Guest Column by Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla
We are coming into the homestretch before Rosh Hashanah, and one of the main issues bedeviling us on all sides and for all ages is the problem of boredom.
So let me share with you one of my very favorite passages in the Torah. Moses gathers the people together and gives them his last instructions. He says to them: “Take to heart all the words which I have given you this day. Command them to your children that they may observe faithfully all the words of this Torah.”
And then he says, “Ki lo davar reyk hu mikem; ki hu chayeychem”: This is not an empty thing; it is your life.
The Midrash adds an insight to this passage. It says, “Ki lo davar reyk hu”: This Torah is not something empty, and if it is, it is mikem, because of you.
If you find the Torah boring, if you find the commandments empty, it’s because of you. If you are a bored person, then everything that you encounter, including the Torah, will seem boring to you. If you are a sensitive and passionate person, everything that you encounter, including the Torah, will be sensitive and passionate to you.
At the heart of Judaism is the sense of wonder. Our faith is not just that G-d made the world once upon a time, but that G-d creates the universe every single day. Our faith is not just that G-d can be found in the sanctuary, but that G-d 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 in the lightning, that G-d can be found wherever and whenever we look — provided that we look with eyes that are open to wonder.
And our faith declares that if we do not see G-d in the working of the world around us, it is mikem — because of us — and not because the wonders are not there.
I want to give you some suggestions in how to fight boredom. These suggestions come from Dr. Erica Brown, a Jewish scholar who has written a wonderful book on boredom. And I want to share just four of her 10 suggestions with you today. If you like these, then get her book, “Spiritual Boredom,” and read the rest.
First, avoid the language of boredom. Language not only describes reality; it also molds reality. If we use boring words, they will color the way in which we understand reality.
Dr. Brown gives just one example of a phrase that we should try our best to keep from using: “Been there, done that.”
Have you ever used that phrase? Or heard your friends use it? It means that if you have done something once, you don’t need to bother doing it again. If you have been some place once, you have no need to go back there again. If you have read a book, you have no reason to read it over again.
Is that really true? Are there no books worth rereading, no movies worth seeing again, no places worth revisiting? If so, it is because we are bored, not because these books or these movies or these places are boring.
Dr. Brown’s second suggestion comes from the Harvard School of Education. It has a study in which it asks you to look at something — it could be a painting or a book or a mountain view — and then identify 10 things that you saw in it. And then you are asked to try to locate 10 more things you notice in it.
If you do that, you will learn something about the art of looking, and you will see how many wonders there are in things that we tend to pass by without noticing.
The third 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. It could be something much safer, like dancing a new dance or learning a new language or acquiring a new skill.
The fourth suggestion that she makes is to listen with your eyes.
There is a fascinating expression that is found in the Bible. We are told that G-d spoke to Moses panim el panim — face to face. What does that expression mean? I think it means that when G-d spoke to Moses, He looked directly at him. And that made all the difference.
If you look at someone casually, you might hear something of what is said, but you will not be able to grasp the full depth of what he or she is saying. You may hear the words, but you will not understand the soul that lies behind the words.
The Jewish tradition contains a whole network of blessings that can help us become more sensitive to the wonder around us and inside us. There is a bracha for putting on a new garment because wearing a suit or dress for the first time should not be a casual event.
There is a bracha for inhaling spices, and one for seeing the ocean, and one for seeing the flowers open in the spring, and one for drinking water, and many more besides these. Say them when the occasion occurs, and when you do, realize that these are not things to be taken for granted. They are wonders to those who have a heart with which to see and a soul with which to be grateful.
Boredom can numb the soul and dull our lives. And therefore, as the year 5777 begins, let us lift our eyes and our hearts up to the heavens and say, as did Isaiah: “Mi bara eleh?” Who created these wonders?
And let us lift our eyes and our hearts to the wonders of the world around us and realize how marvelous they are. And let us open our eyes and our ears and our souls to the wonders inside us, and let us guard the capacity to be astonished, for it is on this that our spirits depend.
Let us fight the encroachment of boredom so that we may live truly human lives.
On behalf of my family and Congregation Or VeShalom, I wish all readers a shana tova, a year of health and peace in Israel and beyond.
Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or VeShalom.