It is fifteen years later and I still vividly remember how offended and insulted I felt. In my second year studying at YU’s Gruss Kollel in Israel, I joined a separate program twice a week that focused on training outreach professionals. I was the one YU guy among an otherwise homogenous group of “Yeshivish” young men. The classes focused on halachik challenges in outreach, how to speak to a secular audience, how to articulate compelling positions on contemporary issues and responding to difficult questions like why do bad things happen to good people.
One day, while giving a talk on halachik methodology, one of the Rebbeim, a prominent Rosh Yeshiva and noted Talmid Chacham said to our group (I remember it almost verbatim): “Do you know why the Modern Orthodox seem so lax in halachik observance? For them, being observant is incredibly challenging and burdensome and it is often incompatible with other aspects of their lifestyle. For them” he continued, “being frum is a sha’as hadchack, an emergency situation and therefore, one can rely on leniencies and minority opinions. The Modern Orthodox,” he concluded, “aren’t abandoning halacha, they simply see their whole lives as b’dieved, extenuating circumstances that allow laxity in halacha.
As he spoke, my blood was boiling. His generalization was grossly unfair. How could he make such a sweeping statement about all Modern Orthodox? Here I was learning in the flagship Modern Orthodox Yeshiva’s Kollel with a group of highly devoted, scrupulous, and rigorously committed friends being told that our “movement” lives b’dieved, suboptimal lives.
Looking back now, while I still feel his statement was an unfair over-generalization and was an inaccurate analysis of significant parts of the Modern Orthodox world, I realize that it is spot-on for other parts of it. It was once controversially said, “where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachik way.” That significantly problematic statement can now be amended to read, “where there is anyone with internet access’s will, there is a halachik way.”
The recent introduction of a “Shabbos App” is only the most recent development in a string of controversies in the Modern Orthodox world this year in which it seems to me there has been a greater desire to make halacha conform to lifestyle, rather than make lifestyle conform to halacha. The app purports to employ complicated halachik tools like grama to supposedly allow permissible texting on Shabbos. While some claim to have spoken to the programmers of the app and attest that it is both real and represents a “holy” effort, others believe it is a hoax designed to stir up discussion and garner attention.
Either way, according to experts, its premise is halachikly ludicrous and if it is real it will yield wholly unholy results for that which has kept the Jews more than the Jews have kept it – our precious Shabbos. I have no interest in giving the app attention other than to say that the interest surrounding it sadly justifies what that Rosh Yeshiva said to our group that day.
A Shabbos app can only exist in the imagination of someone for whom not texting on Shabbos is a sha’as hadchak, an emergency situation in which creative legal loopholes should be investigated and employed. In the mind of those for whom Shabbos includes l’chatchila liberating ourselves from the shackles of technology, such an app would never be imagined or desired.
As technology figures more prominently in our lives and as the conflicts between aspects of a secular lifestyle become incompatible with halacha, we will be forced to ultimately make a decision about what takes precedence and prominence in our lives and choices.
“U’lekachtem lachem ba’yom ha’rishon pri eitz hadar, anaf eitz avos, kapos temarim, take for yourself on the first day a fruit of a beautiful citrus tree.” This week, Jews around the world will universally take the exact same four species. Whether of Ashkenazic or Sephardic descent, both from North America, South America, the Eastern hemisphere or Western hemisphere, all Jews take the same pri eitz ha’dar an esrog. But how do we know that a pri etz hadar, a “beautiful citrus fruit,” is an esrog? There are hundreds, if not thousands, of varieties of citrus fruit – oranges, grapefruits, lemons, pumellos, tangerines, and the list goes on.
The Gemara (Sukka 25a) draws the conclusion that a pri eitz ha’dar is an esrog by analyzing the Hebrew word for beautiful, ha’dar. They conclude it is the esrog tree because the word "hadar" in truth has two meanings: beautiful and to dwell. They therefore interpret the pasuk to be referring to a fruit which is dar ba’ilan, "dwells continuously all year on the tree.” The esrog alone fulfills the requirement of constant dwelling. While most other fruits are seasonal, the esrog grows, blossoms and produces fruit throughout all the seasons. It braves the cold, withstands the heat, remains firm and upright in the wind and stubbornly persists in surviving the storm. The esrog is truly dar, it dwells consistently and constantly. In fact, the Hebrew word dar is very similar to the French word duree or the English word endure.
The beauty of the esrog is its endurance, its ability to withstand the elements, and to triumph over the prevailing winds. The esrog tree is determined, steadfast and unwavering and thereby produces fruit that the Torah calls beautiful.
As we spent technology-free time this holiday with our friends and family sitting in our Sukkahs and waving our four species including our beautiful esrog, let’s remember how fortunate and blessed we are to have been given the tools to disengage from the world. Like the esrog tree, let’s be strong, determined, and steadfast in our commitment to halacha and we too will produce beautiful fruit. Let’s embrace halacha l’chatchila, as nothing short of an ideal way of life.