I often think that t’shuva (repentance) - the central theme of the Days of Awe - is not at all easy for the committed Jew. After all, we are generally observant, relatively honest in business, try not to lie, cheat or steal. OK … So maybe we're not perfect, and maybe we don’t go to the synagogue as often as we should, and maybe we ought to pray with greater intention. Perhaps, we should spend more time learning Torah, and yes, maybe we indulge in a bit too much gossip. But somehow t’shuva would be easier if there were something major to focus on.
Well, I think there is something big we have to be concerned with - and it has to do with our communal religious responsibilities. Our obligations toward our fellow Jews can be broken down into two categories. Firstly, we are required to maintain our fellow Jews’ physical and emotional wellbeing. We know these obligations as gemillut chassadim – acts of kindness which come under the general rubric of: “love thy neighbor as thyself": charity, caring for the needy, comforting the mourners, burying the dead, rejoicing with the bride and groom, and so on.
But there is a whole second category of obligations which requires me to be concerned with my fellow Jews’ religious and spiritual wellbeing. It is the principle that allows me – nay, obligates me - to say kiddush and havdalah or read Megilla and Haggada for my fellow, even though I have already fulfilled my own obligation. All this stems from the concept of “Kol Yisrael areivin zeh la-zeh,” briefly known as “areivut.” An areiv is a co-signer to an obligation or loan. Each Jew at Sinai accepted his Torah obligations using the plural “Na’ase ve-nishma”. We thereby assumed responsibility not only our own mitzvot, but for the obligations of other Jews as well.
This situation reminds me of the famous joke: How many Chabadnicks (Lubavitcher Hasidim) does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to change the light bulb, and the other to convince the rest of the neighborhood that they should be changing light bulbs too! Indeed, that’s what areivut is all about - it’s about taking religious/spiritual responsibility for what’s happening around us.
“Now, that’s a tall order,” you say, “and besides I believe in live and let live.” That’s true for most of us, in fact. But, there is still much we can do by personal involvement and personal example. What I would like to suggest is that we start with education, and concern ourselves with our families and friends.
- Many of us have been blessed with a wonderful Jewish and secular education. And yet, when the community turns to us to give a devar Torah (sermon) or shiur (a class or lecture) - we hesitate, we’re shy or unsure of ourselves, we feel we don’t know enough. But, as it is written in the morning prayers (“Ahavah Rabbah”), we are obligated to learn, understand and share our learning with others. Judaism and Torah were never meant to be spectator sports.
- Make sure to show gratitude to those who do indeed invest the time and effort to prepare divrei Torah and shiurim. They may have spoken a hundred times before, but everyone likes being appreciated, and feeling that their time and effort have paid off.
- Support the shiurim in the community that are already being given. There is nothing more depressing, more deflating, than investing hours in preparing a well-researched, organized and constructed quality lecture or class - and have to give it to an enthusiastic group of two or three.
- The next project I would suggest is setting up studygroups. These are usually 8-15 couples who get together once a month or so to discuss a text or topic of Jewish interest. The group can have a given leader, or have a rotation among the couples. The importance of a studygroup is that it creates chevrashaft - friendship and a sense of community - centered around Torah.
- Alternatively, find yourself a chevruta - a partner in learning. You can even schedule it so that when the wives learn together in one home, the husbands learn together in the other - so all the kids are covered. Remember, there is much more to Torah learning than just Gemara. There’s Chumash with Rambam or Tanach with commentaries, philosophy and midrash, history and halakha. And so much has been written or translated into English that there aren’t any real language barriers anymore to sophisticated, intellectually stimulating material. Make sure your children know about these chevrutot. Nothing speaks more eloquently to a child or grandchild about the importance of Torah learning in the life of a Jew, than to see a parent or a grandparent give up of their precious time to learn themselves.
- The last thing you can do is to take out time to learn with your own children. Set aside special time on Shabbat or during the week. We often err in thinking that our rabbis and teachers are entrusted with that obligation. But it was not until the time of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai towards the end of the second temple period that a grade school system was set up. The fundamental mitzvah of teaching Torah is, and has always been, parent to child, based on the verse “ve-shinantam le-vanekha” - teach thy children. The late Rav Goren noted that both Torah and Eretz Yisrael are referred to as morasha - rather than yerusha. A Yerusha is an inheritance, passed on after one’s death. But a morasha is a precious heirloom - a cherished item which is shared happily during the life of both generations. Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morasha kehilat Yaakov - the Torah was given to us by Moses with the proviso that we would share it with our children and enjoy it together.
I trust that I have given you a few ideas of how each of us can strengthen our religious obligation of areivut - of improving the spiritual wellbeing of our community. May the New Year find us and Klal Yisrael inscribed be-Sefer hayyim, berakha ve-shalom, u-parnassah tovah - in the book of good life, good fortune, blessing and peace. Amen!
Rabbi Dr. Aryeh A. Frimer is the Ethel and David Resnick Professor of Active Oxygen Chemistry at Bar Ilan University. Email: FrimeA@mail.biu.ac.il.