Whenever I bring my family to the East Coast, they pick up little nuances from the observant Jews of the New York area. “The counselor said I should take two dollars and pick myself up a nawmal swim cap,” my six-year-old daughter told me. Somehow in a NY accent, the word “normal” contains subtleties we don’t have in the Midwest. It seems that lots of observant Jews place an importance on keeping the status quo and not doing anything unusual. This attitude to life may be very beneficial in safeguarding Clal Yisrael from negative influences like Rap music. But we also need to be on the lookout for something new and different that might be good for us.
In the introduction to the sefer Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Kagan z”l mentions a yetzer hara that tells you that following the laws of lashon hara carefully will make you abnormal. This is one of the strategies of the yetzer hara. We are afraid not to be Normal. If, however, we were clear about how much the Almighty loves us, and how the mitzvos are only for our benefit, we would never be cautious or afraid of trying to fulfill them properly.
Rabbi Shlomo Rothenberg of Mountaindale related to me that when his Rebbe, Rabbi Yehuda Davis z”l, was about to leave Europe he went to see meet with the Gedolim of that time like the Chofetz Chaim and others. He noticed that they all ate, slept, and lived life like normal human beings. You can be a Tzaddik and a Chacham without being abnormal.
What is normal?
The question is asked sometimes – What if everyone acts weird? Is that the new normal? What if everyone speaks lashon hara? Is that normal? What happens when Clal Yisrael gets used to not having a Holy Temple, or a Sanhedrin, or a fully observant Clal Yisrael?
In Gemara Yevamos 60b it discusses the passage from the Torah, Numbers Chapter 31, where Moshe allows the army to bring back some of the Midianite women to become part of Israel. In order to determine which women are fitting to join us they use a special test. The women are brought in front of the Tzitz, the golden head-plate of the High Priest. If her face changes color she is not fitting to be accepted. Later in history (Judges Chapter 21), the gemara relates, Yehoshua , is faced with a similar situation and Jewish women are chosen with a test for a similar reason, but they use a different test. Why, the gemara asks, don’t they use the same test the Jews used on the Midianites? Why don’t they use the Tzitz? Because the head-plate is not meant to be used for punishment, only favor. So then why was it used for the Midianites? Because they weren’t Jewish. Although you might suggest that this only relates to the Tzitz, but it seems in general that God’s judgment is designated mainly for non-Jews, while His mercy and compassion is designated for Israel.
Of course all human beings are worthy of God’s love, but once you have chosen to be a part of His special army, and abide by His holy commandments, you are more inline with His essence, so to speak, and more ripe for His love.
Another indication of this is concept is brought out from the Bnei Yissaschar on the months on Tammuz and Av. He mentions from the Zohar that the months of the year are spiritually designated and divided between Yaakov and Eisav. Nisan, Iyar, and Sivan went to Yaakov, and Eisav got Tammuz, Av, and Elul. This made Eisav happy as it left little help for Clal Yisrael to do teshuva before Rosh HaShannah. Yaakov fought for the rights to Elul, and thereby mitigated the aspect of Din inherent in Tammuz and Av. Yaakov therefore represents Din – judgment, and Eisav represents Chesed – love.
It needs to be mentioned that even though the other nations are more inclined to receive judgment, the gemara also says that the major problems of the other nations all over the world stem from Clal Yisrael not acting properly. So the war and famine all over the world is a specific message to us.
We live in a time period fraught with anti-semitism, conflict in the Middle East, Israel in constant danger, much of the world lives in poverty, meanwhile most of the Jewish people are not observant. This is not normal. None of this is normal. It’s easy to fall into a daily routine, praying for moshiach and Eretz Yisrael, but at the same time relating to the worlds problems with indifference, as we’ve gotten too used to living with judgment. We think meeting a Jew who is intermarried is normal. Well it may be common, but it is certainly not normal. What “normal” should mean is the way of life the Torah and the Shulchan Aruch proscribe.
Chesed – Love
We are told by our Torah and the sages of the incredible amount of love the Almighty has for us. He’s our “loving Father in Heaven”. He wants us to live with the fullest expression of His love. Even when a father is punishing his child, all he really wants to do us hug and kiss. Does our Creator want the profanity on the airwaves and the cruelty in the streets? Does He want the drugs and rising immorality? Does He want ignorance, atheism and paganism? No.
HaShem wants goodness and wisdom to permeate the world. That’s what life is really supposed to be like. He wants to shower us with health, wealth, chachma and kedusha. As we say each time we say Birchat Hamazon, “liyadcha, hamleah, hapesucha, hakadosha, veharchav” – from Your hand which is full, open, holy, and generous. HaShem can’t wait to give us blessings. All the blessings. Big blessings.
Maybe we need to adjust our attitude a bit as to what exactly really is… normal.
I think the idea here is to be as good as one can be but not spoil the effect through off-putting, flamboyant behavior. The trick is to distinguish such behavior from healthy individuality. Some level of social conformity is necessary, but the demands of certain people for total conformity can be stifling to many good Jewish individuals.
Our rosh yeshiva, R’ Noach Weinberg, used to talk to us about “zombies” all the time. He didn’t mean irreligious ones.
Yes. I think it’s a double edged sword. On the one hand we want to be “healthily integrated…” and on the other hand we want to realize what is a tragedy before our eyes and warrants a reaction or a response.
For example, in a shul where talking during chazaras hashatz is “normal” we should still refrain from talking and we should try to figure out a way to convince others to refrain from talking.
Max, you seem to be using the word “normal” to mean “normative”. That is rhetorically compelling, but I do think we have to respect the meanings of words even when we’re talking about spiritual ambitions for ourselves or the klal. Unfortunately it is normal to meet intermarried Jews, at least today. We want it not to be, but, alas, it is.
I am also afraid that I am having trouble distinguishing two different issues here. One is the one I just alluded to — your argument that we should aspire to better “norms.” The other one is one I have addressed before, not necessarily with any degree of success: Being a “normal” frum person. Maybe you’re saying they really are the same thing, though? That if “normal” means “accepting mediocre,” then we shouldn’t be at all satisfied with normal?
That’s fine, but I am sticking to this point: “Normal” can also mean “healthily integrated into a new subculture such that individual spiritual (and skill) growth is enhanced.” And I think this is a worthy goal for all BT’s.