From The Other Side Of The Bench
By David J. Seidemann, Esq.
I have often wondered why the blessing on the shofar is “to listen to the kol (the voice or sound) of the shofar.” Why not “to listen to the shofar,” or, better yet, “to sound the shofar”? There are many answers advanced by our sages, but I will share my thoughts based on some recent events.
Take any five people you know. Put them in a room and shut the lights. Have each one speak. You will be able to discern their identity. Each one’s individuality will emerge.
Take the same five people. Put them in a room and shut the lights. Instruct them to disguise their voices when speaking. You might not know whose voice you heard. The individual’s voice can be disguised. In either case, the individual is at the center of the result. Either he is totally recognizable or he fools you. Either way, his personal agenda is projected into the equation.
Take the same five people. Put them in a room, shut the lights, and hand them a shofar. You won’t be able to discern who blew when. The individual’s identity is concealed.
The sound of the shofar cannot be disguised. But the identity of the person who is blowing it is indiscernible.
We don’t intone a blessing “to sound the shofar” because that would focus the attention on the person who is blowing. Instead, the blessing is “to hear the shofar,” an action that many can do at once. At any one time, only one person can blow the shofar for a congregation. Multitudes, however, can listen to that plaintive cry.
There comes a time when the individual must put his personal agenda aside for the betterment of the masses. Rosh Hashanah is one such time. Rosh Hashanah, as we say in the liturgy, is the birthday of the world, the masses. True, man was created then as well, but he was created in the context of a larger world, a larger society.
There comes a time of year and a time in the development of the world when personal agendas and the desire to promote one’s selfish interests must surrender to the notion that we need to build a society that functions now and will function into the future.
And I see many impediments. I draw these conclusions not from my own personal feelings but from real-life encounters over the last few weeks.
From my perspective, the greatest threat to American Jewry is not anti-Semitism or, as some might postulate, the shidduch crisis or lashon ha’ra.
The greatest threat to our way of life is that our way of life is perpetuated by what appears to be the needs of a few individuals at the expense of the greater Jewish community.
I know Jewish children who attend yeshiva all day long, wear yarmulkes and tzitzit, and when their father comes twice a week to take the children out to dinner for his “parenting time,” they go to Pizza Hut because kosher pizza costs three times the price. And don’t tell me that kosher pizza has to cost more; I know that. But it’s indefensible if we are to grow our ranks. It can’t be tolerated even if the economics create that reality.
I know Jewish children who were in yeshiva last year but now, since their parents are divorced, are in public school. Why? Because many judges will not force a payor spouse to spend himself into poverty in order to pay yeshiva tuitions. I was conversing with a judge a few weeks back. He asked me why he should order the father to pay for yeshiva tuition. I told him that in our circles, yeshiva education is a necessity and not a luxury. “Fine,” said the judge, “then tell the yeshivas to price it as a necessity.” In the judge’s words, “A BMW is a luxury and therefore is unaffordable to most. But water is almost free because it’s a necessity. If yeshiva is a necessity, Mr. Seidemann, it would be priced like water and not like a BMW.”
The judge is correct. Even if the financial wizards came in and proved that it costs $25,000 a year to educate a Jewish child, it is indefensible if it precludes Jewish children from attending.
I know Jewish families that you sit next to in shul that purchase non-kosher meat because they can’t afford kosher meat. I know a Jewish man that went to work Yom Kippur afternoon, because he was afraid his job would be in jeopardy and he wouldn’t be able to afford Sukkos. He told his wife he was going to a different shul.
Why are girls’ seminaries in Israel $25,000 a year? How many more would attend if the price were affordable? Isn’t our mandate to educate the masses and to create a Jewish community that is accessible to all?
Why is the same horseradish three times the price for Pesach? Why is the cost of matzah prohibitive for many?
Yes, I am aware of the many generous benefactors of our institutions and the herculean efforts of the Agudah and the Orthodox Union working with state and federal government agencies to secure yeshiva funding. But has tuition decreased?
Cost-prohibitive cancer medicine that does not reach the poor is of no avail.
I believe that is the message of the shofar. Stop building your own world of Judaism wherein your bottom line is covered. Put your personal agenda and priorities aside and listen to the voices that advocate for the community as a whole.
I’m curious as to how cost-effective all the traditional kiruv organizations are. If you break down the amount of money raised and spent on programs aimed at making people “frum,” what is the net result? How many returnees are being created for each kiruv dollar spent?
And who are these returnees? I am curious as to the socioeconomic status of these people. From what I have seen, they are highly educated, highly skilled, and upper-class wage earners whose attraction to Orthodox Judaism is not affected by the cost of kosher food. How many lower-income ba’alei teshuvah are being created? How many don’t jump on board because of the price tag that comes with it?
I’m not of the belief that kosher food or a Jewish education can be free or can be priced the same as their non-Jewish equivalents. But we have a problem if it’s not competitive. We have a problem if we have people leaving the fold at the same time as we are patting ourselves on the shoulder for enticing some to join the fold. We have a problem if the system is hypocritical. We have a problem if we try to convince our children that G‑d is kind and compassionate when often the system is not.
One rabbi I spoke with today told me that the answer is to get the rich people to give more. I don’t agree. No one likes being told how to contribute, and, as a people, we are known to be very generous. That’s not a long-term solution. It actually perpetuates the problem of a society that is crumbling under its own weight, and limits efforts to get to the root of the problem because of the belief that a “gvir,” a wealthy benefactor, will save the day. I acknowledge the efforts of all those who dig deep and support those people and institutions in need. But it will never be enough. There are too many people in need and too many costs.
Most importantly, the financial relief might come only after they are “in the system.” But there are far too many who won’t get close to the system or who will leave the system because the relief is not reaching them. I have seen this too many times just this past year in the unfortunate cases that come across my desk.
Judaism cannot be evaluated on a dollars-and-cents scale. We cannot be satisfied by invoking the argument that one has to pay a premium for a special lifestyle. The lifestyle might indeed be special, but it cannot be reserved for a select few.
It’s time to listen to the unadulterated voice of the communal shofar.
David Seidemann is a partner with the law firm of Seidemann and Mermelstein and serves as a professor of business law at Touro College. He can be reached at 718-692-1013 or firstname.lastname@example.org.