Honest Question: Is It Really Geshmak to be a Yid?
The song “It's Geshmak to Be A Yid” has become a staple at camps and on summer programs. It's a fun, upbeat, leibadik niggun, and the message is beautiful.
Literally, the word “Geshmak” means “tasty” or “delicious”, and I find myself wondering: Is it really Geshmak to be a Yid all the time?
Undeniably, there are parts of being Jewish that are not always Geshmak. Sometimes, the Torah asks us to do things that are tough. Sometimes, the Torah tells us not to do things that we enjoy. Of course, intellectually, we believe that Hashem's Torah is objectively wonderful. But “Geshmak” doesn't mean logical – it means that we enjoy it, and there are certainly parts that are less agreeable to our Western palates.
How do we chew and swallow those elements that taste bitter to us? How do we feed them to our kids? Do we have faith that they will eventually digest into something that makes us feel good?
As a parent, Rabbi and teacher often consider how my Torah, Mitzvos and Yiddishkeit tastes? How does it make my children, community and students feel?
Broadening the scope of this question: Does our observance of Yiddishkeit make us feel satisfied, satiated and nourished? Or perhaps there are aspects of our religious and cultural life that make us feel sick, bloated and nauseous? What are the flavors and feelings that we trying to cultivate for ourselves, our families and our communities?
Most importantly, on an existential level, many of us wonder if there is a version of Jewish life that routinely tastes and feels good? What might it take to achieve it?
Most often, these questions hover around thirty-thousand feet. They percolate in different ways on the back-burners of our minds, popping up as frustrations, but rarely coming into view consciously. But this time of year demands that we address them, for two reasons:
Firstly: As the school year begins, we need to evaluate our goals, plans and intentions regarding our children. What do we answer our kids when they say that they don't enjoy keeping mitzvos or learning Torah?
Secondly, this Shabbos is Shabbos Mevorchim Elul; and there is no more poignant time in our calendar to carefully consider our own relationships with Shul, Learning, Torah, Mitzvos and Hashem. In the coming two months we will find ourselves engaged in the rituals and rhythms of our religion with far more intensity. What are our own intentions for the Yamim Nora'im? Are we trying to pass them by as quickly and painlessly as possible? Or are we planning to engage with renewed dedication?
It is worth noting, however, that this is not an isolated conversation. Yiddishkeit is not the only place where such struggles exist.
Consider the challenge of healthy eating: Some foods taste amazing, but make us feel awful. Some taste horrible, and make us feel horrible too. (Kale, I'm looking at you 😊.) And then there are rare delicacies, that taste delicious, provide us with nourishment, and leave us feeling satiated and reenergized.
This same scale can be used to measure and evaluate all of our habits, hobbies and experiences. Some provide enjoyment, but leave us feeling regretful, lonely, angry, saddened or ashamed. (These areas are the playground of our Yetzer Hara, temping us to do things we know will not feel good later.) Others, are painful and clearly disastrous from beginning to end. These are the activities that we hopefully learn to avoid.
Then there are those that occupy the sweet spot of experiences: They are thoroughly enjoyable in the moment, as well as deepening and enriching our lives. These are the ones that taste good and feel fantastic.
Our interpersonal relationships can, likewise be defined as: Those that are fun, those that inspire growth, and the rare and most precious relationships that achieve both.
With a little investigation and introspection a common denominator emerges: The parts of our lives that that bring us joy as well as long term positivity, take time and effort to achieve.
It takes time and maturity to appreciate that overall, steak is better than cake. (A fact that is currently lost on my own children.) Quite literally, it's an acquired taste.
It takes months or years of practice before one develops enough skill to truly enjoy playing the piano, going to the gym, or running a marathon.
Cultivating the relationships that we would like to experience in marriage, business and family all require discipline, empathy, vulnerability and humility. None of it comes easily or automatically.
To our earlier point: It takes some considerable effort until observing mitzvos, davening and learning can be as enjoyable as they are meaningful. In order to truly declare “It's Geshmak to be a Yid,” we need to develop the acquired taste.
What is the road-map for acquiring this taste? How do we ensure Yiddishkeit transcends obligation and becomes an opportunity?
The Malbim explains that the Moshe Rabbeinu wrote the instructions, and placed it in our Parsha:
Step One: Understanding
We begin (י׳:י״ז) with an understanding that Hashem is real, true and has expectations. At our first encounter with this truth, is jarring, terrifying and demanding:
הָאֵל הַגָּדֹל הַגִּבֹּר וְהַנּוֹרָא אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשָּׂא פָנִים וְלֹא יִקַּח שֹׁחַד The Great God, the Mighty, and the Awesome, who doesn't play favorites and cannot be bribed.
Step Two: Submission
Once we recognize the awesomeness of Hashem, we are left with only one rational conclusion (י׳:כ׳):
אֶת ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ תִּירָא אֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹד You should fear Hashem your God. You shall serve Him.
Since Hashem is real, and cares about what we do, there are consequences to our actions. To that end, we fear Him, and serve Him.
It is at the this stage of religious growth, Yiddishkeit is not Geshmak. This is the stage of tension, pushback and rebellion. No-one likes to be a slave. No-one wants to live in fear. No-one wants to be told what to do, and any action taken under these conditions is swallowing a very bitter pill. In previous generations, people were able to live with this discontent; today, abandoning Torah is far more common.
Step Three: A Relationship Emerges
The goal is not submission and fear. The conclusion of the Pasuk that instructs us to fear and serve Hashem tells us: וּבוֹ תִדְבָּק – Cling to Him. Here, Moshe is telling us “even though you are initially motivated by fear, don't ever be too afraid to reach out to Him, don't be afraid of the relationship.”
Despite the weight of duty, the awe, reverence and fear, cling to Hashem, don't run, don't hide. Remember how He has always been there for us, how He created us, and constantly wills us into existence. At the core of our relationship, even if we cannot feel or understand it, Hashem loves us. If we keep working at it, keep pushing, growing, learning, doing, something will change.
Step Four: It's Geshmak to Be A Yid
Finally, eventually (י״א:א׳):
וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ וְשָׁמַרְתָּ מִשְׁמַרְתּוֹ וְחֻקֹּתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו You will love Hashem your God, and keep his instructions, and his statutes, and his ordinances, and his commandments, forever.
This Pasuk the Malbim explains, is not a directive. It is a description of what we will achieve:
שתעבדנו מאהבה ושמרת משמרתו וחקותיו מאהבה ובזה יצויר אהבה במקום יראה We will serve Hashem out of Love, and observe His mitzvos out of love, and love will replace fear.
With enough training and investment, the bitter can become sweet. We can learn to enjoy the challenges, restrictions and obligations of the Torah. Much like the experience that after many weeks and months of training, it is more enjoyable to go for a run than to sit on the couch. With enough dedication, eating healthy tastes better than eating junk food, and it feels better too.
The response to “I'm not feeling it” is to not to quit; it's to reengage, try again, reach out for advice, push a little harder.
With enough time and practice, tefillah in a minyan, learning the Daf, singing zemiros, giving tzedaka and doing chessed can all be more enjoyable, more Geshmak than any other activity. The things that were once chores and tasks can and will eventually taste amazing, and they'll make us feel even better.
As school begins and we ring in the month of Elul, this is our Avoda for the weeks ahead: To push ourselves and each other a little harder with empathy, humility and dedication.
With Hashem's help, our lives, schools, shuls, businesses and homes will be filled with Avodas Hashem; our Yiddishkeit will feel incredible and it we will finally declare, it's Geshmak to be a Yid!