Last week I had the privilege of delivering the benediction at the Yeshiva University graduation as my daughter graduated from Stern College. The keynote speaker was Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots. In addition to the athletic and philanthropic accomplishments for which he is well known, Robert Kraft performed a tremendous act of Kiddush Hashem when he held a moment of silence at a New England Patriots game in memory of Ezra Schwartz, the Boston native and Patriots fan who was murdered by terrorists in Israel in November of last year. I found his speech both inspiring and sad. Let me share with you why.
Robert Kraft is known for his philanthropy. He donates significantly to Jewish institutions, including the Hillel Center of Columbia University and Barnard College and the Jewish studies departments at Boston College and the College of Holy Cross. He also built the Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem, an artificial-turf athletic field that is used for soccer, baseball and football. Dr. Kraft is not Orthodox in his Jewish practice, but is clearly very affiliated and very connected to his Jewish roots. When he spoke to the graduates, Dr. Kraft invoked several passages from Tanach and from our Sages. He was very proud of his connection to his father, Harry, who was the Hebrew school teacher in Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, where he grew up. A climax of his speech came when Dr. Kraft implored the graduates to have a “chalom gadol,” to dream big.
While all of this was tremendously inspiring, what left me feeling sad was the sense that there are so few people like Robert Kraft. In previous generations, of the many Jews who came to America from Eastern Europe either before the War or shortly afterwards, a number of them weren’t strictly observant in their practice of Jewish law. I remember once hearing from Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald that when some of these Jews became very financially successful in America, they donated significant funds to Jewish institutions and organizations. These Jews may not have been strictly orthodox, but they felt connected to their Jewish roots because of their strong Jewish upbringing in Eastern Europe. They felt a sense of being “metzuveh,” of being commanded. They felt a sense of obligation to their community and to their nation.
These days, words like "obligation," “commanded" and "sacrifice” seem to have fallen from our comfortable, modern vernacular. Tones of submission and commitment seem to be taboo for many when it comes to describing their religious experience. We are drawn instead to other words, such as “meaning,” “personalize” and “spiritual fulfillment," recoiling from the notion that we are “obligated” with respect to religion. This linguistic shift is significant, reflecting a new generation of Jews who do not feel the same sense of obligation as those who came before. Members of this newer generation may indeed feel a connection to their faith, but may relate to the individual aspects of Judaism that spiritually satisfy them, rather than feeling a sense of obligation to all the minutiae of Jewish observance. In a word, they do not describe themselves as being “metzuveh."
What transforms an individual into being a “metzuveh?” A famous Rashi in the beginning of Parshat Bhar states that, not just the general rules, but even the details of the mitzvoth were transmitted at Sinai. Big ideas are important, but details in halachic observance are also critical. Committing ourselves to follow nitty gritty halachic minutiae, even and perhaps especially when I may not appreciate all the intricate details, transforms me into a “metzuveh,” into someone who submits my will to the will of God even when I may not fully understand. Indeed, it is in large part the very binding nature of Halacha that makes us feel bound to our nation, to our community, and to our destiny. I was inspired by Robert Kraft’s address, but I am saddened that there aren’t many more like him.