Tuesday, March 12, 2013

How to Strengthen Your Commitment to Judaism

The temptations, distractions and challenges of life can pull one away from Torah observance. Many have been swept away by these currents and are no longer connected to their faith. But those who fortify their commitment to Judaism will persevere in the face of obstacles and remain anchored to the faith of their ancestors. They will triumph and reap the rewards of living a Torah observant life, both in this world and the next.

Below are eight strategies to enhance your commitment to Judaism regardless of where you are now holding. Each strategy stands alone and has diagnostic questions to help you determine which strategy is especially suited for you.

1. Address any bitterness. Judaism is about our relationship with God. In any relationship, it is natural at times to feel bitterness. If life does not go as planned, we may feel angry with God which can lead to a weakening in observance. For how to deal with such anger, see, “Discover Your Inner Peace.”

Other times, we may have had a bad experience with a religious person, e.g., a family member, teacher or rabbi. These individuals often fall into three groups. The first are those who are misguided but well intentioned. The second are those who are troubled and suffer from mental illness. The third are those who are sinful, the rotten apples in every bushel.

These painful experiences are frequently traumatic and we may need professional help moving past them. (There are specific treatments, such as EMDR, which are successfully used for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder). Part of the healing process is reminding ourselves that regardless of which group they fall into, these individuals acted against the Torah’s guidelines. When religious people act inappropriately, that reflects badly on them as individuals. God and His Torah remain untainted.

There will always be authentic people who observe the Torah as God intended and lead exemplary lives. If you are disillusioned with certain rabbis or religious people, look for other rabbis or a different community. Do not allow painful interactions with others to weaken your commitment to Judaism. Doing so does not “punish” them; it only hurts you. True victory is when you refuse to allow anyone to get between you and your Judaism, between you and your God.

Diagnostic questions: Have I had a bad experience with a religious person that is impacting my feelings toward Judaism? If yes, who can I speak to, to help me move past it?

2. Include God in your Judaism. For your Judaism to be vibrant, deeply satisfying and enduring, it needs to include a personal relationship with God. Whether you have such a relationship, determines to a large degree whether you consider fulfilling the mitzvot a burden or an honor. When one has a relationship with God, fulfilling His mitzvot becomes a privilege and a pleasure.

For further discussion on how to live Judaism with God, the way it is meant to be lived, see, “What Does God Want from Me?” and “3 Fundamental Mitzvot.”

Diagnostic questions: Do I think about God during the day? How His presence fills the world and how He is the source of everything in my life? Do I feel that we have a relationship? That He cares about me and wants me to come closer to Him? How can I deepen our relationship?

3. Find yourself in the Torah. No matter how far you have strayed, even if you are no longer observant, the Sages teach that regular, preferably daily, Torah study has the power to bring you back to Judaism.

Daily, or at least weekly, study an area of the Torah that interests you, preferably with a partner. As a Jew, you have a unique share in the Torah that will resonate deeply with you. Part of your life’s mission is discovering and claiming your specific portion. It might be Chumash (Bible) with a particular commentary, Nach, Midrash, Aggadeta, Mishnah, Talmud, Jewish law or thought, the deeper meaning of Psalms and the prayers, Chassidut or a combination of the above. You will know when you have found your portion in Torah, when your learning becomes a highlight of your day or week.

Make sure that at least some of your Torah learning inspires you. One option is the stirring words of the prophets. A new flowing translation of the sections of the Prophets read on Shabbat, called the Haftorah, can be found in The Gutnick Edition Chumash, available free here. Aim to read the translation of the Haftorah each week, or read one Haftorah every day.

Many find Chassidic thought to be especially inspiring. There are excellent works from Chassidic Rebbes available in English. You can sign up for free emails of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s teachings here or you can read online a free version of Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum’s excellent book, The Essential Rabbi Nachman. A highly recommended book of practical advice based on Rebbe Nachman’s teachings is A Bit More Advice.

God tells us, “For I have given you a good teaching; do not forsake My Torah (Proverbs 4:2).” When we discover the goodness and sweetness of God’s wisdom, we will not forsake His Torah.

Diagnostic questions: Do I enjoy learning Torah? Have I found my portion, the part that currently resonates with me? If not, which new area of the Torah will I explore?

4. Pray with understanding. Prayer is an essential source of spiritual vitality. To nourish ourselves with prayer, we need to understand what we are saying. Pick at least one section and say the words with understanding and as much feeling as you can muster. In addition to formal prayer, speak to your Creator during the day. Share with Him your struggles, and ask for His help.

For more on prayer, see, “How to Unlock the Hidden Power of Prayer.”

An important source of spiritual nourishment is reciting Psalms. In addition to reading Psalms in Hebrew, try reading them in English. There are a number of recent translations you may not have tried, for example, by Koren Publishers and Kol Menachem.

Lastly, we cannot do anything without God's help, even observe His Torah. Pray to God and ask Him to remove the stumbling blocks and strengthen your resolve to fulfill His Torah.

Diagnostic questions: Do I find prayer meaningful and speak informally to my Creator to deepen my relationship with Him? Which section of the prayer service will I focus on saying with understanding? Have I tried reading Psalms with a flowing English translation? Do I ask God daily for help living His Torah?

5. Learn the laws. When we learn what the law is, we strengthen our resolve to observe it. Studying Jewish law will help us realize the profound sanctity and preciousness of the commandments; any temptation to violate them will pale in comparison.

A book that can be very helpful in strengthening our commitment is Nidchei Yisrael, authored by the towering sage, the Chofetz Chaim (It is available for free in English by clicking on the title). He wrote this book for those who had left their European communities and needed guidance on how to stay observant. We still struggle with the issues he mentions and will benefit from his wise words. (Please note, some of the sections are strongly worded; if that approach doesn’t work for you, speak to your mentor for alternatives.)

When we learn Jewish law, we realize that Jewish observance contains multiple levels. There are Biblical commandments, Rabbinic enactments and customs. Within each level, there is normative Jewish practice along with both optional stringencies, and leniencies which can be relied upon under the guidance of a rabbi.

Some get caught up in the trap of black and white thinking. They think they either must observe everything or nothing; otherwise they are a faker (see, “Am I a Faker or a Genuine Person?”)

But Judaism is not all or nothing and God does not expect perfection. As your Creator, He knows your struggles and weaknesses. All He asks is that you do your best.

If you currently struggle with one Rabbinic enactment, at least observe the rest of them. If right now the Rabbinic enactments seem out of reach, then at least observe the Biblical commandments. If performing a Biblical commandment feels too much for you, then at least avoid the Biblical prohibitions. If you violate a prohibition one time, then at least distance yourself from that temptation in the future. Bottom line: Whatever mitzvah you can do, do. Whatever prohibition you can avoid, avoid. As King Solomon says (Ecclesiastes 9:10), “Whatever you are able to do with your might, do it…”

The Evil Inclination does not like this strategy. Instead, first it tries to make a crack in the walls surrounding the palace of observance you have built over the years. Then it tries to convince you, because of that one small crack, to abandon the entire palace. Don’t do it!

Even if the Evil Inclination has taken over a whole wing of your palace, do not surrender. As long as you continue the battle, with God’s help, you will eventually retake your palace and lead a life committed to your Creator’s Torah.

When you lapse in your observance, remember that no matter how far you have fallen, through repentance, you can pick yourself up and start fresh; that is the power of teshuva, your Creator’s gift to you.

Diagnostic questions: Is it clear to me what is allowed and what is forbidden? Do I attend a class, listen to a recording, or read a book on Jewish law to deepen my knowledge base? Have I gotten caught up in the trap of black and white thinking, or, do I start fresh each day and do my best to observe God’s Torah?

6. Choose a rabbi and/or spiritual mentor. Choose a rabbi you respect and one who is accessible and understands your personal situation. If one rabbi did not work out, ask around to find another one. (If you are unable to find a suitable rabbi, look for a spiritual mentor to guide you and ask them which rabbi to consult with on religious questions.)

If there is a particular area of Judaism you find very challenging, speak to your rabbi about how to fulfill the law as best you can. Always remember that the Torah, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness…(Proverbs 3:17)” If you find an observance burdensome or overwhelming, that is a sign to talk to your rabbi about how to recapture the pleasantness that is innate to Jewish practice.

A factor which can make it difficult to tap into the pleasantness of Judaism is when one struggles with a mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety or OCD. At times, this can make being observant seem very challenging. If this is your situation, talk to a rabbi to help you tease apart what are religious issues and what are mental health issues which need to be addressed separately with professional help.

Diagnostic questions: Do I have a rabbi I can ask religious questions to? If not, who are some possibilities? Do I have a psychological issue that may be impacting my commitment to Judaism? If yes, how can I address it?

7. Stay away from temptation. When we are vigilant and stay away from temptation, we are usually able to refrain from sin. For how to avoid temptations in the area of immorality, see, “4 Ways to Safeguard Your Moral Purity.”

Our relationships exert a powerful influence over our religiosity. As best you can, stay away from those which bring you down spiritually. Surround yourself with positive influences and good role models. A great way of doing this is to go to a weekly or daily shiur (lecture), where you spend time with people who share your values.

Diagnostic questions: Which sins do I frequently stumble in? What safeguards can I implement to keep me far away from them? How is my environment affecting me? Where can I find people who would be a good influence on me?

8. Make observance nonnegotiable. Western society puts the individual on a pedestal and encourages us to do what feels good; everything becomes negotiable – whether we feel like it. In Judaism, we realize the foolishness and destructiveness of living life based on passing whims. Instead, we put the Torah on a pedestal and unconditionally follow our Creator’s guidelines.

When we commit to observe the Torah as best we can, then we are willing to do whatever is necessary to uphold the Torah and refuse to violate the law even at great personal sacrifice (when warranted). We can make our commitment so strong that it is as if we are physically incapable of violating God’s commandments.

If a voice in your head urges you to sin, automatically respond, “That’s not an option. I refuse to violate my Creator’s laws.” And think about something else.

The Torah, “It is a tree of life for those who grasp it…(Proverbs 3:18)” If you want the Torah to give you life – in this world and the next – you must hold on tight to the Torah’s teachings and refuse to let go.

Diagnostic questions: Are the Torah’s guidelines something I observe only when it suits me, or is my commitment to avoid what my Creator has forbidden nonnegotiable? In which area of Judaism has my observance weakened? What commitment can I make to strengthen that area? What level of observance will I make nonnegotiable? What redline will I refuse to cross?

Which of the above eight strategies do you think will benefit you the most? Choose one step, related to that strategy, which you will implement.

Do not leave any Jew behind

In addition to strengthening your own commitment to Judaism, reach out to those whose commitment has faltered or who were never committed to begin with. We must not stand idly by as some of our brothers and sisters fall through the cracks. Each one is too precious to lose.

Accept them as they are, without being judgmental; if you were in their situation you might act the same way or worse. Take an interest in them, hear out their issues, and recommend inspirational lectures, articles and books. Suggest rabbis and spiritual mentors they can talk to. Offer to learn with them, and/or invite them for a Shabbat meal. Bottom line: Show you care. Let them know that we, the Jewish people, are immeasurably richer because they are a part of us.

The Sages teach that a mitzvah done with difficulty is many times more beloved by God than one done with ease. The challenges of today test us in ways our people have never been tested before. By doing our best to overcome these new difficulties, we refine and elevate ourselves to new heights. With each mitzvah we do, with each sin we avoid, we lift up ourselves, the Jewish people and the entire world, bringing us closer to God.

Elsewhere we discussed the prediction of the Vilna Gaon. He wrote that before the Messiah comes, average observance will decrease and the Jewish community will become polarized: One group totally committed to upholding the Torah, the other breaking away. Today, with assimilation rates skyrocketing, we see this prediction unfolding before our eyes. We realize that we are now in the midst of perhaps our people’s greatest test. The Jewish people will emerge victorious, that is guaranteed. But will you be among those who triumph?

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