The other day it happened again.
An elderly man felt the compulsion to tell me that he was brought up Orthodox, but that
he was no longer Orthodox because when he was a boy in cheder (religious school) the
rebbie hit him with a ruler.
I said to the man, "You know, it is ironic. I was brought up in a secular
environment and attended Beaverton High School in Oregon, a public high school. My English
teacher, Mrs. Farrin, was a real character. She was about 5 feet tall, had a raspy
cigarette-voice and was a tough disciplinarian. One day I fell asleep in her class. Mrs.
Farrin continued her lecture as she walked back to my desk and whapped me across the wrist
with a ruler. I jumped out of my seat, hauled back my fist ready to deck my attacker, when
I realized who had struck me. At that moment, I said to myself, 'If that's the way secular
people are, I want no part of secularism! I want to be religious!!' "
The man replied, "That's ridiculous! Just because you had a teacher who hit you,
you're gonna become religious?" And I responded, "Ah-hah .... do you hear that
what you're telling me applies to you, too?"
We have to be careful to know the difference between truths and excuses. The head of a
yeshiva once ran into one of his former students who was no longer Torah observant. In
response to his rebbie's question as to what happened, the young man replied,
"Rebbie, so many questions, so many questions." And his rebbie responded,
"Chaim. Which came first? Your laxity in observance or the questions?"
Why do Jews go away from Torah observance? We are influenced by our environment. Where
you live is the second most important decision after who you marry. If you live with
tzadikim (righteous people) you will be influenced to model their behavior. If you live in
a secular, materialistic environment, you will be drawn to "keep up with the
Joneses." It is a reality.
Secondly, unless one studies and makes an effort to understand, then ill-ease, even
embarrassment build up from living a lifestyle that is different from others. There are NO
empty rituals in a Torah way of life! Every mitzvah (commandment) comes to teach a lesson
about life. If we fail to investigate or think about it, then we are the ones making it
Why do Jews choose to opt for a Torah way of life? They find meaning, fulfillment,
happiness, values and even truth through the lifestyle. The Jewish people undertook at Mt.
Sinai to uphold the Torah's commandments for all generations. As the generations descended
from Mt. Sinai until today, the closeness to the event, the level of learning and
observance have decreased as we are influenced by our surroundings.
The ultimate question for each individual is: "Am I facing towards the Torah or
away from the Torah?" Do I want to grow in my understanding and fulfillment of the
Torah or do I want to assimilate and disappear as a Jew? Do I have a heritage and a
treasure to be enjoyed and shared with my children or do I choose to ignore it? One has to
make conscious, real decisions about what it means to be a Jew, how to ensure that one
grows and understands Torah, how to ensure that the next generation will be a continuing
link in the 150 generations of the Jewish people!
By the way, the story is true about Mrs. Farrin disturbing my slumber. However, I
really didn't decide to lead a Torah way of life at that moment. That story is for a
future edition (of the Shabbat Shalom Weekly)!
Written by Rabbi Kalman Packouz, Executive Director of Aish HaTorah Jerusalem's office in Miami Beach, Florida.