Parshas Chukas - Jewish Authenticity
A certain chassid, let's call him Yankel, would travel to be by his Rebbe for the Yomim Noraim. While at his job Yankel would wear a brown uniform with his name on his shirt. When he would go to visit his Rebbe he would dress in his traditional Chassidic garb. One year Yankel started questioning the authenticity of wearing a shtreimel and a bekeshe when going to see the Rebbe. He reasoned, "The Rebbe knows who I am. He knows what I wear the rest of the year. Surely I'm not fooling the Rebbe by dressing differently when I see him." Sure enough that year the chassid showed up to see his Rebbe in his brown uniform but Yankel could see that the Rebbe was disappointed in his decision. " Rebbe, surely you know that the rest of the year I wear my brown uniform, why is the Rebbe disappointed in me?" The Rebbe replied, "Of course I know what you wear the rest of the year but I always thought you were a chassid in workman's clothes. Now I see you're a working man in Chassidic clothing." To state the obvious, I don't think we are defined by the clothing we wear. I think this moshul is one that raises the question of identity. Who are we truly? But in truth this moshul lacks a level of sophistication. It raises the issue of identity but not necessarily of authenticity. For example, a husband may identify as a husband. A wife may identify as a wife. The question is are they authentically a husband? Authentically a wife? Who are they really serving? Let us take for example the man who buys his wife the proverbial bowling ball as a birthday present. While buying a present is meant to be a selfless act that's focused on the other, this husband has turned it into a selfish act, serving only himself. He identifies as a husband but authentically he serves himself. When it comes to serving God many of us struggle with this very issue. We identify as Jews. We learn Torah and do Mitzvos but who are we truly serving? Are we serving God or are we serving ourselves? If you listen to people talk about the value of a Torah oriented life you'll hear them speak about the impact that the Mitzvos have on them. It's so wonderful to have a day like Shabbos where family is together and we have none of the technological distractions that we struggle with during the week. I find it meaningful to be part of a community where there is so much chesed. If our family were ever to fall upon hard times I know that we would be supported our friends and neighbors until the storm has passed. Of course both of these examples are true but they have little if anything to do with authentically serving God. Jewish identity without the authenticity. Gentiles can also sit down to a family meal and turn their phones off. While our community is a beautiful one there are gentile communities that also have exceptional chesed. Neither of these things are uniquely Jewish. We lose something beautiful when we speak about the utility of Judaism. It's no different when we speak about marriage as a utility. My spouse has provided financially for me for so many years. My spouse has run the house for so many years. Of course they have but that's not the essence of the relationship. It fails to capture the romance, focusing instead on the utility. As an interviewer for Mevaseret I have had the opportunity to spend time with thousands of young men in the last eleven years. When I ask them why they want to come to Israel for the year(s) they often (inevitably) give me the same answer. I'm tired of serving Hashem without knowing why I'm serving Hashem. I need a reason to serve God. Why should I put on teffilin if it means nothing to me? To a teenager these seem like profound thoughts. When you start to think about what they're saying though it sounds awfully selfish. If you're only serving God when you understand the value of the Mitzvah then who are you really serving? Hashem gave us a mind and we are meant to use it in serving Him. He also taught us the rationale for many of the Mitzvos and we are meant to know them. At the same time Hashem gave us chukim, commandments where we are not privy to understanding the reason. The litmus test for Jewish authenticity is how we relate to the chukim. If we only serve God when we understand then we are serving ourselves. If we serve God even when we don't understand then that reflects on our observance of the Mitzvos we do understand. It shows that we are really serving God. As we draw closer to Mashiach we are being tasked with overcoming challenges that are more essential. Challenges that give us the opportunity not only to clarify who we really are but why we do what we do. It seems to me that previous generations were more naturally focused on serving others. It is hard for me to imagine a President today calling on the nation to ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country. Today we speak about the services government ought to be providing for us. Just listening to candidates campaign for the nomination can be nauseating as each one makes more and more promises about what they will provide should they be elected. There is a sense of entitlement that pervades Western society and Judaism is not immune from its influence. Now more than ever the Chukim teach us an important lesson. Life is about serving others. There is no greater other than God. When we don't know why we are serving God, we only know that it's important to Him, then we are truly in His service.