Do we think big enough?
Much of religious life is about the nitty gritty. A classic Midrashic source1 sees as the core value of Torah—its guiding principle—the daily offerings brought every morning and night, the consistent adherence to the routines of Divine service. It is thus typical and appropriate to use the development of these kinds of good religious habits as a core strategy for spiritual growth. And on Yom Kippur, the holy of holies of our calendar, we spend the day carefully going over a list—indeed a litany—of specific failings regarding which we confess and pledge to do better. Both consistency and conscientiousness are critical facets of the life of any committed God-fearing Jew.
But those painstaking elements of religious life are not riveting. They are critical and indispensable, but they alone do not motivate and do not capture hearts or minds or drive us forward. Rather, consistency and conscientiousness are the tools and steps that we employ as we aim for a powerful and compelling big-picture vision for the world and for ourselves. We begin by identifying what is known in the world of management as a BHAG—a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal”—a clear and compelling long-term goal that galvanizes and focuses our attention and elevates our ambitions such that we can ultimately achieve greatness.2
Toward that end, the dominant theme of the prayers of Rosh Hashanah—the day that launches and frames the period and process of teshuvah—is not the painstaking detail work of Yom Kippur, but the drawing of the broad strokes of our aspiration for a world that is radically different than our own, a world infused and defined by the recognition of God and the pursuit of His truth and values.
But it is insufficient for us to harbor dreams for the world beyond us. We must have an equally compelling and outsized vision for ourselves. Here again, Rosh Hashanah provides us with that big picture as it is the anniversary of the creation of man, of the moment when God said, “Let us make man in Our image, in the image of God.” Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner3 and others view the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah as commemorating and reenacting that moment that occurred on this day at the beginning of time when God breathed life into us, endowing us with our essence, our Divine soul. That Divine breath defines our vast horizon, calling upon us to live lives that follow the Divine model, that mimic His ways and demonstrate every positive quality of character.4
These big and bold visions need to be brought out into the open and should frame our activities in the realm of education and communal life. We can discuss how we can weather and overcome the myriad challenges—material and spiritual—that confront us, focusing on the goal of creating effective defenses against the crisis de jour, and thus produce practical and applicable remedies and solutions. But if we shine a light on the mission beyond survival, on our role and destiny as those who will bring truth, purity, justice and goodness to the world, then we capture imaginations. We may seek to encourage the conquest of yet another Torah text or the adoption of an additional mitzvah and thereby generate diligence and obedience. But if we frame the pursuit of Torah study as the way to forge and refine our perspectives and feelings and align them with God’s truths, and if we see in the observance of each mitzvah an essential step to our individual self-realization as a great person embodying the Divine image, we will produce not obedience but passionate engagement.
The captivating and engaging quality of a broader framing, of a big and audacious goal, is one reason we need to think big. But there is another, and that is the avoidance of resignation.
Have we inappropriately resigned ourselves to certain “realities”? For example, have we accepted what should be an unacceptable level of attrition from our ranks, whether from emotionally unhealthy kids-at-risk or from those pursuing academic and professional success at the expense of their religious engagement? Addressing these issues was once a preoccupation of our community, but that discussion has apparently quieted down, and not because the issues have gone away but perhaps because we have become accustomed to them and have essentially written off the losses as acceptable. The same is certainly true for our curtailed ambitions regarding the masses of our fellow Jews who are moving from a tenuous Jewish identification to none at all.
Beyond these issues, quiet resignation finds its way into our own lives in countless ways, whether the issue at hand is the acceptance of the seemingly intractable financial challenges of Orthodox Jewish life, the predictable recurrence of anti-Semitism, endemic intracommunal division and strife, or the presence of domestic or substance abuse of different forms. We can and often do become resigned to “reality” and stop dreaming and striving for better.
Our Sages5 teach us a concept of tefillat shav—futile prayers—that we are discouraged from offering. But this concept only limits us from attempting to alter already existing realities such as the gender of a developing fetus or the address to which a fire engine is rushing. They are far more sanguine about the presumed future, urging us not to despair from prayer even as the sharp sword lies across our neck.6 Continued hope in the face of apparently insurmountable challenges is fundamental to the Jewish mindset, and for good reason! We are the witnesses to the post-Holocaust revival of our people and the fulfillment of the hope of millennia, our national return to Eretz Yisrael. Having experienced that, we as Klal Yisrael never have the right to give up.
So dream we must. It is incumbent upon us to broaden and elevate the terms we use in articulating our spiritual, educational and communal ambitions. If we are to be captivated and motivated by the bigger and broader goals and hopes that define our individual and national potential, we must envision them. And if we are to avoid accepting mediocrity and unnecessary losses, we must never give up and never stop dreaming, praying, planning or strategizing for improvement and change in any of our areas of challenge.
Though the core of this work will be accomplished through serious and thoughtful engagement in changing the conversation around these issues, there is a less intense and strenuous path to making a difference, to thinking bigger both in terms of framing our broader vision and of restoring hope, and that is the vehicle of song.
Jewish music is put to words of prayer and hope. When we sing “Ani Ma’amin” together, we express our faith in the eventual healing of our world with the coming of the Mashiach; “Ashreinu Ma Tov Chelkeinu” conveys our feeling of privilege for having been given the gift of Torah; “Acheinu” reveals our concern for others in distress; “Im Eshkacheich” declares our unshakable commitment to Yerushalayim. We bring these big and audacious ideals to life as our deepest dreams and hopes. And when we do it together as a community, gathered in shul for prayer or in a kumzitz for pure inspiration, we draw strength not only from the words of hope and of faith but from each other, from the strength of community that is itself a powerful source of both mission and hope. Communal singing is not simply an exercise in ecstatic escapism; it is a meaningful opportunity to identify with the beautiful images drawn by the ideals that we sing about together.
The Talmud7 teaches that our prayers can only be heard in a beit knesset, where people gather to join in melodious song—“b’makom rinah sham tehei tefillah.” Perhaps this is because prayer is the ultimate expression of hope.8 When we pray, we share with God our deepest dreams and aspirations, and our prayer is as effective as the hope we invest in it.9 Thus, it is in that place where we raise our voices together in song, building hope and formulating dreams, that our prayers truly take hold.
We have been through a lot during this past year. So much of our lives has been focused on survival and crisis management. On top of that, we missed the valuable tool that lifts us beyond a narrow mindset, as we could not be together to sing together. Davening may have been shorter but the horizons of our spiritual world were made smaller.
Now it is time to restore the dreams. It is a time to think bigger, to captivate and to engage. It is time to restore both the song and the prayer.
1. Quoted in the introduction of Ein Yaakov in the name of Shimon ben Pazi and referenced further by Maharal in Netivot Olam, Netiv Ahavat Rei’a, but of unknown origin.
2. From Jim Collins’ Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (New York, 1994).
3. Pachad Yitzchak, Rosh Hashanah 25:4.
4. This reflects the alternative view to Shimon ben Pazi in the Midrash cited above, i.e., the view of Ben Azzai cited in Bereishit Rabbah 24:7 and elsewhere, that the core principle of the Torah is the recognition of the presence of the Divine image within man.
5. Mishnah Berachot 9:3.
6. Berachot 10a.
7. Berachot 6a; see Rashi there.
8. See Maharal, Be’er Hagolah 4:2.
9. See, for instance, Bereishit Rabbah 98:14, “Hakol b’kivuy.”
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.