Is America a land in decline? There are some very bright people who seriously argue that this great country, blessed with endless wealth and resources, having enjoyed unrivaled creativity and cultural influence in this century, has entered a new stage in its history ‑ the beginnings of cultural, financial, and political decay. It is a provocative thesis, but one that elicits an increasing audience, as it points to a number of symptoms that have historically afflicted great civilizations in decline: crumbling inner cities, shoddy workmanship in Detroit and incompetence in Washington. On Wall Street there is a loss of wealth and economic clout to more creative and dynamic powers such as Japan and West Germany. There are pockets of poverty and illiteracy that seem immune to eradication; high school graduates who cannot read and college students who cannot write; seemingly intractable racial tensions; and massive drug use throughout many sectors of society, to name but a few symptoms. In spite of Ronald Reagan's optimism over his two term Presidency, and the continued optimism expressed by President Bush, there are many Americans today who perceive the decline of America as having begun. And even those among us not quite so pessimistic who are more sanguine, are bothered by the apparent inability of our society and our people to fully realize the great promise and potential that heralded what not long ago was known as the American Century.
The issue, at heart, could be summed up in one phrase: renewal in an age of habit. How do we, as a society, as individuals, as communities, overcome the lethargy, the diminished creativity, that so often accompanies maturity and the passage of time? How does a society ‑ how do we, learn to keep on growing, avoid complacency, build on our past accomplishments, great as they are ‑ before we succumb to the inexorable forces of decline and degeneration?
The answer to this question, I strongly believe, is, in the first place, to be found in our attitude towards, and feelings about, our habits, those repetitious behavior patterns that are so indispensable to successful living. On the one hand, we depend dearly on them from the moment we arise in the morning till we close our eyes at night. How confused, anxiety‑ridden, and exhausted we would be without those familiar routines that have become second nature to us! Imagine if we had constantly to decide on and then implement our activities in effective and different ways. For if we function as efficiently as we do, it is surely because we have routines and reflexes that we depend on.
And yet, crucial as our habits are, they are surely the greatest obstacle to our developing effective responses to an ever changing world. Most of us become so dependent on doings things the same way over and over again, seeing the world through the same prism day after day, responding to challenges by falling back on the tried and tested routines, that we hardly ever seriously consider alternative options. Often, because of these very routines, we cease to grow and learn new things. Our habits tend to limit our ability to acquire better ways of solving problems and putting our creative energies to best use. We get used to seeing and doing things one way. We become entirely predictable, and there is the altogether unfortunate tendency to reject new options, new ideas, or improved solutions, simply because they would require of us a break with our established patterns of behavior. For being the creatures of habit that we are, we are quite naturally loathe to, and indeed sometimes even incapable of, accepting the challenge of inner renewal.
The key, the elixir to life renewed, is on the one hand to be able to function efficiently thanks to our repetitious and reflex behavior, but at the very same time, to restore our sense of wonder, of freshness, of radical renewal ‑ in place of what are so often our stale and hackneyed banalities. To be able, for instance, to live with our spouses of ten or twenty or thirty years, and still when with them to perceive and treat them in new and refreshing ways. To teach our children and grandchildren the good habits that are indispensable to achieving success and the good life ‑ but also to have them take nothing for granted, in themselves or in the world around them, always to be sensitive to the sacred and sublime dimension of life, always to look to grow and respond to challenges in new and profound ways. To be able to make a sale, close a deal, or diagnose a patient, or file a brief, with precision and the consummate efficiency born of years of experience, but to constantly be on the lookout for better ways of doing, to be prepared to learn from anyone, whether to make a better mousetrap or soothe a broken heart.
Striking a Balance
In short, our task is to learn to strike that balance, by cultivating the habits that make for efficient and productive lives, but also to develop hearts and minds that render us capable of experiencing inner growth, that our spirits be forever young and expanding, renewed and revitalized. It is this challenge of renewal that today besets the United States of America, as we seek to ?get the country going again,? but it is equally one that confronts us in the privacy of our own lives, in our business, professional, and private lives as we seek to be more productive and effective in doing the things that count most. Fortunate are the men or women who, many years after they have concluded their formal education or training, are able to go on learning and discovering new tricks, novel methods, unconventional ways of doing the things that they have been doing for so long. Pity him who avoids the new like the plague, who dreads change with a passion, for whom life always elicits the same response, the old shopworn solutions, and the cliches of tired convention.
Now if this balance is so necessary for life in general; if such renewal is as vital as it surely is, to the growth and survival curve of societies and civiliza?tions, of businesses and corporations and professions, of keeping house and raising children, then surely it applies even more to the life of the spirit ‑ the religious dimension.? To gaze at the stars or the ocean waves that we have seen a thousand times and more, and still to be overawed by the mysterious grandeur of God's creation and the miracles of the nature that serves His will. To be exposed again and again to the pleasures of a good piece of meat or wine, but still to be capable of making a heartfelt brakhah before partaking, praising God for His extraordinary kindness in providing for our bodily and material and aesthetic needs ‑ and moreover to say it with a genuine feeling of awe and appreciation. To be able to stand in silent prayer, three times a day, 365 days a year, but without losing the sense of transcendence and elevation that comes with the embrace of the divine. To strive to live a life regulated by mitzvah and religious custom ‑ but to avoid the routinization and rote that is so apt to deaden the spirit. To hear the sound of the Shofar year after year, but always to perceive a new and stimulating message, an echo that breathes renewal in a dozen different directions.
Slipping into Habits
How easy it is to slip into the inertia of religious habit; of refusing to entertain new options and new perspectives. This, I might add, is especially true of the strictly Orthodox, for whom deviation from past practice is so often anathema. But even for them ‑ for us ‑ the challenge is not to drop the old in favor of the new, but rather to discover novel insights, and better ways, of living within the tradition, even while remaining faithful to the normative behaviors of Talmud and Codes.
As for those among us who are less than strictly Orthodox, a certain paradox occurs. For as I look around me today, and consider the kind and caliber of the people with whom I associate, I am struck by a certain incongruity. Klal Yisrael is, by any measure, made up of high achievers, of creative men and women who in our material lives constantly strive to exceed our past achievements, aiming for higher goals, more effective methods, higher profits, more satisfying solutions to life's challenges, as we search for ways to upgrade and improve our lives. In so many areas of our lives, and in spite of the very natural tendency to fall back on past behavior and habit, we are by and large people who strive to do ?it? better than before, whether it be to fix our homes, watch our diets, or cut costs in our businesses.
But when I look around and ask myself on this New Year whether the same is true of us in religious terms, I cannot escape the feeling that in this one area too many of us are happy, are complacent to sit back and settle into the habits and patterns of the past. How many people today can honestly say that they have really grown spiritually over the past year? How many of us can truthfully argue that our knowledge of Jewish law and custom, tradition and statute, Bible or Talmud study, Jewish history or Hebrew language has been substantially improved? How many of us walked into our synagogues with the same tired prayers, the old worn assumptions and misconceptions and cliches about Jewish law and Jewish life and the Jewish faith? For how many of us is it ?Jewish business as usual?? For how many of us as Jews, is it a case, year after year, of being slaves to habit and the humdrum, when there is so much to be gained by even the slightest effort on our part to discover and claim as our own, the endless beauty and inspiration to be gleaned from the treasures of our Torah and tradition?
Resolutions and Renewals
Today in the Jewish calendar is the beginning of a new year, 5752, ?taf shin nun bet.? Obviously, there is much that is ?new? about it, much that represents beginnings and change. As we know all too well, New Years by their very nature invite resolutions and renewals ‑ but all too often, they fail in the face of our relentless habits and past performances. What starts out as good intentions, soon enough becomes the victim of the law of inertia. As the days and weeks pass by, our old patterns tend to emerge yet again, our conditioned reflexes once again rule our lives.
Yet our Sages of blessed memory tell us that it is indeed possible to overcome and conquer the patterns that stand in the way of real personal growth. They teach us that in spite of our deadening habits, we can find the courage and the strength to rise above our past behavior, to find new and invigorating means of surpassing ourselves.
A charming and profound story is told by the great 19th century rabbinic personality, the Netziv, Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, as he heard it from a certain Cantor.
?One Simchat Torah,? said the Chazan, ?I was encircling the bimah with the Torah in my hand, surrounded by children who were jumping and pushing to kiss all the Sifrei Torah that were held by different members of the congregation. The atmosphere was one of pure joy and ecstacy, with everyone participating fully in the simchah of the moment. But then I noticed a young girl standing still throughout the entire hakafah. Not only did she not try to push herself to kiss the Torah, but she even made room for other children to get past her, as if to say, `go ahead my brothers and sisters, kiss the Torah as much as you want.' She herself seemed to be unmoved and unaffected by all the rejoicing going on all around her. I was struck and puzzled by her behavior, but did not say anything at the time.
A little while later, after the services were finished, I called her over, and said, `My daughter, why didn't you go over to the Sifrei Torah and kiss them like all your friends? Don't you know that it is a mitzvah to kiss the Sefer Torah?'
?There is nothing special about a Sefer Torah,' the girl replied. `If I would stop to kiss a Sefer Torah every time I see it, my lips would crack dry! I would have to kiss it without stop, all day and all night, when I wake up and before I go to sleep. In our house all the tables and benches are filled with Sifrei Torah. I eat next to a Sefer Torah, I play next to a Sefer Torah, wherever I go, all I see are Sifrei Torah.'
`My daughter,' I couldn't help asking her after her strange response, `who are you?' To which she replied, `My father writes Torahs in our home, he is a Sofer, a Scribe.'
How sad a tale to tell ‑ and how true. That even a child's thrill and excitement at kissing the holy Torah can degenerate into a mundane and meaningless act ‑ for no reason other than constant and habitual exposure. How easy it is to become blase and inured to even the greatest and most sublime gift of God to man.? The question today, is how many of us are truthfully in the same position as that scribe's daughter?
Shofar as Clarion
I would be remiss if in this connection I did not quote the well‑known words of Maimonides, when he explained the significance of the shofar as a clarion call to overcome spiritual lethargy. As he put it,
Awake, awake O slumberer from your sleep, O slumberers arouse yourselves from your slumbers. Examine your deeds, return in repentance, and remember your Creator. Those of you who forget the truth in the follies of the times and go astray the whole year in vanity and emptiness which neither profit nor save, look to your souls, improve your ways and works.
Hil. Teshuvah 3:4
As we gather in our synagogues on these holy days, with the, oh, so familiar, sounds of that shofar echoing in our ears, and reverberating in our hearts from years past, let us resolve, difficult as it is, to seek renewal in this new year; to go above and beyond the habits and the dull patterns of the past, to heed the call to encounter the new in the old, to discover new wine in ancient bottles, as we pursue in common cause a life blessed to partake of the sublime and the surpassing, even as we cling to the beauty and goodness of things past.
In so doing, we would, indeed, do our part in helping not only the Jewish people and the Jewish faith, but also this, our beloved country, the United States of America, into an era of renewed growth and vitality, to lead the Free World into a future filled with both challenge and opportunity, imbued with high moral purpose and profound spiritual energy, united under God.
May it be God's will that this new year be one of blessing and of growth; that in the months to come the Almighty will bring His people Israel ever closer to that moment in time wherein He will transform the world in body and in spirit, so that not only the Jewish people, but all of mankind will merit the ultimate renewal of messianic redemption and universal peace, soon to experience God's goodness and compassion, not once and not twice, but over and over and over again, renewed and rejuvenated, forever.
Rabbi Basil Herring, Ph.D is the spiritual leader of the? Atlantic Beach Jewish Center.?