People sometimes ask me, “As a rabbi, do you have a spiritual sixth sense, some kind of psychic higher awareness?”
The answer is no. The only magical ability I have is the use of my sermons to cure people who suffer from insomnia.
So, no, I don’t have any higher powers, but on Yom Kippur I can read the mind of every person in the synagogue. I know what they are all thinking about. That’s right: food!
In fact, pretty much every Jew in the world thinks about food on Yom Kippur.
In a sense, you could say the central theme of Yom Kippur is discipline and self-control. All day we are hungry and would like to eat, but we exercise self-control. We tell ourselves, no, today is Yom Kippur, and we will eat later.
I know that a lot of people struggle with the rules and regulations of Judaism. There are so many observances, mitzvot, do’s and don’ts. There is also a lot of minutiae. People say, “Rabbi, I don’t like to feel restricted. I like my freedom. There are just too many rules.”
What I will say is that the most critical life skill to achieve success in any area is discipline. Without discipline we are never going to succeed in life. In fact, without discipline we are doomed to suffer the consequences of some of our self-destructive behaviors.
I once watched a TV program about a group of scientists on an expedition to capture a particular species of monkey in Africa. It was important that the monkeys be brought back alive and unharmed. However, the monkeys were difficult to catch.
So the scientists brought along some monkey psychologists, who devised a clever trap. They took small jars with long, narrow necks and placed a handful of nuts inside each of the jars, then anchored the jars to the ground.
Smelling the nuts, a monkey would thrust its arm down the long neck of the jar and grab a fistful of nuts. But when he tried to withdraw the prize, the monkey would discover that his clenched fist would not fit through the narrow neck of the jar. He was trapped in the anchored jar, unable to escape with his treasure.
You think: Silly monkey, let go. Just let go of the loot, and you’ll be free. But the monkeys would never let go. They stood trapped with their hands in the cookie jar and were easily taken captive by the scientists.
So many of us lack the self-discipline to let go of certain habits and behaviors that we know are self-destructive.
What happens when you raise children without any discipline? They will never achieve anything in life.
I am reminded of a story.
A boy once asked his mother for another slice of chocolate cake.
“No,” she answered. “You’ve already had three slices.”
The boy asked again, “Please, Mom, just one more piece. I promise, just one more.”
Again, his mother said no.
The boy did not give up: “Come on, just one more! Please? Please?”
Finally, the mother gave in: “OK, one last slice, but that’s it. No more!”
“Honestly, Mom,” the boy smiled and said, “I’m so disappointed in you. You have no self-control.”
Self-control is life’s most important skill, and the rules and regulations of Judaism are the most effective way to instill that discipline and self-control from a young age.
So my answer is, yes, you are right. There are a lot of rules and laws, and you definitely don’t have to keep all of them right now. Judaism is not all or nothing. But in general the rules and laws of Judaism nurture discipline, and discipline is probably the most critical ingredient for success in life.
Rabbi Ephraim Silverman is co-director of Chabad of Cobb (www.chabadofcobb.com).