Writing columns must be one of the easiest jobs in the world (though like most easy jobs it is not terribly remunerative). All one has to do is keep one's ears open and, in the course of a week, one can pretty much count on someone basically writing the column for you.
Two days ago, for instance, someone approached me at a wedding. The conversation did not get off to a great start. After telling me I looked familiar and asking my name, he told me, "Oh yeah, I heard you speak in my shul. You write better than you speak." I was tempted to argue, but I decided I would not be any happier if he told me, "You sure speak a lot better than you write."
Anyway, I forgive this fellow because he ended writing this week's column. At some point, the conversation turned to Switzerland and the idiosyncracies of the Swiss. For instance, on his first flight to Switzerland, my new pal asked the stewardess about train schedules in Zurich. She returned a few moments later with a copy of the 1958 Zurich phone book. When he asked her whether there might not have been some changes in the train schedule over the last forty years, the stewardess stared at him uncomprehendingly.
It was not, however, until slightly further along in his routine that I had the column. Like my wife and I on our recent visit to Switzerland, he had been struck by the fact that on the trams and buses no one takes your ticket or otherwise checks to see if you paid. When we asked our hosts about this, they offered that every once in a while an inspector asks to see one's ticket. But even then the fine for not having paid is relatively small. A rational economic calculator, with criminal tendencies, might well conclude that it was worth paying the occasional fine.
My newfound friend had the same thought, and had asked one of the locals, "What happens if the inspector catches you without a ticket?" The man could barely understand the question. "Everyone would know!" he said with a horrified look.
My friend found this hilarious; I found it pretty impressive. The Swiss sense of shame is so highly developed that the mere contemplation of being revealed as someone who did not pay for the tram, in front of a group of strangers, is so terrifying that Switzerland can dispense with the elaborate turnstiles and subway police that New York City needs to prevent fare jumpers.
Shame is one of the characteristics by which Klal Yisrael is distinguished. But it has atrophied over the generations. Haven't we all asked ourselves upon hearing about someone caught running a ponzi scheme or engaged in some other unsavory activity: "Did he think he could get away with it forever? Didn't he think about his kids' shidduchim?" and the like.
If our sense of busha were as strong as the Swiss most of us would look a lot different. After all we are in a much better position than they are. The Swiss only need to worry about an inspector getting on the same tram once or twice a year. We know with a certainty that Hashem knows every thing we do. And yet that knowledge does not save us from all kinds of failures – great and small – of which we would surely be ashamed if our neighbors knew.
What emerges, then, is that we have not really internalized the fact that He knows. We are only dimly aware of Hashem as we go about our daily business.
THAT SAME REALIZATION came to me in a different context during a pre-Tisha B'Av drashah by a leading ba'al mussar (who will remain nameless in case I misunderstood him.) The Bais HaMikdash was called Bais Tefilasi (the House of My prayer), he noted (Yeshaya 56:7); its destruction placed a solid barrier between our prayers and Hashem. We lost the ability to call out directly to Him. With every generation, the intense connection to Hashem through prayer becomes more attenuated.
In some respects -- dikduk in mitzvos, for instance – we may even be greater than our immediate predecessors. Our grandparents' mitzvah observance followed a mesorah passed down from generation to generation. We, however, learn halacha from seforim, and try to fulfill all the different shittos in the poskim, not just the tradition of our parents.
Yet when it comes to hartige tefillah (heartfelt prayer), we cannot compare to the simple Jew of just a couple generations ago.
Dikduk in mitzvos, the speaker emphasized repeatedly, is indispensable. It derives from the yiras Shomayim that must underlie all our Divine service. But we also need the direct connection to Hashem of tefillah. Prayer engaged in just to fulfill the rabbinic mitzvah is lacking the very essence of prayer.
Already the Amoraim noted that superiority in one area of spiritual endeavor is no guarantee of greater closeness to Hashem. Rav Pappa was puzzled by the fact that previous generations were the beneficiaries of greater Divine miracles. After all, the early generations were not greater in Torah learning: Rav Pappa's generation was fluent in all of Gemara and that of Rav Yehudah only Nezikin. Yet Rav Yehudah had only to remove one shoe to pray [on a public fast] and the rains already began to fall.
Abaye answered Rav Pappa: They were moser nefesh for Kiddush Hashem and we are not (Berachos 20a).
Mitzvah observance, even Torah learning, can be engaged in without a heightened consciousness of Hashem. That may explain why we sometimes observe actions taken in the name of some lofty spiritual goal that come out as ugly and off-putting. The one thing missing from the actor's consciousness is Hashem.
Will my action bring about a Kiddush Hashem or the opposite? Will it bring others closer to Torah or distance them? Am I acting in way that reflects thought about the ideal man for whom Hashem created the world? Until those questions too are part of our consciousness, until the question of what Hashem wants is ever before us, we are at risk of making ourselves disgusting in His sight and that of our fellow man.