The vast majority of Jewish youth have been brought up estranged from a vibrant, spiritual Judaism. In North America, they have been brought up to view Judaism as a bagels and lox religion. Judaism at best, is viewed as a ‘social’ phenomenon, with quaint customs, a different diet, and a lot of fund raising. At worst it is viewed as being totally incomprehensible, out of touch with the realities of modern day existence.
The reactions of our youth today are twofold:
- They lose themselves in the vanities of this world.
- They are so desperate for spirituality that cults and other ‘religions’ ensnare them.
Lost in Vanity - The Trap of Materialism
In Pirke Avot (4:16), our sages of blessed memory compare this world to a corridor before the palace. That is, this world is not permanent. It is just a temporary passageway to the next world.
We easily and frequently forget that this world is not everlasting, and we get caught up in the struggle for materialism that abounds around us.
On the one hand there is no mitzvah to be poor or to live in miserable circumstances. Riches are never scoffed at in the Torah. On the contrary, wealth is viewed as a blessing from God. The idea that wealth is a blessing is fundamental to Judaism. It is mentioned in the second paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11).
Maimonides (Laws of Teshuvah 9:1) further explains this idea:
The blessing of wealth is not an end in itself, but a means that should be used for the performance of more good deeds. Fortunate are the people who view their material possessions as the instruments to perfect themselves and the world.
On the other hand, wealth can be a test. We may build large houses and buy expensive furniture. Understandably, we want to live well, but we have to realize that we are just temporary and cannot take these things with us. This was the mistake made by the Pharaohs of Egypt. Their wealth was buried with them in magnificent burial chambers in enormous pyramids that are among the wonders of the ancient world. These massive mausoleums were built utilizing slave labor at great cost, both in terms of human lives lost in the construction, and in the financial expenses involved.
The Pharaohs thought that they needed all their wealth and belongings for their long voyage to the next world. We now know for sure that they were terribly mistaken. Obviously they could not take anything with them. Ironically, the vast majority of their great fortune was stolen by grave robbers. The rest, including their beautifully-preserved remains, ended up in important museums around the world. King Solomon summed up the physical prowess of even the greatest human beings in a few words; “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Kohelet 1:1.
There is a beautiful story of an American Jew who was touring through pre-Second World War Europe. He had heard a lot about the Hafetz Haim, and so on his way through Poland he decided to go and visit this famous Rabbi. Expecting the great Rabbi to be living a lifestyle in accordance with his fame, the tourist was taken aback when the door to the very humble dwelling of the great Rabbi was answered by the Hafetz Haim himself. He was overawed by the great leader’s simple demeanor and by his humble diminutive presence. When the wonder started to wear off, he started to look around the Rabbi’s dwelling. The first thing that struck him about it was the paucity of furniture. He was amazed and could not hold himself back from asking this question in great wonderment “Rabbi, where is your furniture?” “Where is yours?” was the quick response. “I’m just passing through here, Rabbi.” answered the tourist. “So am I.” answered the Hafetz Haim with a small smile.
We forget this most important fact:
We are all tourists passing through this world, which is only a temporary state of being for us. Let us not make it the focus of all our energies.
Ensnared By Spiritual Falsehoods
In their search for spirituality and meaning, many of our young people have joined various cults, the majority of whose members in the United States happen to be Jews. They are unaware of the inner satisfaction and sense of purpose and mission that vibrant Judaism can give a person. They are searching in strange places and are being misled in droves by charlatans who play on their naiveté and their spiritual thirst.
There are two beautiful stories that illustrate this point:
A poor Jewish peasant had a dream that there was a pot of gold buried near a local bridge. Full of hope, he went to the bridge. A watchman was guarding the bridge. He observed the Jew circling around the area of the bridge as if he was looking for something. “Hey!” he shouted, “What are you looking for?” The poor Jew came closer and sheepishly explained his dream, his desperate situation, and his hopes of finding the gold. The watchman was a jovial fellow. He burst out laughing. “Don’t believe these silly dreams. Why, I myself had a similar dream last night. I dreamed that a poor Jewish peasant in a nearby town had a pot of gold buried under his fireplace. I am not going crazy worrying about these insane dreams.”
The peasant listened to the watchman’s dream with bated breath. He had just described his own house. He rushed home and dug under his fireplace. Sure enough, he found a pot of gold and became very wealthy.
The moral of this story is that many people are looking for spiritual satisfaction in distant, exotic lands and in strange religions that their forefathers never knew, but they are unaware of the treasures of their own religion and heritage.
The second story is about an elderly Jewish woman who joined an Indian cult in her neighborhood. The members of the cult were taken aback by the combination of her very Jewish appearance and her age. They questioned her about her seriousness and her realization of what was entailed in her joining. The woman attended all meetings religiously for six months. The cult planned a trip to India to visit the ‘holy’ man, who was the leader of the cult. Everyone was amazed to see that the old lady was the first one to sign up for this trip.
The group arrived in India and were taken to the massive temple of the ‘holy’ man. There were two lines of people waiting for admission to the holy man, one long and one short. The woman inquired as to the significance of these two lines. “Well,” she was told, “The long line is for those who want to discuss matters at length with the ‘holy’ man. The short line is for those who are limited to saying four words.” The old woman went and stood in the short line. When her turn came for an audience, she shocked all the onlookers, and the ‘holy’ man was visibly moved. “Moishele!” she cried bitterly, “Please come home.”
This anecdote illustrates the sorry state of Jewry today. We have lost tens of thousands of our spiritually-sensitive, searching young people to strange meaningless gods because we have not explained and reiterated enough the purpose, rationale and spirituality inherent in Judaism.