Question: I find the Jewish holidays to be long, boring, expensive events, and Judaism, at least to me, to be lacking the enjoyment I see others having. I am tired of the constant expenses I am being hit with and do not feel I am getting any bang for my buck (both monetarily and time spent on Jewish activities) I am bored of the repetitive prayers. Any advice or ideas how I can shake myself out of this? The consequences of this have been a weakening of my marriage and family relations as well as a feeling of not being so Jewish anymore.
Answer: You are troubled by a problem that confronts a very great number of people in this generation. The important difference between you and most of the others is, however, that you are worried enough to seek advice. You clearly want to find a way to engage with Judaism in a meaningful way once again, and that’s a very positive sign.
The fact is that you deserve a complete, in-depth response to your question and that’s something for which I really can’t do full justice. I’ll do the best I can, though, with the time and resources I have available. If you have any questions or think I can clarify specific points, please do let me know. Here are a few ideas to get things started.
The Talmud (end of Tractate Makkos) seems to address a problem very similar to yours. We are told that there are 613 mitzvos but that various historical Torah figures (King David, Isaiah etc.) stressed only limited numbers of them (11 or 7 or 3 etc.). This doesn’t mean that these individuals felt that the other 610 were no longer relevant, of course. Rather, these leaders assessed their generations as being incapable of beginning their Torah “careers” while focusing on such a wide range of activities. Start with these 11 (or 7 or 3) and, gradually, you can build up towards the rest.
But what kind of generations are we talking about? What does it mean that they “couldn’t get started” in the traditional way? Were they all beginners? What did they do about religious observance until then?
I believe that they were just regular Jews, busy keeping mitzvos as they had seen their parents do but failing to connect properly on an emotional level and being frustrated in their attempts to develop a personal and intense attachment to G-d. Sound familiar? If you’d like to see the specific lists of Mitzvos (commandments) on which to focus, take a look at the piece (Makkos 24a – if you’d like, you can hear it taught in English here).
However, I think that what should interest us the most is the main principle. Find one or two Mitzvos that you can “adopt” and undertake to study and observe quietly and privately with all your energy. You might like to read an essay I wrote on the subject here. Perhaps you can even include your wife and especially kids in one of your adopted Mitzvos! Let the whole family share the freshness of growth together.
You can also temporarily cut back on certain things to ease up a bit on the “burn out”. So maybe say less of the regular prayers and use the extra time to focus more on the sections you’re actually saying, ignore everything going on around you and savor the beauty of the words (not to mention the opportunity to actually speak with G-d).
Perhaps, too, spend a bit of time reading the first few chapters of Mesilas Yesharim – Path of the Just (available online here if you don’t have a copy at home).
These ideas could well have an impact, but don’t expect quick and dramatic change. This is really a life-long battle – in fact, I think it’s fair to characterize it as every Jew’s most crucial challenge in life!
The more effort and energy you invest in Torah, the more pleasant it becomes. My guess is that if you succeed in injecting your Torah observance with even 10% more excitement, the burden of the necessary expenses will probably feel lighter (as it does for your wife).
So be in touch if there’s any way you think I can help.
With my best regards,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton