At the beginning of his career as leader of the Jewish people, Moses sang a song in praise to Gd at the crossing of the Red Sea. And now, as his end draws near, he sings a farewell song of faith and trust. It’s a very touching scene. Moses calls heaven and earth to witness Gd’s faithfulness and dependability. The inference is, if Gd is faithful to us, how can we not be faithful to Him? And so Moses says (Deut. 32:46-47): “Apply your hearts to all these words…Ki lo davar reyk hu mikem, for it is not an empty thing for you, it is your life, and with this you shall prolong your days.”
This is the shortest, simplest definition of the Torah that I know. Moses is saying, the Torah is not your hobby. It’s not your pastime. It is your life—the meaning and the measure of your days. The Midrash, seizing on the word mikem (for you) in the passage, “it is not an empty thing for you,” adds an exquisite insight. It suggests that mikem means not just “for you,” but “from you” or “because of you.” In other words, if you find the Torah boring, if you find the commandments empty of meaning, it’s because of you. If you read the Torah and get nothing out of it, it’s because of you, not because of the Torah. I love this Midrash because it teaches that the world is not boring—we are.
I believe that boredom is the great enemy of Judaism today. Aaron Zeitlin, the great Yiddish poet, understood this. He wrote that, “If you shake your fist at Gd, that can be a kind of praise of Gd…that if you curse Gd, that can be a kind of praise of Gd…but if you look up at the stars and yawn, ‘Then I created you in vain,’ says Gd.”
At the heart of Judaism is the sense of wonder. We believe not just that Gd made the world once upon a time, but that Gd creates the universe every single day. While we believe that Gd can be found in shul, we also believe that Gd can be found in the sunrise and in the sunset, in the ocean and in the mountains, in the rainbow and in the thunder and lightning, and in the laugh of a child. For us, Gd can be found wherever and whenever we look—provided we look with eyes that are open to wonder. And if we don’t see Gd in the working of the world around us, then it’s mikem—because of us—and not because Gd is not there.
Dr. Erica Brown has written an exciting book titled: Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism—much needed for our world. She speaks about the harm that boredom can do to the soul and in the last chapter she offers some suggestions on how to overcome boredom. Let me share just 4 with you.
1st, avoid the language of boredom. Language not only describes reality; it also molds reality. For example, don’t say, “Been there—done that.” It really is a pernicious phrase. It means that if you have done something once, then you don’t need to bother doing it again. If you’ve been some place once—no need to go back. If you have read a book—no reason to read it again.
Are there no books worth rereading, no movies worth seeing again, no places worth revisiting? If so, then it’s because we’re bored, not because these books or movies or places are boring. Elie Wiesel, z”l, put it this way: Do you know the difference between an ordinary book and a great book? An ordinary book you get something out of the 1st time you read it, a little bit more the 2nd time you read it, and you never bother to read it a 3rd time. A great book you get a little out of the 1st time you read it, a little bit more the 2nd time you read it, and more each and every time you read it after that.
Therefore, Dr. Brown proposes that we eliminate the phrase, “Been there, done that,” from our vocabulary. We should never use it, and we should never let our children use it. It assumes that there are no spiritual experiences worth deepening, and that there is no moment worth reliving. And that is just not true.
Dr. Brown’s 2nd suggestion comes from the Harvard School of Education. They have a study in which they ask you to look at something—it could be a painting or a book or a mountain view—and identify 10 things that you saw in it. Then they ask you try and locate 10 more things that you notice. If you do that, you’ll learn something about the art of looking, and you’ll see how many wonders there are in things that we tend to pass by without noticing.
Her 3rd suggesting for overcoming boredom comes from Eleanor Roosevelt who once said: “Do something every day that scares you.” I don’t know if Mrs. Roosevelt had skydiving or mountain climbing in mind—although I can’t imagine her jumping from an airplane. It could be something much safer like learning a new dancing move or a new language, or acquiring a new skill
The 4th suggestion she makes is: Listen with your eyes. The Torah tells us that Gd spoke to Moses panim el panim (face to face). What does that mean? After all Gd doesn’t have a face? I think it means that when Gd spoke to Moses, Moses felt as if Gd was looking directly at him. If you look at someone casually, you may hear what they say, but you’ll not grasp the full depth of what being said. You may hear the words but you’ll not understand the soul that lies behind them.
It is said of the Kossover Rebbe that when he looked at you he was able to see the sacred Name of Gd reflected on your face. He was able to see Gd’s image reflected on your face, and so treated you with respect—like an Image of Gd. The more we look at people this way, the more we will revere them, and the more deeply we’ll be able to hear what they’re really saying.
These are just 4 suggestions on how we can make our lives meaningful and exciting. If you’re bored with Judaism, look a little harder and see the beauty. As the Midrash taught, if you find the services boring, or if you find your work boring, or if you find your life boring…then it’s probably mikem—it’s probably you that’s boring—boring in the way you see, in the way you work, in the way you live.
Jewish tradition contains a whole network of blessings that can help us become more sensitive to the wonders all around us. There’s a bracha for putting on a new garment—because wearing a new suit or dress for the 1st time should not be a casual event. There’s a bracha for inhaling spices, one for seeing the ocean, one for seeing a rainbow, even one for drinking water and many more besides. Say them when the occasion occurs, and when you do, realize that these are not things to be taken for granted.
Boredom can numb the soul and dull our lives. And therefore, let’s begin this New Year lifting our eyes to heaven and say, as did Isaiah (40:26): Mi bara eyleh (Who created these wonders)? Let’s really see the wonders around us and realize how marvelous they are and guard our capacity to be astonished, for it is on this that our spirits depend.
So don’t say: “Oy, Yontif again?” when the next holiday comes. Instead, let’s say: “Wow, Yontif again! with enthusiasm and with excitement and with spirit, for this is the way to live. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis