Spoiler Alert: Hashem Doesn't Want You to Be So Frum
Before moving to Boca, Aliza and I spend many summers taking NCSY public school teens to Israel. It was always eye opening to witness a kid experience Yiddishkeit for the first time.
One of the activities we would do from year to year was a program called “draw a Jew.” We challenged kids to draw a picture of the best Jew they could imagine.
Take a moment, and try it for yourself, in your own mind. Imagine you were drawing a picture of your best Jewish self.
What are you doing? Who are you with? What are you wearing? What day is it? What time of day? What are you saying? What are you thinking?
Now ask yourself: Could I be that person? Is that attainable?
For many of us, the picture of “our best Jewish selves” is shrouded in unrealistic expectations. It's a picture that we conjured years ago until we learned that life is not so simple. Somehow, along the way, that picture got dusty. But we keep it around in the backs of our minds because we don't really want to let go of those aspirations. But we don't like to think about them too often. Until this Motzei Shabbos of course.
As Slichos (for Ashkenazim) begin and as Rosh Hashana gets closer, all those old and dusty dreams come out with our Slichos books and our Machzorim.
We open the machzor to those same pages as our younger selves with thoughts of guilt and regret. The words stare back at us accusingly; challenging us as to why we're back there again. Saying the same words, apologizing for the same mistakes. We reason, of course, that these are the right emotions to have this time of year. Surely, we are supposed to feel upset over our flaws and failures? So this is how we live from year to year: Unfulfilled dreams and gnawing guilt until “Thank God it's over.”
What a miserable way to live! But there is a solution: Stop being so frum.
It sounds like a strange thing for a Rabbi to say, but hear me out. Growing up in South Africa, in a community of Litvaks, the word “frum” was an insult. “Frum iz a Galach”, they used to say. (Being devout is for the priest.)
Well, if we're not supposed to be frum, then what should we be? Lithuanian Jews would often say: “A Jew is not frum – a Jew is ehrlich.”
“Frum” has no meaning in the world of Halacha or Derech Eretz. Frum is completely external and cultural. To be “ehrlich”, however, is to be real, grounded, honest and to act and speak with integrity.
Elul and the Yamim Nora'im are entirely different if you're trying to be frum vs if you're trying to be ehrlich. Frumkeit assumes that either you become the picture of your best self, or you have failed. There are no half measures, no room for partial credit, or improvement. Frumkeit demands compliance and perfection, and in its absence, guilt. Ehrlichkeit is about movement and growth.
For some absurd reason, we think of becoming a better Jew as a fundamental overhaul of our lives, habits and personalities. Consider however, what you would tell someone trying to become a better runner, swimmer, writer or musician. You would tell them to practice, to hone their craft. You would tell them that they need a balance of dedication and empathy for themselves. You would explain that success is earned in steady increments, and that no one becomes great in a day.
Yet we arrive at the Yamim Nora'im without any positivity, we carry only frustration and resignation. We come to apologize for not being good at “being Jewish” without a thought of how we might practice getting better at it.
A friend of mine told me that he was nervous about going back to the gym this week. He had been away all summer, and his trainer had told time that he needed to lose 20 pounds. He had gained eight. There was no ways to lose 28 pounds in a week.
So there are two ways of going back to the gym: with guilt, or with a plan. Plans take time and take work. Guilt takes a minute, but nothing changes.
This nuance is baked into so many of our minhagim this time of year. For example: Ashkenazi practice details that that beginning of Slichos is this Motzei Shabbos, to ensure that there are at least four days of Slichos before Rosh Hashana. Why four days? The Achronim explain that there are Ten Days of Teshuva from Rosh HaShana to Yom Kippur, but only six of them are fair game for fasting and saying Slichos. (Two days of Rosh Hashana, Shabbos Shuva and Erev Yom Kippur are days of simcha.)
What is this game of making up four days before hand? Either these are the Ten Days of Teshuva, or they are not?! Rabbi Soloveitchik explained that our minhag here is deeply rooted in the understanding that growth and change take time. How much time? At least ten days. It is true, that this is an auspicious time of year to work on ourselves. But we need to take the time to do the work. Less than Ten days of work is thus insufficient. We're not trying to pass the time, we're trying to make a change.
This Shabbos, Moshe tells us about the awesome responsibility of being the Nation of Hashem: הַסְכֵּת וּשְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה נִהְיֵיתָ לְעָם לַי״י אֱלֹקיךָ – “Hasket” and listen, Yisrael: this day you have become the people of Hashem your God.
What does “Hasket” mean? The Seforno explains: צייר במחשבתך – imagine in your minds. On this, the Shem Mishmuel writes: Moshe is telling us to imagine, consider, and plan how we could be. To conjure in our minds the best way to engage in each activity. We sound the shofar, we do teshuva and we say Slichos to prepare, practice and train ourselves for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. Because when we practice and train, we become better at being Jewish.
Our greatest pitfall is that our picture of our best Jewish selves exists as a picture – a snapshot. But that is not our goal. We shouldn't want to be a static image of immature perfection. We should stop trying to be so unrealistic, so fake and so “frum”.
Hashem is inviting us this year: Let's come up with a plan of action. A different set of goals. Let's take the time, do the work, and make the change.