What aspects of our contemporary frum society help keep alive the thirst for ruchniyus?
In the January 6, 1737, issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette, Benjamin Franklin published an alphabetical list of over 200 synonyms for “drunk.” His introduction to this inventory of intoxication read, in part:
The Phrases in this Dictionary are not (like most of our Terms of Art) borrow’d from Foreign Languages, neither are they collected from the Writings of the Learned in our own, but gather’d wholly from the modern Tavern-Conversation of Tiplers.
The sheer number of terms people have fashioned to describe the alcohol-induced state of having lost one’s mind testifies to something we already know: That frequent and heavy imbibing is a favorite pastime of the society in which we live.
A traditional “high point” for such activity comes each year on the First of January, when revelers ring in their new year by signaling that they’ve so much enjoyed getting sloshed in the year just ended that they’re planning to have more of the same in the one getting under way. Talk about doubling down on dumb. (Indeed, the publication date of Ben Franklin’s opus followed close enough after that day to make one suspect it was inspired thereby.) What moved me, a near-total teetotaler, to reflect about January 1st and Americans’ inebriation infatuation is the fact that, on the selfsame day, Orthodox Jews will gather for a purpose with its own connections to the quenching of thirst. As the previous evening’s partygoers are first beginning to rouse from their slumber, throngs of observant Jews will be paying joyous tribute to those among them who, seven years ago, heeded the Navi’s exhortation (Yeshayahu 55:1), “Hoi, kol tzamei, lechu lamayim — All who are thirsty, go to the water,” which refers to Torah (Taanis 7a).
As it happens, thirst as an essential ingredient of spiritual success is a particular theme of Chanukah as well. The overarching goal of the Hellenists was to erase the bright line separating Jew from non-Jew, to deny that Jews are a nation apart, possessing a unique Torah and committed to an elevated way of life. They wreaked great havoc on the Jewish society of their time, until a single family — Mattisyahu and sons — arose in resistance to them, taking up arms in a fight to the death. What was it about that small clan that moved them to do so?
When Chazal (Sanhedrin 76b) sought to capture the essential difference between Jew and non-Jew, they looked to a pasuk in Devarim (29:18) where the words ravah, meaning satiated, and tzmei’ah, meaning thirsty, appear. They use ravah to describe the gentile, and tzmei’ah for the Jew. Rashi on the gemara explains that “Knesses Yisrael is thirsty and desirous for the fear of its Creator and to fulfill His mitzvos.” Non-Jews, by contrast, are satisfied; to thirst is to lack, and they simply don’t feel anything missing on a spiritual level.
But spiritual thirst is a delicate thing. If not nurtured and guarded, it can quickly diminish, even disappear. And so apparently it did in the generation of the Chanukah miracle — for almost everyone.
The pasuk in Shir Hashirim (6:7) states, K’felach harimon rakaseich, meb’ad l’tzamaseich, and the Targum, taking the word tzamaseich as related to tzama, thirst, renders: “All the members of Malchus Beis Chashmona’i were filled with mitzvos like a pomegranate, but Mattisyahu Kohein Gadol and his sons were greater tzaddikim than the rest and fulfilled the mitzvos and the teachings of Torah with thirst.”
There were mitzvos galore, plentiful as a pomegranate’s seeds, sure. But it was a thirst for the Divine and His Word that made all the difference. To reinstate the crumbling wall separating the spiritually thirsty and the self-satisfied, it took Mattisyahu and his progeny, Jews who hadn’t lost that thirst.
The story of Chanukah teaches that there’s much more to thriving — and even surviving — than just tallying up how many mitzvos one does. Thirst sounds like an expendable extra, but it’s not. Our lives as Jews can depend on it.
As lomdei Torah embark on a new journey through Shas, it’s an opportune time to take stock of what aspects of our contemporary frum society help keep alive the thirst for ruchniyus, the freshness and excitement of learning Torah, and which of them contribute to deadening these feelings. Are there things about how we live today that didn’t exist a decade ago — things that most everyone we know now has or does or thinks — which, measuring by your personal “thirst index,” you’d be better off without?
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 792. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org