Life Isn’t All or Nothing
Recently someone was telling me of his trip to a modestly sized city that has a small Jewish population. He went to the local Chabad for Shabbat services made up almost exclusively of people who were not Shomer Shabbat – Sabbath observant – and who drove to attend synagogue. He commented something to the effect of, “What is the point? It is highly unlikely that these people will ever become Shomer Shabbos.”
Just a couple days later I ran into a similar sentiment when I was speaking with someone about Karen’s upcoming JWRP trip, her sixth, that she will be leading in three weeks time. He asked what the success rate was. (It happens to be that JWRP does extensive follow up with their participants and has discovered remarkable results. You can see them here: https://jwrp.org/results/). But again the assumption of success was to what degree have participants become card-carrying, observant Jews.
What I pointed out to both these people is how we need to define and reframe the term, “success”. When it comes to Jewish outreach, too often people classify success in terms of simple goals – keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher and the like. But that fact of the matter is that Judaism, and indeed life, does not always have such clean and straight lines of demarcation and definition.
Isn’t the guy who goes to shul every Shabbat, albeit by driving, a more committed and connected Jew that the one who never steps foot into a synagogue? If someone comes back from an Israel trip and is motivated to light candles and have Shabbat dinner every Friday night, whereas before they did not – isn’t that defined as a success? Success isn’t necessarily a clear cut line but rather a continuum that is unique to each and every individual.
Yes I understand we need definitions and standards of commitment to Jewish practice in certain instances such as conversions where we cannot rely on namby pamby sentiments of, “But I feel Jewish!” But when it comes to every individual’s Jewish journey, success will be as unique and distinctive as there are people.
One thing the founder of Aish, Rabbi Noah Weinberg זצ”ל used to stress is that Judaism is not all or nothing. He was a big believer that whatever steps a person takes to follow the mitzvot – no matter what level or station of life they were at – it was always a plus and to be applauded and celebrated. I recall him once saying that if a person went from not believing in God to one who does, and does absolutely nothing about it in any practical sense, his eternity will be vastly different as a מאמין – a “believer” – than as a non-believer.
But we need not consider just other worldly rewards. We all know that doing one thing is better than doing nothing. We certainly have this attitude when it comes to exercise or taking care of our bodies. Refraining from a slice of cake just this one time, even though I am not technically on a “diet”, is better than eating the cake. We all agree that we should not use the excuse of, “Well I am not officially dieting” not to better our health in this one instance. We realize that whatever will-power we do have – even temporarily – is better than having none at all. Similarly, I may not be involved in a regular exercise regimen, but that should not stop me from taking a brisk walk for a mile one day or lifting weights even for just a few minutes.
Furthermore, we are also aware that once we take baby steps in these areas of our lives, that they have a tendency to build on one another. Today’s cake deferment gives me the awareness of confidence that I can do it again tomorrow. And once I do it twice, the third, fourth and fifth times are all the much easier. And it can very well reach the point that I now find cake gross and disgusting and abhor how it makes me feel to the degree that I have zero tolerance for it anymore.
It is the same when it comes to Jewish observance. Today it is lighting Shabbat candles, tomorrow it’s candles and Friday night dinner, next time it’s a whole Shabbat. Or today it’s donning tefillin once a week, then twice a week, then every day, then every day and praying the Amidah along with it. As for that Chabad in that modest community, who knows? One day one participant will “graduate” to walking to shul, which will in turn influence his peers. And before you know it, in a few year’s times the aforementioned visitor will find a full fledged frummy shul. But the point is, even if those driving-to-shul goers don’t move an iota, what they are doing is better than nothing.
We have a very clear sense of this dynamic when it comes to our children or others whom we love, as well as with ourselves. We tend not to put them/us in defined boxes of Orthodox, Success, Accomplished, Good Jew. We recognize that life is a bit more complicated and nuanced than that and what may be a success for one person is not the case for another. The more we love and care about someone, the less we will fit them into a tidy box with an easy label.
You don’t view your life in terms of all or nothing. So why would you view the life of your fellow Jew in these terms? The bottom line is that where there is Love, there isn’t all or nothing. Where there is Love, there is only something.
He is wild but he is mellow
He is strong but he is weak
He is cruel but he is gentle
He is wise but he is meek