Compartment Syndrome

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It’s easy for many of us Orthodox Jews to look down our noses on our fellow members of the tribe who express their Jewishness only on the “High Holidays” and yahrtzeits, to consider them to have missed the point of the Jewish mission. Judaism can’t, after all, be “compartmentalized.”  It’s an all-encompassing way of life.

There are, though, even Orthodox Jews, living what seem to be observant Orthodox lives, doing, at least superficially, all the things expected of a religious Jew – eating only foods graced with the best hechsherim and wearing the de rigeuer  head-covering of his or her community – who also seem to religiously compartmentalize, who seem to leave G-d behind in shul (if they even think of Him), who seem to not realize that the Creator is as manifest on a Tuesday in July as He is on Yom Kippur.

Which explains how it is that an Orthodox Jew can engage in unethical business practices or abuse a child or a spouse.  Or, more mundanely but no less significantly, how one can cut others off in traffic, act rudely, or blog maliciously.  Or, for that matter, how he can address his Maker in prayer with words so garbled and hurried that, were he speaking to another mortal, the soliloquy would elicit no end of mirth.

It’s not necessarily the case that such Jews don’t acknowledge Hashem.  It’s just that they don’t give Him much thought – even, ironically, while going through the myriad motions of daily Jewish lives. In the most extreme cases, the trappings of observance are essentially all that there is, without any consciousness of why religious rituals are important.  What’s left then is mere mimicry, paraphernalia in place of principle.

What’s wrenching to ponder is that even those of us who think of our Jewish consciousnesses as healthy and vibrant are also prone to compartmentalize our Judaism. Do all of us, after all, maintain the G-d-consciousness we (hopefully) attain in shul at all times, wherever we may be? Do we always think of what it is we’re saying when we make a bracha (or even take care to pronounce every word distinctly)?  Do we stop to weigh our every daily action and interaction on the scales of Jewish propriety?  Or do our observances sometimes fade into rote?

Most of us must sadly concede that when it comes to compartmentalizing our lives there really isn’t any “us” and “them.”  All of us live on a continuum here, some more keenly and constantly aware of the ever-present reality of the Divine, some less so.  Obviously, those who do think of Hashem and His will when engaged in business or navigating a traffic jam are more religiously progressed than those who don’t. But still.

Rosh Hashana presents all of us a special opportunity to hone our Creator-awareness.  The Jewish new year, the start of the Ten Days of Repentance, is suffused with the concept of Kingship (malchiyus).  The shofar, we are taught, is a coronation call, and malchiyus is prominent in the days’ prayers.  We might well wonder: What has Kingship to do with repentance?

The answer is clear.  A king rules over his entire kingdom; there is little escaping even a mortal monarch’s reach, and no subject dares take any action without royal approval. All the more so, infinite times over, in the case not of a king but a King.

And so, we might consider that kingship (or, at least, Kingship) and compartmentalization are diametric, incompatible ideas.  If Hashem  rules over all, then there are no places and no times when He can be absent from our minds.

Rosh Hashana is our yearly opportunity to ponder and internalize that thought, and to try to bring our lives more in line with it.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran