Too Many Trees, Not Enough Forest

12 Dec

Before I begin this week’s musings, I just want to express openly my thanks to the many well-wishers and those who are offering their prayers on behalf of my son, Naftali, and his fellow soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces. Naftali was home for Shabbat Chanukah, and when I showed him your messages, he was quite touched by the outpouring of support.

Now, as an observant Jew, I am a strong believer in the importance of mitzvah observance – in all areas of halacha. I believe that the halachic system serves as the foundation of Jewish identity and Jewish continuity. I am completely at peace with the recognition that not all Jews will opt to observe the halacha in a rigorous fashion, some out of conviction, others out of sheer ignorance. However, it is my hope that all Jews will respect the importance of the halacha, even if they have chosen not to fashion their lives according to its teachings.

It is important for we who have chosen to take the halacha seriously to make sure that our observance of its details serves to guide our lives and, at all times, project divine calling that we have accepted upon ourselves.

This brings me to one of two emails that came to my in-box this week….

Shabbat observance addresses many very detailed issues in our lives…even the issue of brushing our teeth. I will be honest with you – I do not brush my teach on Shabbat. (I do rinse in the morning and night, so no need to keep your distance if we happen to be together for a Shabbat.) I abstain for a number of halachic reasons, none of which I choose to get into at this point.

The email that came my way brought attention to a “technological advance” in Shabbat tooth-brushing – the development of the “Shabbos Toothbrush.” This simple invention has been developed to obviate the halachic issues and enable people who are concerned about the halacha to brush their teeth on Shabbat with reliable rabbinic authority.

Read all about it at:

It took me a few days to figure out what it is that bothers me so much about this new invention. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for enlisting technology in the service of halachic observance. That’s not the issue.

Franky, I feel like it reflects the growing disparity in priorities for Am Yisrael. It is indicative of a world of Jews who live among the trees of Jewish life, and pay lip-service to the forest.

Each month I receive a publication from a prominent rabbinical organization in the United States, addressing kashrut issues. One feature that seems to be present each month is the ongoing clarifications of which slurpee flavors are under reliable kosher supervision this month, and which ones are not.

It makes me chuckle…and then it makes me cry.

In my opinion, the halachic Jewish world of which I am a part is focusing so much energy on issues like slurpees, Shabbos toothbrushes and “the original tefillin sweater” (see same website) that they are running the risk of becoming completely out of touch with the realities of Jewish existence today….and, even worse, completely disinterested with what’s really happening all around them. Focusing so much energy on issues like these gives us a superficial sense that we have made it, that all is well for the Jewish people. My fellow halachic Jews run the risk of fooling themselves into believing that all is well, that Baruch Hashem , all that there is to be concerned about now is how we can find ways to meet the most strict halachic standards, and that in doing so, we will do our part to bring the Messiah closer….

Wake-up and smell the cholent.

The Jewish forest is burning down around us….here in Israel we are still dealing with serious existential issues, even if there are no buses blowing up around us. Assimilation continues to be on the rise, and hundreds of thousands of young Jews worldwide are expressing Jewish identity and brotherhood in worldwide rock concert festivals(see The Eight

What I am advocating is simply this: don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees! Those who are committed to thorough Jewish living must remain conscious of the fact that we do not have the luxury of finding satisfaction with the newest high tech ways to brush our teeth on Shabbat or to seek out and destroy the camouflaged bugs on our lettuce.. this DOES NOT replace our collective responsibility to keep our eyes open to the condition of worldwide Jewish life around us and make that our foremost priority.

I hope that you all had a wonderful Chanukah celebration and, in the spirit of Chanukah, I pray that we will all find a sense of rededication to the central issues confronting our people today.


4 Responses to “Too Many Trees, Not Enough Forest”

  1. Menash Efron Thursday, December 13, 2007 at 5:01 pm #

    I have been singing this same song for a while. You expressed it eloquently.
    Regards from all.

  2. Barry Saturday, December 15, 2007 at 12:47 am #

    Great post Rabbi Schwartz, as it describes a centuries-old problem that lives on till today: Chanukah was more about the schism between Jews who adhered to Torah sheb’al peh, and those who found the Oral Law a barrier to assimilation, than it was between Jew and Greek. When Moses said, “Observe therefore and do the (chukim and mishpatim); for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the ‘amim’, that, when they hear all these statutes, shall say: ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’”—the ‘amim’ was a reference to the other nations. Ironically, it is now our own people that need convincing! How best to achieve that is the great challenge of our day.

  3. Rabbi Shmuel Veffer Monday, December 24, 2007 at 7:40 am #

    Dear Rabbi Schwartz,

    I agree with you that not enough people are concerned about the big issues facing the Jewish people. For over 20 years I was involved in full-time Kiruv rechokim actively fighting assimilation which is the number 1 spiritual challenge facing our people. They are disconnected from the Al-mighty. Physically we have to fight anti-semitisim and do everything that we can to protect Israel. Google my name and you’ll see some of my classes that were taped over the years. They deal with the core issues: connecting meaningfully to G-d through prayer, understanding the meaning of Jerusalem, seeing G-d’s hand in the miracles around us, the problems with secular society, etc.

    I invented the KosherLamp, BugChecker, KosherClock, and Shabbos Toothbrush because I wanted them for me and my family. They make my halachic life easier and get me to think of G-d more often when I’m using them. It just so happens that a lot of other people enjoy the convenience too. – And you’d be amazed at how many people aren’t aware of the halachas of muktzeh, schita, chavalah, uvdin d’chol, memareach, and the issur of tolaim. I’m happy that I’m able to teach halacha and help people do more mitzvos through my business which not only helps me make parnassa but also frees me up to do Kiruv b’h’ in my spare time.

    May you and your family be blessed with health, happiness and success in bringing the Jewish people back to their national mission.

    P.S. If you need any of our products, my son-in-law and daughter are the Israeli distributors – they live not far from you in Moshav Mattityahu.

  4. Oved Ruff Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 9:34 pm #

    Your insights are very good, and it is sad that quasi-Jewish bands attract more Jews than a local minyan that is always one short.

    Overall, I think these products are very good and they amaze me. Our generation is so fortunate that we have a kosher lamp, that beautifully made Tefillin are readily accessible, and now a sweater has been designed to accommodate this mitzvah.

    Rav Kook z”l wrote about different levels of Teshuva, the lowest level being the physical. I don’t doubt that many people who are attracted to these items are very ignorant of halacha and are struggling to know what is Jewish, but because these things are in a physical form it is easy for them to approach. This principle is significant, and we shouldn’t ignore that Hashem makes himself known to us even through the physical–He has given us physical signs of the covenant in the form of Tzitzit, Tefillin, Mezuzot etc.. If the only way a person knows how to be Jewish is a Shabbos Toothbrush or a kosher lamp, we shouldn’t discourage this desperate grasping for Hashem that will lead to other Mitzvot.

    Nevertheless, there has to be a line drawn, and I think that line should be drawn at the point where such innovative products do the mitzvah for us. For example, Terminator Robots that seek out, detect, and use lasers to accurately destroy chametz at a microscopic level would take away from us doing this mitzvah with a candle and feather . I think the kosher lamp, shabbos toothbrush, and the tefillin sweater are well within the boundaries of aiding us keep the mitzvot without taking the mitzvot away from us.

    Oved Ruff

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