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Stamp Out the Cliche`s

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The headlines were all over. So many speakers said it that it became an overnight cliche`. Some people believed it, some fell for it, but those who have been around for a while watched quietly and hoped that their cynicism was unjustified.

They were saying that on September 11th the world changed. People changed. Humanity changed. Things will never be the same again.

Guess what. The world has changed a bit. Yes. It takes longer to get into and around New York City. The lines at the airport security checks are longer. Certain things are more difficult and cumbersome than they used to be.

But that’s not what the cliche`-ers had in mind. They thought that people had become more religious. More spiritual. Nicer. Kinder. Gentler. They thought that what had transpired on 9-11 led to a great spiritual awakening which would have a lasting affect.

Well, we hate to be the bearer of sad tidings, but it ain’t so. It really ain’t. People who study these things have proven it. The New York Times reports live evidence from spiritual centers, backed up by the pollsters: As far as most people in the world around us are concerned, the spiritual storm has passed and blown over.

As reported in the Monday edition of the New York Times:

On the first Sunday after the terrorist attacks, people filled the pews at a large religious center in Louisville, Ky., seeking solace in a sermon about grief and joining together to sing ‘America the Beautiful.’ That day, the center drew 200 people, significantly more than the average Sunday attendance of 150, and for the next two Sundays the crowds kept coming.

But by this week, attendance was back to normal. Americans, who after the attacks turned to religion in an outpouring that some religious leaders hailed as a spiritual “great awakening,” have now mostly returned to their former habits.

“I just don't see much indication that there has been a great awakening or a profound change in America’s religious practices,” said Frank M. Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. “It looks like people were treating this like a bereavement, a shorter-term funeral kind of thing.ÉBut once past that, their normal religious behavior passed back to where it was.”

Perhaps the director of a center for religious studies expressed it best:

“We are in some ways a very religious country, especially compared to Western Europe,” the expert said. “But we’re of two minds, and the other mind is that we really are pretty secular. We are very much a country of consumers and shoppers, and we’re quite materialistic. And as long as we can kind of paste together a sense of control through our ordinary work and our ordinary purchases, we’re pretty happy to do that.”

In other words, “Religion is wonderful, but I hear that Macy’s is having a great one-day sale and I just can't miss it. Besides, shopping is supposed to be good for the economy. We’re helping to rebuild America.”

Rebuilding America. Another cliche`.

America as a whole has just experienced the greatest tragedy of its 200-plus year history, and two months after the fact, people would just as rather forget. Get on with their lives. Take their holiday vacations, perhaps traveling by car instead of enduring the airline hassles. Angle for that promotion. Tune out the yammering voices inside their brain, warning them that no one lives forever, that fifteen minutes is enough time to destroy two skyscrapers and all the people trapped inside.

“Don't bother me,” seems to be the general ‘zeitgeist’. “Don't bombard me with pictures of the victims and the grieving families. Don't remind me that there is a higher purpose in life. I'm too busy right now with the holiday season.”

There is nothing wrong with getting on with life. We can't become morose, locking ourselves in darkened rooms with the shades pulled down. That is inhumane, silly, counterproductive and accomplishes nothing.

Yet we can resist the pull of human nature and the tendency to forget. We can make permanent at least some small spiritual commitments to our own improvement and stick with them, lest the inspiration fade away.

Inspiration without action doesn't last very long. Its power to impact upon our lives is temporary. The Times quotes an expert who feels he understands why the spiritual fervor didn't last.

“Faith,” he said, “has to be internalized. Outside circumstances such as an attack on the World Trade Center may move us to action, but it will not necessarily change us on the inside. It can be a catalyst for change, but it alone would not be something that would change a person’s heart.”

Duh! What a marvelous insight into human nature. While traumatic events and tragedies can shock us for a few moments, hours, days, or even week, they have no power to permanently affect our souls.

Visualize a brilliant fireworks display on the Fourth of July. The fireworks sparkle in the moonlight, dazzling our eyes with their fiery display of color, evoking gasps of admiration. And then, after a few seconds, they fizzle out and evaporate into thin air. Gone. Just like they never would have existed.

For sure you've heard about a young soldier in the Israeli army who was trapped in his tank on the Syrian border. As the shells exploded all around him, the irreligious young man knew he had only a few moments left to live. Suddenly, out of sheer desperation, the following words burst out of his mouth.

“G-d, if you hear me and know where I am, please make a miracle happen and save me. I promise that I will become religious and keep the Shabbat.”

No sooner had he uttered those words when a miracle occurred. His tank managed to slip away from enemy fire and enter safe territory once more. All the other tanks in his regiment were completely destroyed.

What a remarkable story! But the ending cannot be predicted. Life is full of strange twists and turns. For all you know, today the soldier can very well be a middle-aged chiloni living in Tel Aviv, bareheaded and as agnostic as ever.

What happened? How could he have been hit over the head like that and ignored his promise? How could he have shut the “off” switch on his conscience with nary a backward glance?

The young soldier was afire with burning determination to turn a new leaf. When he climbed out of that tank and realized that he was one of the few who had been spared, he felt like hitch-hiking straight to the kosel and pouring out his heart in prayer to the Ribono Shel Olam (Master of The World). He wanted to keep Shabbos, kosher, Tefillin, all the mitzvos at once. Nothing was too difficult or bothersome. After all, his life had just been handed to him on a silver platter, as an unexpected bonus. No strings attached.

Yet on his way to the kosel, he took a little detour. Stopped to give a report of the incident to his commander. Went home for a long weekend to bask in the admiration of his solicitous family. Took a few deserved furlough to ‘sleep through’ the painful episode.

He had so much to change in one shot, he was overwhelmed.

The hero whose life had just been spared allowed that burning spark within him to expire. He waited too long before taking the big plunge. After a while, the intense emotions he experienced in the beleaguered tank slowly dissipated. There were other responsibilities, other things to take care of. Religion would have to wait. The big change will come tomorrow. I'll do it as soon as I take care of this, that, and the other thing. And by then, of course, it was too late.

Too late. The two saddest words in the English language. They are filled with pathos and yearning. I missed the boat. I lost the chance. I let the spark slip away unheeded.

I've heard Uri Zohar tell how he became frum more times than I care to count. But he was brought around slowly. One little mitzvah at a time. Tzitzis. Shabbos candles. Praying Shema. As he grew in commitment he was taught new things, one step at a time.

People who wake up one day and change everything in their lives will usually slip back to their old, familiar patterns in no time. In order for improvement to last, it has to take place drop by drop. If we learn a little, let us learn a little more. If we already learn a lot, let us learn deeper and better. Learn a little mussar. Be nice. And kind. And civil. Internalize it. Facilitate it. Step by step. Don't change the world forever in one day. Or yourself. It won't work. It won't last.

And for those who like cliche`s, remember Rome wasn't built in one day.

So now, back to the end of November and the annual shopping season in the shadow of September 11. As the rest of America embarks upon a frenzied four weeks of shopping and decorating, we begin preparing for Chanukah, the Festival of Light.

Our Sages teach us that Chanukah is the final culmination in a long chain of steps to repentance, beginning with the month of Elul, reaching a crescendo with the High Holy Days, peaking through Sukkos, and culminating as we light the last Chanukah candle. Chanukah is the final step of the teshuvah process, heralding the arrival of the long, dark winter days.

“Ner Hashem Nishmas Odom.” "The Light of G-d is the Soul of Man." During the Yom Tov of Chanukah, our souls are aflame with the purity and depth of the Chanukah message. Eight days of opportunity, of potential. We have a limited amount of time to grab hold of the flickering candle within our souls and allow it to “take us somewhere.”

As the society around us turns outward, with glittering lights and gaily wrapped packages, let us turn inward, focusing on the flickering flames. Let us ignite the spark of Chanukah within our souls, waiting patiently, just like Aharon The High Priest did, until the “flame burns steadily with its own power.” Let us remind ourselves of our Elul commitments, before the burning spark flickers and our idealism turns into dying embers.

Then we can perform pirsumei nisah (publicizing the miracle), lighting up our homes, streets, and hearts with the light of kedushah (holiness).

And then, perhaps, we will be able to honestly say that on September 11, our little world really has changed. We have become better parents, better children, better talmidim (students), better Jews. We have done our share to bring the geulah sheleimah (complete redemption) one step closer, speedily, in our days.

Copyright Yated Neeman 2001



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