from the heart of jerusalem

Foundations for our castles in the air


Many years ago, long before we founded Yeshivat Orayta, I was privileged to direct a program called Isralight, which was what some would call a kiruv, or outreach, program. The students, mostly post-college and young professionals, usually had a limited Jewish background and sought spirituality and meaning in their lives.

One day, as we were beginning a new three-week program, a student walked in who looked vaguely familiar. Bareheaded, with a lumberjack beard and wearing jeans and a T-shirt, it took me a minute to realize that he had been in yeshiva with me, a few years younger. He came with his non-Jewish girlfriend with whom he was living. As he did not introduce himself, I decided to pretend I did not recognize him.

After a few days of class and discussion, we spent Shabbat in the Old City, and I decided to do something a little different. Usually at Shabbat meals I would teach and sing niggunim (tunes) without words, as most of the students did not know the traditional Shabbat zemirot songs.

But I recalled that this student had a beautiful voice. So that Friday night, I started singing a traditional Friday night zemer, thinking he might enjoy the memory. And as we sang, he started to cry.

I sat up with him that Friday night, reminiscing about our days in yeshiva. I had a vivid memory of our rosh yeshiva, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, asking him a difficult question during a class, and his deft response. How had someone in one of the top Talmud classes in the world, with one of the previous generation’s greatest Torah minds, ended up living with a non-Jew?

He told me that after yeshiva high school and a year in Israel, he had gone on to a top Ivy League university. He had maintained his learning and Jewish practice. He had a chavrusa twice a week. All seemed fine, until one day someone asked him why he was studying all this Talmud, and he was not sure how to answer. It was just something you did.

The straw that broke the camel’s back happened not long after that, in a philosophy course he was taking. The professor asked if anyone believed in G-d, to which he readily responded in the affirmative. But when the professor asked, “So what is G-d?” he suddenly realized he had no idea. The walls came tumbling down.

He had built for himself over years of study a magnificent castle, a structure of Jewish practice and Talmudic analysis. But he had built it entirely in the air; it had no foundations, so it was only a matter of time before the winds of doubt would knock it down.

This week, we read the portion of Terumah. After receiving the Torah we are enjoined by G-d to build a Tabernacle, a place in the finite world where we can taste the Divine and experience the spiritual depth of a close relationship with Hashem.

As part of this project, the Jews were encouraged to donate and collect all that would be needed to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and all its magnificent vessels. 

Rashi’s commentary points out that there were three funds set up. One was for sacrifices. Another was a half shekel from each person, for the general needs of the Mishkan. But the third special collection, mentioned first by Rashi (implying it is the fund with which the Torah begins the collection for the Mishkan) was for the sockets, the adanim, into which the walls of the Mishkan were inserted so that they could stand securely.

And one wonders: why a special collection for the sockets? There was no special collection for the Ark or menorah, so why for this insignificant piece of the building?

The last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson shares that the sockets represent the foundation. They are the reason the structure can stand. A building is only as strong as its foundation.

Before we get too caught up in the magnificent beauty of the Ark, and the intricate design of the menorah, representing the brilliance and light of Jewish wisdom, we have to be sure we have a strong foundation.

This student had effectively created a beautiful menorah of Torah study, and a palace of Jewish life and rituals. But he had never had the chance to build the strong foundations to ensure the palace would last.

The Ramchal, in the introduction to his classic eighteenth-century work Mesilat Yesharim, writes that many people in the traditional Jewish world are invested in advanced Torah study, while neglecting the foundations of a deeper connection with Hashem and the spiritual underpinnings of Judaism.

We live in challenging times. Discounting the Orthodox community, over 70% of Jews in the West today marry outside the faith. And an Avi Chai Foundation study ten years ago concluded that even 25% of Orthodox Jewish students who attend secular colleges abandon their traditional identity (“Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus,” Jan. 2006).

We need to take a closer look at the sockets of Jewish life and ensure the next generation is prepared for the challenges of life in a secular world. How do we connect with G-d?  Is G-d relevant in our lives? Why keep kosher? Why pray? Why put on tefillin every morning? And the list goes on.

As we continue to build the Tabernacle of Judaism with our children, we need to be sure the sockets are secured as well.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.