Yiddishkeit isn’t a religion with rules. It’s a relationship with a connection.
It’s Elul. It’s the season of Melech basadeh, so, so close, the time of Ani l’Dodi v’Dodi li. What better time to explore our connection with Hashem and the missing ingredient that is draining Yiddishkeit of all of its meaning for so many among us.
Is Judaism a Religion…or a Relationship?
Sometimes, we get so focused on teaching our children the religion that is Yiddishkeit, that we lose our focus on the relationship that defines it. By doing this, we are misrepresenting what is the essence of Yiddishkeit, according to Rabbi Bentzion Klatzko, legendary inspirational speaker, kiruv revolutionary and founder of Shabbat.com.
“The Torah takes great pains to avoid the word religion,” says Rabbi Klatzko. “The word in the Tanach is das, and is only used once in the entire Tanach — by Haman, the enemy of the Jews. ‘Vedaseyhem shonos,’ he tells Achashveirosh. Don’t feel bad about wiping them out; they are just another religion. So what are we then, if we are not a religion? We are a relationship. And this isn’t some cool repackaging of Yiddishkeit. It was always meant to be a relationship, and so many of the dynamics in Yiddishkeit point to that. ”
As much as it is lacking in references to religion, the Torah is full of references to relationships, specifically the relationship between Hashem and Bnei Yisroel.
Just a few of those are:
*The keruvim, in the holiest place in the world, contained the face of a man and a woman. When Hashem was pleased with klal Yisroel, they faced each other, and when our misbehavior caused a rift in our relationship, the keruvim would face away from each other.
*Shir Hashirim. An entire sefer in Tanach is dedicated to using the relationship between husband and wife as a mashal for the relationship between klal Yisroel and Hashem.
*Coming up soon is an entire section of tefillah called Avinu Malkeinu. He is our Father and our King.
And there is so much more.
“When I see people struggling in Judaism, they are usually also struggling in relationships,” says Rabbi Klatzko. “Relationships require gratitude and respect. When we feel connection and love, it translates well to what Judaism is offering. We think that our relationship with Hashem is compared to the already existing concepts of king, parent, or spouse; but kabbalah tells us that, in fact, Hashem only created the concept of parents, kings, and spouses in this world so that we can understand our relationship with Him. So many kids go off the derech because they are taught religion, not relationship.”
Mati Berger spent several years off the derech as a teen and is today involved with the next generation of teenagers.
“I always thought I was connected, even when I wasn’t frum,” says Mati. “I would talk to Hashem all the time; I never stopped believing in Him. But what I realize now is that I never saw the role that Torah and mitzvos should play in that connection. I saw the mitzvos as a list of dos and don’ts, and not as a means of connection to my Father. Seeing the entire Yiddishkeit through the perspective of my relationship with Hashem guided me toward embracing it all once again. Even today, as a frum wife and mother, I need to constantly revisit this concept; and every time I do, it revitalizes my connection to a Torah life anew.”
Many of the teens Mati encounters have taken with them an understanding of Yiddishkeit that starts and ends with: If I do mitzvos, I get Olam Habah; if not, I go to Gehennom.
“When I discuss this concept of the relationship factor of Yiddishkeit with kids who are currently off the derech, their response is always the same: That makes so much sense. How come I never heard of this?” she says.
Shabbos, Time to Connect
In what ways, then, can we take what we have already been doing and see it through the lens of our relationship with Hashem?
A man who today is a fine ben Torah leading a Torah life shared what he was thinking during a previous time period in his life when he was a struggling teen:
“Why did I go off the derech, you ask? If I had to pin it to one main factor, it was the fact that I never felt connected to the derech to begin with. All my lessons in yeshivah taught me the dos and the don’ts, but they never taught me the whys. I knew I couldn’t turn on the light on Shabbos, and every other halachah about Shabbos, but I had no love for Shabbos. I wasn’t educated in a way that brought out that love and that connection.”
Unfortunately, there are many who are still frum —teens and adults who are keeping the rules and regulations, but without any connection or sense of meaning or purpose. Shabbos is the holiest day of the week, a day dedicated to closeness and connection, but so many people lose focus of that and instead only see the restrictions. What is even more tragic is when people don’t understand why the halachos are important and what they have to do with Shabbos, and so, they disregard them altogether, slowly slipping away from observance.
Rabbi Klatzko compares Shabbos to a busy couple that makes the time to connect at least once a week.
“When I take my wife out to eat, she asks me to please turn my phone off, and even leave it in the car,” he says. “Or when she comes to my office and I’m still typing, she asks me to close my computer so she doesn’t have to compete. That’s Shabbos. Hashem says, “I know how busy you are all week; after all, I made the mortgages and bills you’re so busy with. But if you don’t focus on Us once a week, our relationship will die.” Get dressed up and shower for the date with Hashem. Put on a white tablecloth, light some candles and pour some wine. Shabbos gets flowers and China because it’s a date. We sing Lecha Dodi, saying, “Come my beloved, I’m sorry I couldn’t focus all week, but for the next twenty-four hours, boee kallah, I’m all yours.”
When we begin to see Shabbos as an opportunity to connect with Hashem and we prepare for it with the same joy and anticipation as when we prepare for a night out with our spouse, then Shabbos becomes a day of joy and enlightenment in our home. We draw closer to the Source, and we bring our entire family along with us.
Our children should hear us sing Lechah Dodi with even greater passion than they hear when we shout, “Put that down! It’s muktzah!”
While they are both important, if our children are only seeing the restriction without the connection, they can chas v’shalom grow to resent everything that Yiddishkeit represents.
Tefillah, the words to connect
While weekly date night is wonderful, a relationship cannot stand on that alone. We still need to be connecting daily. No matter how busy our lives may be, we make sure to connect several times a day. That is tefillah.
“We daven three times a day, not because it’s part of the program,” says Rabbi Klatzko. “In a good relationship, you check in at least three times a day. My wife and I drink coffee together every morning . You hopefully check in at least once during the day and then, in the evening, end the day together.
Tefillah is avodah sheb’lev. So why do so many of us put so little heart into it? Why do we find ourselves forcing our kids to daven, begging our boys to stay in shul just for a few minutes?
It’s because tefillah has become something we have to do, not something we crave because it makes us feel closer to our loved One.
“I’ve heard studies that the nine most important minutes to connect with your child are three minutes when they wake up, three minutes when they come home from school, and three minutes before bed,” says Mati. “That’s shachris, minchah, maariv. We’re not just dispensing with our tefillah obligation; we are connecting with our Father.”
The concept of schar and onesh is definitely an important part of Yiddishkeit; it is one of the ikrei emunah. But the concept of a fiery Gehennom that many of our children are burdened with comes more from Christianity than Torah.
Gehennom isn’t mentioned in the Torah. What is the punishment the Torah tells us about?
“In the tochacha it says ‘Vehaya im telchu imi bekeri, vehalachti gam ani bachem bekeri,’” says Rabbi Klatzko. “Keri comes from coincidence. If you act like it’s a coincidence that we know each other, I’ll act like I don’t know you either. The punishment is disconnection, not being in a relationship. And if Hashem acts with us like we’re not in a relationship, well, we’re a sheep among seventy wolves — we’re toast.”
The punishments that the Torah speaks of are punishments that come from lack of relationship.
“Of course Judaism believes in after life consequences,” says Rabbi Klatzko. “It doesn’t mention it in the Torah because in a healthy relationship you don’t use a carrot and a stick, and Judaism is a relationship. You don’t need incentives or threats; you do what you do out of love. Obviously, there are consequences in a relationship for not doing what you’re supposed to do, but it’s not the threat of those consequences that motivates you to do them.”
Mati says that being threatened with Gehennom when she could have used warmth, guidance and encouragement was a scarring experience that led her further astray.
“I know kids who were told by teachers that they are going to Gehennom for wearing this or doing that,” she says. “In every case, it doesn’t inspire them to do better; instead, it leads them to despair and to think, If I’m going to Gehennom anyway, what’s the point in trying, and they begin doing so much worse.”
Lack of connection is deeply painful and is a punishment all its own. By helping our children build the connection to begin with, we won’t have to try and force them into anything; they will desire it for themselves.
Giving Over the Fire
It’s not only those off the derech who are lacking the connection. It’s a painful reality in our times that so many people, children and adults, are disconnected; they may be practicing Yiddeshkeit on the outside, but their hearts and their souls are devoid of connection, and their actions are devoid of meaning. How can we try to pass the torch of Yiddishkeit to our children when our own flame has gone cold?
Elul, the season of closeness, is the perfect time to reestablish the foundation of our Yiddishkeit, the connection to Hashem. To do so, we have to reexamine the meaning behind the mitzvos, the tefillos, the things that we do on a daily basis but never actually thought about. Once we know the meaning, we can infuse them with passion and joy and make our homes into homes where Yiddishkeit sings, dances and ignites.
Relationships require investment, commitment and communication. Are we giving all that to the most important relationship of our lives? When we do what we do out of joy and love, not out of rote or habit, then we are giving our families the greatest gift of all, for we are passing the torch of connection on to them.