The barriers protecting us are gone; it’s up to us to build them
With Rav Moshe Wolfson, written by Baila Vorhand
“To, my nation, into your rooms, lock the doors behind you, wait for but a moment until the wrath passes” (Yeshayahu 26:20).
For us impatient beings with lifespans of decades, 2,000 years of galus seems like eternity, but Yeshayahu Hanavi considers it a moment in the context of the eternal reward that awaits us.
How do we survive as Torah Jews during this tumultuous moment? “Go into a room and lock the door.” Create fortresses of holiness: build shuls, insulate your homes, create environments where it’s safe and normal to be fully Jewish.
Ever since Yaakov Avinu left Eretz Yisrael for Mitzrayim, Jews have chosen to separate themselves from non-Jews. From Goshen to the ghettos, we were secluded. Even today, frum Jews tend to live together in heimish communities. But no longer does the modern “ghetto” completely protect us from exposure to non-Jewish culture. It’s impossible to surround ourselves with walls high enough and thick enough to protect our communities and families.
Our generation faces a formidable challenge. Most of us have complete access to the full spectrum of non-Jewish ideas and ideals in full pictorial detail — at work, on the street, subway, doctor’s office, pharmacy — everywhere. Short of wearing blindfolds and earplugs how can we protect our emunah peshutah?
Where There’s A Will
A prominent historical example of how to survive as a Jew even when forced into the epicenter of evil is Esther, who was not only forced to live in an environment of wickedness, but was also compelled into marriage with an evil non-Jew.
According to various midrashim, after years of living in Achashveirosh’s palace, Esther entered a house of idolatry in an attempt to save her people. When she felt the Shechinah leaving her, she protested, “My G-d, my G-d, why have you left me!?” (Tehillim 22:2) For all those years, the Shechinah remained with her. And even though the Shechinah left her when she entered the house of idols, it returned after her prayer.
In our times of apologetic compromise and discomfort with “extremist” positions, we have a current example of how a Jew can remain fully and truly Jewish despite being surrounded by all that is non-Jewish, all the while treating every human being with dignity and respect: Sholom Mordechai HaLevi Rubashkin.
As a prisoner, he couldn’t turn off the TV that was espousing the ideas and ideals of non-Jewish culture into his face. Around him were people who, to put it mildly, were not models of elevated behavior. So, how did he remain so authentically Jewish?
He retained his emunah peshutah by completely ignoring the culture around him. Never once did he even glance in the direction of the TV, an absolutely astounding feat, and he insisted that he be the person everybody learn from, not that he learn from the people surrounding him. He refused to compromise, even on a minhag, and fully immersed himself in Torah and tefillah with mesirus nefesh, while actively reaching out to his fellow Jews to teach them Torah.
We cannot lock the doors of our homes as securely as we once did, but it’s up to each individual to “lock the doors” of his own eyes, ears, mind, and heart.
Instead of curiously studying the ads lining the subways, we can listen to a shiur; instead of flipping through questionable reading material in the doctor’s office, we can recite Tehillim, or catch up on phone calls. Although we can offer our professional services in a non-Jewish environment, our social circle should be comprised of growth-oriented Jews.
It is possible to remain authentically Jewish today, but not while listening to the radio, reading non-Jewish newspapers, or using the Internet for relaxation, entertainment, or without filtering software. If we open ourselves up to non-Jewish culture, chances are high that we’ll be influenced by its debasement, bad middos, and immorality.
Slowly, without even realizing it, our way of thinking, feeling, and understanding the world will become non-Jewish. The shtreimel or sheitel on our heads do not protect our minds from becoming tainted. If we aren’t careful, our natural emunah peshutah, a Jew’s most precious asset, can be destroyed.
Repairing a Damaged Emunah
Today, there are hundreds of thousands of Jews who weren’t born frum, but after years of being immersed in non-Jewish culture, they did an about-face and returned to Hashem. How did these baalei teshuvah repair their damaged emunah instincts? And what about FFBs who failed to maintain proper boundaries between themselves and non-Jewish culture?
Like a person healing from physical ailments, rehabilitating the Jewish neshamah requires a multipronged approach: learning Torah, davening, fulfilling mitzvos, refraining from aveiros, connecting to tzaddikim, and joining a society of truly Jewish Jews.
Learning Torah and seforim of chassidus and mussar teaches a person how to think like a Jew. Slowly, non-Jewish ideas fade away and are replaced by the Torah’s way of thinking.
Tefillah makes us aware of how deeply we do believe. Whenever we talk to Hashem, whether through the siddur or in our own words, we reconnect to and strengthen the part of ourselves that is attached to Him.
Mitzvos elevate a person and refraining from violating a Torah commandment, especially when it’s not easy, cleanses foreign material from our neshamos. Every act of choosing to do the difficult in fulfillment of Hashem’s directives reactivates the emunah instinct.
A tzaddik or tzadeikes is a person whose emunah peshutah is revealed and undamaged. Being in his or her presence reawakens our own instinct of emunah.
Finally, being immersed in true Jewish “culture” and absorbing the values of Jews who live for Hashem, teaches us how to be Jewish. Sitting together with other Jews and singing zemiros, relating stories of (all kinds of) tzaddikim, and dancing out of joy of fulfilling a mitzvah, of being Jewish, or of having a great connection to the Ribbono shel Olam, reawakens our natural emunah instinct.
Malachi, who was from the last of the neviim, addresses our generation when he advises, “When you find yourself in a generation of people who feel that they get nothing out of serving Hashem because the wicked deny Him and get away with it, those who fear Hashem should gather together to encourage each other. This is so important to Hashem; He writes it down in the exclusive record of those who fear Hashem and take His name into consideration” (Malachi 3:13-16).
Forming chaburos, groups of likeminded friends who gather together from time to time to strengthen connection to each other and commitment to Yiddishkeit, is an important aid in maintaining emunah.
Difficult but Doable
We have to appreciate how difficult it is to preserve emunah peshutah today. We cannot judge and blame people (ourselves included) whose emunah is fuzzy and weak, because we’re being flooded by forces that powerfully uproot all forms of emunah, and especially emunah peshutah. It is no wonder that so many people are filled with doubts and questions.
The barriers separating Jews from non-Jewish culture are no longer here; we have to manually erect them. We have to consciously develop the emunah that was a natural part of our great-grandparents, absorbed with their mother’s milk.
Hashem values all effort invested in preserving and developing every kind of emunah, but especially emunah peshutah, because the Jewish soul’s ability to instinctively connect to Hashem is its most prized feature, as we will explain in further installments.
In a nutshell: Today, emunah peshutah is in jeopardy because we’re inundated with easy access to non-Jewish culture. However, we can consciously choose to separate from non-Jewishness to protect our Jewish instincts.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 666)