may be God’s act of repaying them here for some good performed at some point in their lives. Or it may simply be their great business senses. But don’t equate wealth and fame with happiness. Certainly, they are not enjoying life if they simply chase wealth and fame. King Solomon taught that the wealthy man cannot sleep at night since he worries about his wealth. God did not design us to be happy with such pursuits. Reflect that millionaire stars overdose and get divorced from the most beautiful spouses. These matters do not satisfy our deepest parts: our values of truth and morality. We sense emptiness when all we do is for money and our egos. This is why so many movie stars become philanthropists: they cannot tolerate a life where they are transparently egotistical. The need to portray themselves as do-gooders to create some acceptable self image.
In summary, if we didn’t read a word of Einstein’s writing, we would be foolish to speak up in a lecture he gave. So too, if we are ignorant of God’s Torah, we are ignorant of how he works and we can say nothing about the apparent evils we witness on Earth. We also have no right to ridicule Torah and an observant lifestyle.
We must remain always mindful of the most brilliant minds like Kings David and Solomon, Moses, Maimonides, Ramban, Rashi, Radak, Ibn Ezra, Sforno, Abarbanel, all the prophets, and the millennia of Sages and Talmudic Rabbis. They all attested to the perfection and unparalleled life enjoyed by Orthodox Judaism.
We must reflect on the good God bestowed with His natural creations. He also gave a Torah for our good. We are foolish to prefer ignorance and a rejection towards change, than studying what the Creator informs us is “for our good”.
Humility, admission of our ignorance, and a respect for God’s word and our brilliant leaders is vital to our happiness. I hope you are successful employing these and your own thoughts, so as to perform the greatest kindness: attracting others to a religious life that God intends for our happiness.