Monday, March 26, 2007

Pesach Cleaning: Too Little Too Late

Jonathan Rosenblum’s article published in Yated Ne’man, March 21, Who’s Cleaning for Pesach was forwarded to me after I had written my essay entitled A Bintel Brief. While not wanting to whip a dead horse there is a need for clarification. I have no intention of letting Jonathan Rosenblum off the hook because he is of the persuasion that bochrim, bein hazemanim should do some work around the house, (especially if we can categorize the work within the framework of performing a mitzvah) because it will enhance their growth as well as dull their sense of entitlement.

The central thesis to his argument is that by thrusting on the yeshiva bachur bein hazmanim domestic responsibilities he will learn humility and thereby blunt his sense of entitlement. Entitlement in and of itself according to his essay is not so bad. It only becomes problematic when his sense of entitlement morphs into egocentric behavior and selfishness that may lead to family disharmony and even divorce. He concludes his essay with what I believe to be a mistaken conclusion that “for no other reason than to help prepare our sons for the next stage of their lives, we owe it to them to make sure that they make themselves available for a few hours of helping with Pesach cleaning. Not for our good, but for theirs.”

The problem of entitlement amongst our yeshiva students is symptomatic of a much greater problem. And this problem is systemic within the entire Jewish community of both young men and young girls. It isn’t limited to yeshiva students, but to the preponderance of young men and women who have grown up in the orthodox community. It doesn’t matter if they grew up in the ultra-orthodox or modern orthodox communities. It is part of the educational process that upon graduating high school one goes to Israel for at least one year of study in a yeshiva. Rarely does one of our yeshiva students volunteer for army service or sherut le’umi.

The fact of the matter is that most American Orthodox Jews view Israel as a camping experience. Israel is there for the good times, good memories, or a place to go for Pesach or Succot. Sometimes it’s the place where we conveniently dump our problematic children that don’t fit in to the norm. They may have an addiction or learning disability. The convenient thing to do is hide the problem in Israel. Few American Orthodox Jews feel an all encompassing, total and penetrating responsibility towards Medinat Yisrael (the emphasis on Medina). Few if any ask the proverbial question “ask not what Israel can do for me, but ask what I can do for Israel.” At best, the responsibility ends with a check to an orthodox educational institution in Eretz Yisrael.

It is better to give than to receive. So we have been raised as a people and we, as a nation have done incredible things, almost impossible achievements as a result of this approach. But why do we translate giving into currency. Why don’t we translate it into giving of ourselves. Without sounding too rabbinic, isn’t that what Vayikra is all about? Lhakriv, means to sacrifice of ourselves, to give of ourselves, not only of our money, but something more significant – to give of ourselves. L’hakriv, also means to draw nearer to God. What better way to draw closer to God than by presenting ourselves to our people and saying Hinenei—here I am, ready and able to help my people.

For those who argue that they are helping Israel by learning in yeshivot “yomim v’leilot,” is disingenuous. With all due respect, the average yeshiva bachur arriving at the doorsteps of a yeshiva factory is diluting himself and his family. For the few exceptional ones who are truly masmidim and thoroughly pious, maybe, just maybe there ought to be an exemption. But even then I would argue that as talented as they are they still have an obligation to Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael. They shouldn’t feel any entitlement above and beyond anyone else. Yet we extend this feeling of entitlement not only to the rare few who are truly gifted, but to the rank and file whose learning is banal at best.

Their learning won’t impact on the world, but there service to their people will impact not only on the world but also on themselves. It is in the butterfly effect. The effect of one Yeshiva student serving his people and his country with honor, mesirat hanefesh v’goof will have a ripple effect on all of us and impact most profoundly on his own soul.

After all, impacting on ones soul is what it is all about, isn’t it? Don’t we want to enhance the spirit of the young and impressionable, so that when they grow into adult hood they too will become role models to their own offspring? Making this sort of significant sacrifice and commitment will be the stuff that will turn our kids around. Having them spend a few hours cleaning the house erev Pesach won’t impact on them or anyone else and certainly won’t make even a small dent on their feeling of entitlement.