Our society has become rife with superficiality. If the message can’t fit into the maximum 280 characters allowed by Twitter, it is not relevant. And yet, life is complex. Life needs more than 280 characters to explain. How are we supposed to develop our characters if we are constantly being programed to think and react in soundbite style?
Living a Torah life is the opposite of being superficial. A Torah life is all about pnimiyus. In this generation, the general population has all but forgotten about the inner hard work of character development, cultivating kindness, empathy, and overlooking slights to one’s honor. We live in a society that dictates, “If someone attacks you, fight back with an even more egregious attack on the attacker.” The ideals of maavir al midosav (overlooking slights to one’s honor), human dignity, and humility are all but non-existent.
The pressing question each and every one of us must ask is: How can we inoculate ourselves against the unmitigated superficiality that permeates today’s wider society? As believing Jews who have a mission to serve Hashem, how can we take the high road in a society that so often aggrandizes taking the low road? How can we live with pnimiyus when those who do so are seen as “nebachs” who can’t handle the “survival of the fittest” mode that permeates the social fabric in which we live?
Once upon a time it was possible to insulate oneself from some of the baser aspects of popular culture. In times gone by, it was common for the average person to know what was going on in the world by accessing a high-quality news source that only reported on consequential news; it was possible for a businessman to be on the cutting edge of his industry by perusing publications that reported on his particular field. Today, however, in the interconnected world in which we live, it is virtually impossible to insulate oneself from anything. So what are we to do?
Pesach: A Time for Questions, A Time for Answers
I think it is imperative that we ask ourselves these questions and search for answers. Not just theoretical answers, but practical answers that can be incorporated in our everyday lives. If we don’t try to rise above the prevailing – rather than suffice with bemoaning the situation – if we don’t seek practical ways to inoculate ourselves and our middos, we will never be able to extricate ourselves from the superficiality and negative middos that surround us and bombard us, every day, virtually every hour.
Let us look for inspiration in a Midrashic passage cited by Rashi on Parshas Bo.
“Rav Masia ben Charash said: ‘And I passed over you, and saw you, and you had reached the moment of maturation’ (Yechezkel 16:8) – G-d said, ‘The time has come to fulfill the promises that I made to Avraham to redeem his sons.’ But Am Yisrael had no mitzvos with which to occupy themselves – ‘And you were unclothed and bare’ (ibid). So He gave them two mitzvos: the blood of Pesach and the blood of milah….”
The Kli Yakar asks a profound question. “How can the Midrash say they didn’t have mitzvos? The Gemara (Sotah 11) states, ‘In the merit of the righteous women in that generation, Bnei Yisrael were redeemed from Egypt.’ The Gemara explains that at a time of great peril, when Pharaoh had decreed that every male baby must be thrown in the river, the women displayed heroic self-sacrifice and, despite the government decree, brought children into the world.
“Furthermore, we are all familiar with the Midrashic passage (Emor 32) that states, ‘In the merit of four things, Bnei Yisrael were redeemed from Egypt. They didn’t change their names or their language, they didn’t speak lashon hara, and they were not guilty of immoral conduct.’ In addition, the Gemara says that even in Mitzrayim there was a yeshiva where Torah was learned.
“The question then is: Why did they need the merit of the blood of the korban Pesach and the blood of bris milah? They already possessed the above-mentioned merits which, according to the Midrash, were sufficient reason to merit being freed from Egypt? How can we say they had no mitzvos?”
Moreover, the Zohar (Parshas Yisro) famously states that Bnei Yisrael were at the 49th level of impurity and, if not for the fact that Hashem redeemed them at the eleventh hour, they would have descended to the 50th level of impurity where they would have been irredeemable. How could they have had yeshivos, had the merit of not changing their names and language, had the merit of the righteous women – how could they have had all this and yet descended to the 49th level of impurity?!
Perhaps the answer lies in the words of the Midrash Tanchuma (Shemos 6). “Bnei Yisrael multiplied and the land was filled with them.” The Midrash says that the circuses and the theaters in the land of Egypt were filled with Jews.
The Shevet Sofer explains that the Jewish people became influenced by the culture of Mitzrayim. They enjoyed the Egyptian holidays and danced and mixed with Egyptians. Bnei Yisrael were filled with the culture of hedonism, pleasure-seeking, and shameless indulgence that characterized Egyptian society at the time.
Maintaining A Superficial Jewish Identity
So, the answer is, yes, there were yeshivos; yes, they wore Jewish clothing and even spoke a Jewish language, etc. but, at the same time, they were totally immersed and absorbed in the culture of Egypt – its norms of behavior, its norms of entertainment. They had a veneer of Jewish religion, the outer trappings of Jewish observance. Superficially they heeded Judaism, but their essence, their inner core, was completely Egyptian. What got them excited were the things that got their fellow Egyptians excited.
Thus, the only way to extricate themselves from the culture of Mitzrayim was with mesiras nefesh, with blood – with the blood of milah and the blood of Pesach. They needed an act of true sacrifice to show that “my essence is Jewish, my essence, my inner core is Hashem’s will and not the host culture that has brought me to the 49th level of impurity”!
The Jews of Mitzrayim and the Jews of Today
I dare say that there are striking parallels between the times in which we live and the period of Yetzias Mitzrayim.
Our generation has so many zechusim! Look at the beautiful edifices of Torah we have built on the ashes of the Holocaust. It’s unprecedented. We have righteous women who are moser nefesh for Torah and who raise wonderful families. We have such chessed. We even have German-made refrigerators with a Shabbos mode possessing a hechsher!
Nevertheless, our generation is similar to the generation of Mitzrayim in that we too have been inundated by the host culture. And the only way we can extricate ourselves from the superficiality of today’s culture is with mesiras nefesh!
Just as Bnei Yisrael needed to shed blood to show their true essence, just as they were required to undertake the difficult mitzvos of Pesach and milah – in contravention to the values of their day – so too we must also undertake something that will give us the strength to withstand the onslaught of the superficiality and banality of the current host culture.
Just like then it cost them blood, so too in our times we must invest our blood – our effort and our toil – in serving Hashem. It is not enough to perfunctorily keep the mitzvos. When it comes to Torah learning, yes, our generation has made great strides, but the question is: Do we just go to a shiur halfheartedly or do we view Torah learning as an esek, a business in the sense that just like a business must have accountability so too must our Torah learning? Our learning and our service of Hashem cannot be an afterthought if we want it to be effective.
Do we really think that with a short, superficial Gemara seder or a 5-minute daily dose of inspiration we are yotzeh and then we are done?!
Creating a Meaningful Connection
Only if we have a meaningful connection with Torah can we be successful in combatting the Mitzrayim in our own culture and remain a mamleches kohanim v’goy kadosh, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. That meaningful connection should be learning with a plan. A plan to finish mesechtos and know mesechtos by holding ourselves accountable in the same way we would in our business. That is the only way to counter the superficiality and banality that reigns supreme.
That being said, our efforts in this regard should not be limited to Torah. Character development and chessed must similarly be done with a focus on cultivating our inner essence if we want it to really have a transformative effect on us.
In the past, Pesach was a time where blood, sweat, and tears were invested by the Jewish woman as she prepared and slaved to get her house ready for Pesach and invested every bit of effort in the other myriad preparations for the Yom Tov. Today, there are certainly many women who still do that, who are investing their blood in Hashem’s commandments, but there are many others who are not spending Pesach at home. How will they forge that blood connection with Hashem that is so vital to ensure that we don’t become swallowed up by the decadent values that permeate our society?
The answer is that we must find true connection with Hashem by making time every day to learn mussar – not just read the sefer but connect with it, contemplate it and internalize its lessons.
We are a nation of chessed but chessed shouldn’t become an industry. It needs to retain its very personal component as well.
Only when engaging in avodah in this way will we be able to internalize the fact that contemporary American societal values are not our own. We are not a nation obsessed with acquiring material possessions. We are not a nation of jealousy and greed with a superficial veneer. We are the am hanivchar. We are the mamleches kohanim v’goy kadosh!