Thoughts on being 'religious'

To be religious is to sense kinship with all Jews and concern for all human beings.

There are any number of anecdotes that center on a fine and respected member of the community who was justifiably proud of the many virtues attributed to him, but proudest most of all of his claim to humility. The humor, of course, lies in the fact that once he becomes aware of his humility, he is no longer humble. The person who knows he is humble betrays pride. In a certain sense, the same can be said for many “religious” people. The one who claims by word or implication that he is “religious” indicates thereby an absence of the spirit and the attributes of the truly religious person. What is implied by the claim that one is “religious?” One is saying, in effect, that one is not only different from, but somehow elevated above others who are not thus oriented. It is a suggestion that one is invested with a special virtue. This very suggestion is often the antithesis of genuine religious feeling. The Days of Penitence, ushered in by Rosh Hashana and culminating in Yom Kippur, should motivate us to probe deeply into what being religious means. To be religious means to live with an ever-present disquietude about the adequacy of our attainments. It is to refrain from judging others with the severity and rancor that spring from pride and self-aggrandizement. To be religious is to be committed. It is to fulfill obligations both towards God and towards others without the faintest consciousness that we are doing more than our share. It is to sense an intensity of kinship with all Jews and concern for all human beings. It is to be restless in the quest for a fuller life, for deeper understanding, and for greater service. It is to be impressed with one’s limitations and mindful of the fact that the best among us can easily suffer a lapse of virtue or utter a callous but irretrievable remark. Long ago, the Sages warned in Pirkei Avot, “Do not believe in yourself to the very day of your death.” For a Jew, being religious means to act as well as to feel, to bring Torah ideas into every facet of our lives; to speak as a Jew should, to eat what a Jew may, to live as a Jew ought. It means maximum efforts for Torah study, for oneself and one’s children, through personal endeavor and supportive resources. To be religious is to remain alert to duties unfulfilled rather than to feel smug about goals achieved. It is to know that he serves God best who comes before Him with clean hands and a contrite heart. Those aren’t my words but those of King David in Tehillim 24, which we say on the evening that we usher in Rosh Hashana. To be a religious Jew is to be both physically and emotionally involved in the welfare of Eretz Israel, both its physical security and its spiritual sanctity; to pray for the welfare of the state and those who guard and protect it; to sup port its poor and disadvantaged, and seek to elevate the moral values that a Jewish state should represent. To be religious is to be demanding of oneself and gentle with others. It is never to seek special consideration, or feel one has earned special commendation because one tries to live by God’s word. It is to live with great humility and love before God and our fellow human beings. It is to accept with sadness and anguish the realization that evil exists, that we have enemies, and that we must deal with their threat from within a Torah framework. To be religious is to realize that we may have probably fallen far short of our goals and the expectations that we set for ourselves. But it is also to know that there is forgiveness, a chance for renewal and renewed opportunities with each challenge. May the New Year open our hearts to God, that we may return to Him and He to us. We wish a happy, fulfilling year of security and internal peace, for the individual, the family and, foremost, for all of Klal Yisrael. Reprinted with the permission of Eretz Hemdah,