Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. – Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l
Heschel wrote those words long before the advent of the Internet. His words are truer today than ever before: we are drowning in information.
When I first began to study Judaism, I read everything I could find. The Internet was in its infancy, and there was not yet much there, but I scoured the public library, the congregation’s library, used book stores, and anywhere else I might be able to buy, beg, or borrow Jewish information. I was fortunate in finding a Jewish independent book store owner who was both kind and ethical: he’d sell me one book at a time, and ask me to come back and tell him what I thought of it before I got another.
Now, with so many sources online, and with much of our book-buying online, it’s a whole new world. I worry for my students: if you Google the word “Jew” or anything like it, you get a wild mix of Jewish information, messianic information, and anti-Semitic filth, and they are not always easy to distinguish from one another. The quality of the Jewish information is uneven.
Facts alone do not make a good Jew, or even a good person. I can study about tzedakah all day long, but until I give tzedakah, I will be ignorant about it. I can learn all the prayers in Hebrew, but if I do not actually pray, it is a pointless exercise. Judaism is a religion of doing. One of the things we do is study, but if we stop there, we are failing to fulfill our mission as Jews.
What does this have to do with Heschel’s appreciation? We appreciate the world and its wonders by engaging with the world via mitzvot. The pause for a blessing gives me a moment to appreciate the food I am about to eat. Giving tzedakah reminds me to appreciate my economic power, even if that power is small. Saying my morning prayers properly helps me appreciate the fact of life itself and the body within which I live it.
The blessings for mitzvot include the phrase “Who sanctifies us with mitzvot.” This reminds us that the mitzvot are there to make us holy by sanctifying our experiences. With every pause for appreciation, every mitzvah, we invite the Holy to break in upon our mundane existence. Amazement crashes in upon the world, bringing life itself to life.