Two uncles of mine, my father o.b.m.'s, brothers, Ben and Ray, once found themselves together in a shule for morning minyan. After davening Ben said to Ray, "remember how when we were boys growing up we used to see those old men, bent and broken, krechtz there way to shule each day, and after davening drink a l'chayim with a shtickle herring and kichel?". Ray replied, "yes". And Ben said "well now they are us!".
For many years Judaism was a religion of the old. When young, people were busy making money, raising their children, pushing life to the limits to get from it all they could. They had no time for davening and learning. If you came to a typical synagogue in America morning minyan, where it existed at all, was dependent on the old and infirm. The continuation of the tradition required the marginalized.
I can remember my own years in a Jewish Day School. The A-list boys, those popular, athletic, and good looking rarely were the ones who took spiritual matters seriously. They were too preoccupied chasing girls and enjoying the gifts of youth to be interested in prayer and Torah study. The boys who were b and c list, the ones who often felt left out and marginalized, they were the ones for whom davening and learning had an appeal.
Experience seemed to confirm what Marx wrote long ago, "Religion is the opiate of the masses". The masses, those who lack and are wanting, turn to faith. The strong and healthy don't need it!
I thought about that as I read the parsha this week of Ke tavo and the long tochacha, section of admonition, warning the People of Israel of the severe consequences that will befall them should they fail to follow the Torah. At one point in the midst of the tochacha we get a startling statement. We are told that all the terrible calamities that will befall us are "tachat asher lo avadta et Hashem Elokecha b'simcha uvtuv lavov marov kol, because you did not serve G-d with joy and a goodness of heart inasmuch as you had so much plenty".
At first glance, and even at second, that's astonishing. Punished for failing to observe the Torah I can understand, that's part of Israel's deal with G-d. But punished because we observed but didn't do it with sufficient joy or a good enough heart, that seems a bit much. Whats going on here?
There is an old saying "Immature love says, I need you therefore I love you. Mature love says, I love you therefore I need you". Great truth is embedded in that pithy statement. Immature love is a love that comes out of need, a love born out of our feeling that we are missing something we require in our lives. It is the love typical of young people who marry and feel they lack in some part of themselves. They marry someone, a chatan or kalla, who can add to them what they feel they are missing. That's one reason people tend to marry their opposites. Whether they recognize it or not, they feel a fundamental need for each other out of a sense of personal inadequacy and from that need the love grows.
Mature love is a love that emerges when a person feels complete and accepts him/herself for who s/he is. Often its the love of older people who marry. They do not marry because they need to find in the other what they have not in themselves. They have already grown sufficiently in their lives to have become rounded and whole and/or they have come to accept their limitations such that they no longer search for it in another. . Typically they more marry someone similar to themselves. And they marry because they want someone to love. The need emerges out of the desire to have someone to love.
That kind of love more imitates the love of Hashem for us. G-d doesn't have a need for us that engenders His feeling of love. On the contrary G-d in His completeness only lacks someone to love. Its His love for us that engender His need for us.
It is the desire of our G-d that we love Him with a mature love, one born not out of our lacking but our of our fullness. He wants our love for Him to precede our need and be its generator. Over and over G-d gives us opportunity to love Him in that way. He gives us, the Jewish People, periods of prosperity and peace, where the brachot from heaven rain down on us. We have times when all our needs are met. And He says to us,"Please now love Me in this time of plenty when you don't need me".
But over and over we have failed to love the mature love. Instead the A-list young go play and pursue the pleasures of youth, and religion remains the purview of the old and marginalized, those whose needs propels them to love. Whether in ancient Israel or modern America again and again the same story is repeated. If there is no need there is no love. In prosperity we forget G-d and pursue our own agendas. When we are old, sick and full of worries we turn to G-d.
That's why the tochacha happens. Its the only means we, a people forever immature, have to stimulate our return to our G-d. In our anguish and national despair we are full of needs. We become a nation of the marginalized. And being marginalized our needs lead us to our love and return to Hashem.
But that's not what Hashem wants for us or from us. He does not want to have us come to Him out of need. He wants our mature love, a love that precedes the need and feeds it.
That's the deepest meaning of the pasuk we quoted earlier. The cause of all the afflictions is our failure to worship G-d in joy and prosperity, meaning, out of our fullness. The Torah used the term tachat, literally meaning instead. When we have a setting full of blessing and ideal to foster the mature love we turn away from our G-d. In response, sadly our G-d needs to foster the immature love instead, one born in misery, to bring us back to Him.
The cycle has played itself out over and again in the course of Jewish history. We move from the failed opportunity given us in times of prosperity to the yearning born out of persecution and then back again with nothing changed. We remain stuck in the immature mode of loving our G-d.
But wait! Something has changed. The shule of today is full of young people, not only the old and infirm. The yeshivot are attracting the a-list boys. And the most popular girls are choosing a life of devotion and modesty. Daf yomi is being studied everywhere. Its the in thing to attend a shiur. So many are learning, from the successful professional to the corporate executive. The movement to teshuva is relentless. And all this is happening at a time where Jews are free of major persecution, live, if they choose to, in their own land, and have unprecedented wealth. Nothing is denied us of the material world yet we choose to embrace our faith.
Can it be? Are we finally moving towards the goal of the mature love Hakadosh Baruch Hu, The Holy One Blessed Be He always wanted from us? Are we finally fulfilling our destiny?
The signs seems hopeful, the promise great. There is wonderful reason to believe the lover's tale of Israel and her G-d is indeed moving towards its climax. As we near the conclusion of the seven weeks of nechama, consolation after Tisha B'Av, the true nechama may be at hand.
We are oh so ready. While our need for Hashem may indeed emerge out of our love for Him it is no less compelling. We need our G-d ! May He reveal Himself to us, His people swiftly and in our days. Amen v'amen.