I used to wonder whether my strongest connection to spirituality was during my late teens and early twenties while in yeshivah. My Torah study then was most focused and my prayers, for the most part, unhurried and deliberate. Even my joy in examining the deeper meaning of halachic observances was more exuberant. “Relish the precious years in yeshivah,” I was cautioned, “since they will be the pinnacle of your religious experience.” I suspect that others also nostalgically recall the time they spent in yeshivah or seminary, in day school or NCSY, as their most meaningful religious experience.
A decade or two after leaving yeshivah, however, I realized that youthful inspiration and idealism are supposed to be one’s opening act, not the main attraction. In fact, every stage of life offers its own unique opportunities for religious advancement, each with successively greater potential. Indeed, one’s formative years, often focused exclusively on religion and Torah study, should merely serve as a springboard for far loftier religious aspirations.
In an article I wrote several years ago (klalperspectives.org/moishe-bane-3/), I compared one’s personal religious odyssey to marriage:
A seasoned couple, enjoying a magnificent marriage, recognizes their courtship period as having been intensely wondrous, but realize that true depth of love and commitment was developed over the subsequent years. The initial intensity of courtship may have formed a foundation for the long and inevitably topsy-turvy experience of marriage, but that initial intensity can never be understood as having been the peak of their relationship. The courtship, and its intensity, was primarily a trigger for the true growth that developed thereafter.
Perhaps we confuse holiness with religious exuberance just as young people often mistake infatuation for love. Infatuation, though exhilarating and intense, inevitably fades. Authentic love, by contrast, builds slowly over time. An authentic relationship with our Creator is the same.
But how do we reconcile the understanding that our spirituality most appropriately continues to advance throughout our years with the fact that our most intense religious exploration and studies, and our most encompassing religious socialization, occurred when we were young? Strange as it may sound, perhaps we can find the explanation in exploring the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach.
Baby Food and Matzah
The Torah tells us that Jews ate matzah when leaving Egypt because, in their haste, they could not wait for the bread to rise. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, popularly known as the Ramchal, also reveals a mystical reason (Derech Hashem 4:8:1).
Chametz (leaven), which causes bread flour to rise, may not be used in baking matzah. Many sources teach that chametz symbolizes the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, which is responsible for inflating our egos and desires. In the absence of chametz, matzah represents the purest and holiest of foods, which was quite appropriate for the Exodus, a uniquely auspicious and sacred juncture in Jewish history. Each Pesach we similarly strive to rid ourselves of our personal chametz, the egocentricity, arrogance and physical desires that obscure our true self; we eat matzah, aspiring to achieve genuine freedom and holiness.
If being cleansed of chametz results in a holy people, why did the Jews not continue the practice after leaving Egypt? Did they not want to retain this lofty state of holiness?
Upon leaving Egypt, the Jewish people was a fledgling nation, with the characteristics of a newborn. An infant is capable of digesting only mother’s milk or its equivalent, and only later advances to purées, followed by simple solids, and eventually to a more complex diet. What is digestible and nourishing for an adult would be fatal to a baby, but what is fed to a newborn is wholly inadequate for an adult.
Similarly, during the nation’s spiritual infancy upon leaving Egypt, it needed the purest and simplest state of holiness. Just as a newborn’s digestive system requires the purest of nourishment, the spiritual fragility of the nascent Jewish nation required absolute religious purity to nurture its yet undeveloped spiritual identity. Hence the absence of chametz. Matzah is simple, composed of only flour and water, representing pure holiness. But as the nation matured, a far more sophisticated form of spiritual nourishment was needed. The Jewish people advanced from consuming matzah to eating manna in the desert, eventually progressing to a regular diet of kosher food.
One’s spiritual journey parallels that of his or her physical, emotional and intellectual growth. A child’s religious development is carefully nurtured. Children must be shielded from negative influences, focus on learning Torah and socialize with others sharing the same Torah values and perspectives. With age, a child matures in many regards, including spiritually. He becomes increasingly capable of the more sophisticated religious growth that accompanies confrontation with the more difficult and vexing religious questions and challenges, and with the overall complexities of religious life.
Lifelong spiritual development requires effort. But just as our physical, emotional and intellectual capabilities evolve as we age, our spiritual capacity expands as well. We need, however, to be mindful of the spiritual opportunities that emerge as we advance in order to take advantage of them. The opportunities are many, and I will highlight just a few.
On a cold winter Friday night six years ago, a group of men gathered for an oneg Shabbos. The evening’s topic of discussion was fatherhood, and I, a guest, was invited by the rabbi to lead this and other talks over Shabbos.
We discussed whether the roles of father and mother differ, the ever-changing challenges of parenting unruly, defiant children and ways to stimulate our children’s religious ambition. At one point in the discussion, I noted that meaningful religious growth is the product of making choices, and I observed that one primary responsibility that parents have is to empower their children to grow into adults capable of making responsible choices. This includes instilling confidence, imbuing a sense of responsibility, and providing an education that teaches ethics and wisdom, in addition to skills and knowledge.
Challenging me, one participant asked, “If Judaism is all about choices, why do we enroll our children in Jewish day schools? Perhaps we should enroll them in public school instead, allowing them to grow up exposed to all forms of belief systems and thereby be equipped to choose which religion, if any, to follow.”
I responded, “While making choices is a theme that underlies Torah Judaism, it is an adult function. We allow children only limited choices in accordance with their age, and even then only to train and prepare them to make significant choices as they mature.”
I continued: “Providing a rigorous Torah education and Jewish socialization does not preclude students from making choices as adults. To the contrary, the day school and yeshivah experience is actually essential to ensuring that when students enter society as adults they will be equipped to make responsible choices regarding Judaism despite the powerful countervailing influences, and notwithstanding the pressures and distractions of adulthood.
“This can be compared to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart in the midst of inflicting the Ten Plagues. The Ramban explains that in doing so, God was not denying Pharaoh’s freedom of choice regarding freeing the Jews, but was rather empowering Pharaoh to overcome the inevitable emotional paralysis that would have been imposed by the staggering horror of the Plagues. Sometimes freedom of choice is preserved only by introducing fortifying, powerful forces to counter external influences that would otherwise dominate and obscure the choice.”
Our relationship with God is dictated by the choices we make. As children, most choices that affect us are made by others. During childhood, however, we are inculcated with values and teachings that are intended to guide our decision-making as we emerge into adulthood. Even when we confront many of life’s most consequential choices during the earlier stages of adulthood, we remain significantly swayed by our upbringing and the continuing influence of our elders. As we get older, however, the dominance of these influences recedes and we independently decide whether to adopt the lessons we acquired as youngsters or to embrace alternate approaches and values. Consequently, as we age our choices are increasingly our own, thereby enhancing our capacity for holiness.
Maturation and the Recognition of “Other”
My revered rebbi, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, often observed that maturation is the process of expanding one’s recognition of value and significance beyond oneself. An infant perceives himself as the entirety of the universe, then begins to recognize his mother, though only as being necessary to provide for his own needs. Each stage of life should be accompanied by a greater appreciation for the significance of others, first expressed through sharing, then helping, then taking care of others who are unable to care for themselves. The very grown-up emotions of sympathy and empathy also develop as we mature, as does the recognition that our behavior and priorities must be guided by values, ethics and morality, and not solely by our wants.
Giving charity and performing acts of chesed (benevolence) are holy acts as they emulate God and elevate our neshamah (soul). Opportunities for this type of religious growth increase with age, not only because we mature but also because we accumulate more wisdom and resources, financial or otherwise, to share.
A slave, having neither time nor possessions of his own, suffers for being unable to be a giver. Freedom creates the opportunity to give of oneself to others. But generosity is a trait that must be learned. After generations of enslavement, the Jews left Egypt with many possessions, but with no training in generosity. The blooming nation in the desert spent forty years having all their basic needs, including clothing, food and shelter, miraculously taken care of. As recipients of God’s very conspicuous magnanimity during this initial period of their nationhood, the Jewish people observed and learned the manner of generosity and benevolence, enabling them thereafter to emulate these traits. And indeed they did. Upon entering the Land of Israel, they matured into an exceptionally generous nation, responsible for taking care of themselves, their families and the broader community. Being solely a beneficiary, however, becomes addictive rather than empowering unless it is limited to a finite period and is understood to be preparatory to becoming a benefactor.
As children and students, we are primarily recipients of the care and attention of others. Only with age do we achieve gradations of independence, hopefully maturing from being recipients to being givers. This evolution not only transforms us into generous and benevolent human beings, but also trains us to look beyond ourselves in a manner attuned to recognizing our Creator, and God’s ongoing role in our lives. This is yet another opportunity for spiritual growth that continually expands as we advance through the stages of life.
Sparks of Holiness in the Mundane
Though as adults we enjoy many opportunities to advance spiritually, we are also increasingly overwhelmed and burdened by life’s basic responsibilities, such as career, marriage, children, and bills. We are distracted, exhausted and stressed. We check off the religious boxes: prayer, Shabbos, Torah learning, kosher food, honesty, faithfulness. But life’s pace is frenetic, and the ambient noise is overbearing, beating constantly in our ears and numbing our minds and souls. Little capacity is left to contemplate holiness. How can we search for God when we do not even have the time and energy to find ourselves?
As a pre-teen, I spent my free time playing hockey, reading novels and listening to my father’s LPs. In addition to Shlomo Carlebach and Harry Belafonte, I must have listened to Zero Mostel starring as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at least two hundred times. I will never forget the banter of Golde deflecting Tevye’s question about the emotional nature of their marriage. But, after considering the unsettled life they share and the twenty-five years of monotonous marital chores, Golde finally concedes that, however mundane may have been their years of mutual commitment, “If that’s not love, what is?”
Rather than viewing the ever-increasing burdens and obligations of ordinary adult life as distractions and frustrations, we must recognize them as ever-increasing opportunities to enhance and deepen our relationship with God. It is actually quite remarkable and profound that day in and day out we remain loyal and committed to this relationship.
We may not be philosophers or scholars. We are ordinary Jews, preoccupied with the mundane, with occupation and recreation, celebration and consolation, altercations and conciliations. But we also encounter our often monotonous routine as committed Torah Jews, thereby converting the ordinary into the sacred.
We observe the secular society around us and we see a culture fomenting unstable families and degenerate moral standards, and lonely people celebrating the never-ending pursuit of superficial life goals and priorities. And we begin to realize that by living our ordinary mundane adult lives, guided by halachah, emunah and Torah ethics, we are producing the world’s most exalted sparks of holiness.
Mark (Moishe) Bane is president of the OU and a senior partner and chairman of the Business Restructuring Department at the international law firm Ropes & Gray LLP.