I recall as a boy going one weekday morning to minyan with my dad. We lived in a Long Island suburb then, where there were few observant Jews.Minyan had a limited attendance and every person counted. Prior to the davening beginning my father bent over and whispered to me, "See that man over there...He is a baal t'shuva" saying it as if he was showing me a rare and precious find.
Indeed he was. That was in the mid-fifties. Jews seemed to be quickly disappearing. Any Jew who observed was no doubt an FFB (frum from birth) and even they, all too often, were sadly surrendering the observance of their family of origin for the promise of the American dream.
Baal T'shuva was something found in the pages of the Talmud not a living breathing human being. It was startling to think then that someone actually gave up the investment in the American dream for a commitment to Torah lifestyle.
My how times have changed, thank G-d. The renaissance of the Jewish spirit has been as remarkable as it has been unpredictable. An uncle of mine, a prominent Conservative rabbi, made the prediction with a gloat to my father that in fifty years there won't be any Orthodox Jews in America. That was in 1955. Fifty years later, v'nahapoch hu, the opposite is true. Its the liberal branches of Judaism that are on the ropes and facing extinction. And BTs are every bit as common, and in some circles more common than FFBs. Who would have guessed.
I thought about this as I looked at the parsha, or to be more exact, the second parsha we read this week. In it we find the tochacha, the admonition given by Hashem to Israel of the consequences of there choice to either follow the Torah and keep the mizvot or G-d forbid, stray.
If one looks at the horrific punishments in store for Israel should they fail to keep the Torah and mitzvot, he should not make the mistake of thinking that G-d is simply getting even with us. On the contrary G-d loves us even when we fail Him. Over and over in the reading G-d says " if you continue to stray and distance yourself from me then I will add to your punishments..." clearly indicating that the punishments in the first place were brought on Israel to foster their return to Hashem.
And perhaps it has been true, that when things were bad for us as a people we sought G-d and looked for His deliverance. After all isn't it that way in our individual lives. When things are good we are often casual about G-d and lax in observance. When things go awry, like when someone we love is sick or in need, or when we find our situation desperate, our prayers become passionate and we practice the mitzvot with more mindfulness. Bad things tend to bring out the latent yearning for G-d and His rescue.
Yet that is not the backdrop for the renewal we have seen in our day. Surely the Jewish people in America in the 50's were in need of some stimulation to bring them back to the faith of their fathers. There were few Yeshivot and Jewish Day Schools.Few adults were learned. Observance was declining with little hope for a reversal. One might have expected, in accord with the tochacha of this week's parsha that some evils befall the Jewish people so they might turn to Hashem for His deliverance. But no evils came. Renewal yes! But without the punishments.
What is this?
In the prophet Amos we read "Behold the days come, saith the L-rd Hashem, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of Hashem".
Those days have come. Hashem has seen fit to bring us back not through abstinence and deprivation, as in times past, but through plenty. We have bread. We have water. All our physical
needs are met. We lack for nothing of consequence. And yet we feel the void, a painful void, a void made all the more undeniable precisely because we can't distract ourselves from it with the pursuit of needs not met, since we do have it all.
In this time of plenty we feel a hunger that cannot be sated and a thirst that cannot be quenched. With all the promise of America now realized, with all the material blessings at our door we are lacking. In this world where nothing is denied us we feel an absence . The absence of divrai Hashem, the words of Hashem.
Our world is full of so many words, so much hype, the world is full of glitter and sound. Media is the god of the secular. Yet the renewal of the spirit is born precisely at the apex of the influence of media. Never have we been more inundated with sounds and sites. Media made a furious effort to earn our allegiance to the values it represents, the values of shallow beauty and transient pleasures. Yet in the end the emperor has no clothes. We listen but feel empty. We look but feel unfulfilled.
It is not the divrei of television or the divrei of the latest pop cd or the divrei of a fashion magazine that we seek...No it is the divrei Hashem, the words of G-d we yearn to hear. Words that will sate us and bring us the peace. Words full of meaning. Words enduring. Words that speak truth eternal. Words that link us to the transcend ant. Ironic that with all the noise in our world its words we feel most deprived of.....words of Hashem.
Its the hunger for those words that fostered the movement of renewal we experience in our day. And while many Jews sadly remain lost to our faith, one cannot help but marvel at the miracle of rebirth that fills us with hope.
Indeed these are the times Amos was referring to so many years ago. How privileged we are to live in them. May the renewal be complete and full so that all of the prophets vision be realized.
As he concludes "......And I will plant them on their land and they shall no more be plucked up out of the land which I have given them, saith Hashem Elokim".