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Progress, Not Perfection

Aug 28, 2023

Steps at the Masada fortress in the Judean desert (

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֣ בְכׇל־הַטּ֗וֹב אֲשֶׁ֧ר נָֽתַן־לְךָ֛ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּלְבֵיתֶ֑ךָ אַתָּה֙ וְהַלֵּוִ֔י וְהַגֵּ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּקִרְבֶּֽךָ׃

And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that Hashem your God has bestowed upon you and your household.

v'-sa-MAKH-ta b'-khol ha-TOV a-SHER na-TAN l'-KHA a-do-NAI e-lo-HE-kha u-l'-vei-TE-kha, a-TAH v'-ha-LE-vi v'-ha-GER a-SHER b'-kir-BE-kha. (Selah)

Deuteronomy 26:11

A few years ago, the concept of “Half Shabbat” became a hot topic in the Jewish world. This referred to Jewish Orthodox teenagers who were otherwise basically Sabbath observant but were texting each other on their smartphones in violation of the Sabbath.

Dr. David Pelcovitz, a well-known Orthodox Jewish psychologist, conducted a survey of 1,200 teenagers in Modern Orthodox schools which revealed that, at the time, 17.7 percent texted on the Sabbath, 15.5 percent surfed the Internet, and 13.5 percent talked on their cell phones. The numbers were disheartening.

Some blamed the phenomenon on our addiction to technology. Feeling they could not go even 25 hours without using their phones, internet addiction was causing otherwise religiously observant teenagers to violate the Sabbath.

While it is true that internet addiction is a big problem in today’s day and age, I think the issue goes much deeper: our kids, by and large, are not inspired. This phenomenon is not limited to Judaism, but is a growing problem among all faith-based religions.

How should we approach our teenagers who are struggling to find meaning in the religious observance of their parents?

Some rabbis came out strongly against the “Half Shabbat” phenomenon, claiming that those teens who text on the Sabbath are not Sabbath observant at all. But this kind of extreme all or nothing approach is dangerous; it sends a message to teenagers who are not perfect that the positive engagement they do have with religion has no merit. This not only has a detrimental impact on their self-worth but also misses an educational opportunity to engage them in meaningful dialogue about the deeper values of full observance.

So what approach should we take?

The sages teach (Shabbat 70a) that each of the 39 categories of labor prohibited on the Sabbath are independent.  One act on the Sabbath can lead to multiple punishments because it was in violation of multiple prohibited actions at the same time.

On the flip side, this means that we don’t view Sabbath, or religious observance in general, in an “all or nothing” way.  One violation of the Sabbath doesn’t obliterate your entire Sabbath observance!

Nachmanides (Shemot 20:8) writes that performing positive commandments is more important than observing a prohibition, because when we actively do Mitzvot (commandments), we are demonstrating our love for God.

Clearly, Nachmanides is not justifying violating the Sabbath or any other commandment, but he is stressing how essential positive actions are in developing a relationship with God and with religion in general.

Even if a kid is violating one commandment, we can’t dismiss the positive steps he IS taking towards meaningful religious observance.  One does not negate the other!

This important message is found in the Torah portion of Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8) as well. In this Torah portion we read about the command of bringing one’s first fruits to Jerusalem. The sages describe the great celebration that surrounded the bringing of the fruit.

If I didn’t know any better, I would assume that the Torah prescribes so much fanfare because the person bringing his fruits to Jerusalem is bringing a very large amount of fruit. But what’s amazing is that the Torah makes such a big deal for something so little.

Every day, at the beginning of the morning prayers, we read a statement of the sages which tells us that there are certain commandments that have no minimum requirement.  No matter what you do or how much you bring, it’s enough.  One of those mitzvot that has no minimum requirement is bringing the first fruits – Bikkurim.  You don’t need to bring 100 or even 10 fruits. All you need is one. Even for one little grape there is so much pomp and pageantry! Why?

Every positive act, every commandment that we keep, really matters.  Obviously, the more one does the better. But we can’t lose sight of the value of the good things that we do even if we aren’t perfect in other ways. The commandment of Bikkurim, the pomp and circumstance that surrounds bringing the first fruits, reminds us that every small step, every moment of struggle and religious growth, is meaningful and valuable. While we should always strive for maximum observance and a non-compromising commitment, we can’t forget that God rewards us for every single step we take along our journeys.

This lesson is so fundamental for a healthy religious life.  And the people who need to hear this more than anyone else are our children and grandchildren.

We need to recognize that it’s hard to be a teenager.  Religion is challenging and the world is confusing.  So much of what we do seems meaningless and our youth have many theological questions. As a pulpit rabbi, every year I would have conversations with kids on Shavuot night, when there is a tradition to stay up all night learning Torah, about big issues that trouble them.

We need to treat teenagers in our communities with the same sensitivity that we treat people who are considering becoming religiously observant for the first time.  While we should always strive for maximum observance and a non-compromising commitment, we can’t forget that God rewards us for every single step we take along our journeys.

Our children and grandchildren are all on a journey, navigating the complexities of faith in a world brimming with distractions and questions. It’s our job to help them along in a positive and encouraging way, celebrating the positive steps they take while gently guiding them toward a deeper understanding and observance.

Related Names and Places: First Fruit

Relate Bible Verses: Chapter 26

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