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Cynicism and Fresh Perspectives Shabbos Nachamu

It seems to me that there are three types of shul-goers; there are those who come to daven, those who come to talk, and those who come to shush. You know who I’m talking about. The shushers.

These are the people who really wanted to be librarians but were rejected because they wanted to read Dante’s Inferno for the children’s reading circle. And so instead they take out all their pent-up ‘shush’ on the poor people sitting next to them in shul.

Now I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the science of the shush. Like how does the shusher decide when to shush? Is there a certain decibel that’s reached, and a little bell goes off in their head, “Uh-uh-uh! We’re there! SHHHHH!” Or is it just timed? Like every thirty-eight seconds, it’s time for another one. “I’m feeling it coming, here we go, SHHHH!”

I once went to this shul in Toronto, it was the quietest shul I ever went to, but there was a shusher who davened there, and he had no one to shush. He probably got thrown out of all the talking shuls. My heart really went out to this guy – it’s a terrible feeling, all those powerful shushing emotions welling up inside and no place to channel them, the existential loneliness of being a shusher in a quiet shul… But this guy was clever, he figured out what to do. I was praying there one day, and apparently, I am not the quietest davener, and so Mr. Shusher walks over to me, while I am davening, and goes, SHHHH!

I had no idea what he was talking about, or shushing about, I was davening?! But I forgave him though because I realized he’s just a shush-addict, he was just using me for his next high.

Think about it. Is the shush not just self-serving and self-indulgent? Because let’s be honest, when was the last time a shush got someone quiet. In shul?

It’s not even an effective sound. SHHHHH. It’s sounds like light rain on a rooftop – it is one of the most soothing sounds I know. It’s a setting on my sleep machine and in the background on my meditation app. C’mon.

You want a good sound to get people quiet, Try this: AAAAAAAAAAAH! That does the trick. Every time.

The truth is, if you want to get a shusher to stop shushing, there’s one thing you need to do: Invite him or her into your conversation.

Enough said.

Just kidding, don’t do that. Because,

Ladies and gentlemen, we are enabling the shushers. It is our moral duty to eradicate shushing from the world. It is my goal that by the year 2021, there will be a museum to remind us of a bygone era of shushing. And there is only one way to rid the world of this insidious disease – 

Stop talking during davening.   

Or at least during the Amidah and Kaddish.

 

Which was kinda my sermon from last week but packaged a little differently… Same point, but two radically different ways of saying it. And that’s really what this Shabbos is all about. Not shushing, but differing perspectives.

You see, we just finished the Three Weeks, Nine Days, and Tisha B’av; a pretty dark time on the Jewish calendar. For those of us here on Tisha B’av morning with Rabbi Katz, we learned that it was even darker than we ever thought. We sat on the floor, we mourned for the loss of the Bais HaMikdash, and really, for all the tragedies of the world. The overarching message was: The Messianic Era is not here. Life is terrible.

And then – less than a week later, we are here, this Shabbos is known as Shabbos Nachamu. It is a celebratory Shabbos. It is supposed to be an extra-joyful weekend. You know why? Because – The Messianic Era is coming. Life is great.

Which one is it? It can’t be both! Are we depressed because the world is falling apart or are we ecstatic because change is around the corner? Which perspective do we take?

 

Two weeks ago, an article was published on the Times of Israel, which was widely circulated. I don’t have the stomach, nor is this the appropriate place to read every line, I’ll read to you just a few:

“Today, in Orthodoxy, a man can: …

  • be convicted of sex offenses, spend time in jail for them, and still be revered by thousands of followers and honored with the lighting of a torch at a[n Israeli] government sponsored event (a reference to Rabbi Eliezer Berland).
  • [Today, in Orthodoxy, a man can:]
  • Confess to having touched students inappropriately and still teach at prestigious yeshivot, and be defended by some leading rabbis in the community (a reference to Rabbi Motti Elon).”

She continues:

“And a woman can:

  • have her motivations questioned and her learning belittled, even while her opportunities to learn are more numerous than ever before.
  • Expect all male committees to be the ones who define her communal roles and opportunities to participate in ritual…
  • See no images of women, even at an all-women conference.”

Heavy stuff, I know.

She concludes her piece with a rather biting statement: “Once we stood at Sinai together, men and women, “like one person with one heart.” Today, the heart of Orthodoxy is broken, splintered into a dangerous and gaping divide.”

 

Now I happen to agree with much of what she wrote. I agree that too often abusers, often male abusers, are protected and judged by other men “too favorably” when favorable judgment and public safety are entirely incompatible. I agree that we need to continue to dialogue about women’s roles in the community, and that women need to be part of that conversation. I agree that while the Torah does not believe in egalitarianism as we know it, that we do believe in divisions between Kohanim and the rest of us, between Jews and non-Jews, and between men and women, and with all that being said, we should not and must not create restrictions when there are none. We must simultaneously work to combat ideas that are antithetical to our tradition and at the same time, create opportunities for those whose needs are not being met by our current communal structure. I agree with her on a lot of things.

What I do not agree with – is her tone.

And this is not a judgment of her per-se. She is, as a friend of hers pointed out to me, at ground-zero. She lives in Beit Shemesh, she is an activist who deals with the community’s issues day-in and day-out. This is not about her, it’s about us. It’s about how we speak and how we frame the ills of our community and more broadly of our lives.

Because you see, it’s all about the framing. Whether I encourage you to stop talking in shul with a d’var Torah or a joke is not so consequential. But whether I speak about the state of Jewish life as a cynic or a problem-solver, now that’s a world of a difference.

Cynicism, which was once reserved for disaffected youth, is now the celebrated currency in every high society. In one longitudinal study by a marketing firm in Japan studying attitudes, they found a sharp and steady increase in cynicism over the past ten years.

And we Jews have been fine-tuning these tools for thousands of years. We are trained from a young age to think critically, to question, to see things from a different angle. But it would seem that over the years, this critical thinking has turned more and more into cynical thinking.

Society sees cynical people as smart, realistic, and even cool. Psychologists would add to that list that cynical people are also scared. In the words of psychologist and author, Dr. Jennifer Kunst: “Cynicism is related to fear because it offers the promise of protection, which is a deep human need. The way that it offers protection is simple: it promises to keep out the danger. The rules of cynicism are simple and straightforward: trust no one; don’t believe anything; close ranks; keep your guard up and your head down; keep your door locked and your weapons at the ready. Danger: do not enter.”

The problem is that cynicism is corrosive, it destroys relationships, and it blocks our ability to grow and to change. In the words of our sages, “One cynical remark can deflect a thousand words of admonition.” The more fortified we become in cynicism, the less anything has any true meaning.

To quote Dr. Kunst once again: “The cost of cynicism is great. It blocks change. It burns bridges. It builds walls. It undermines good will. It sinks compromise. It escalates conflict. We hear about it every week in the news. I hear about it every day in my psychotherapy office. A sour look, a cross word, or a poorly worded communication is used as evidence of betrayal and lends strength to isolation, depression, and discord. A misunderstanding becomes an avenue to violence. A traffic stop becomes a powder keg. Where there is no trust, there is no way to build something truly constructive, secure, and good.”

I love the fact that we are troubled by the many issues that we see around us. But how we talk about them makes a difference. If we talk about these issues with hope and with an eye on how we can change, then we will affect change. If we talk with cynicism, only one things will change; the attitude of our children. Why bother with Kosher if all I hear about is how expensive kosher food is? Why bother with sending my children to a Jewish school or joining a shul if all I hear about is corruption?

Our Sages teach us that the Bais HaMikdash was destroyed because of the sin of Sinas Chinam, baseless hatred. Excuse my pun, but I would venture to say that what is holding it back from being rebuilt is the sin of Sina-cism.

And that’s what Shabbos Nachamu is here for. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that Nechama does not mean comfort. Nor does it mean to change one’s mind, as in the verse immediately preceding the flood, when G-d surveys the evils of mankind – vayinachem Hashem, which is incorrectly translated as G-d changed his mind. What Nechama means, explains Rav Hirsch is to take a new and fresh perspective. The way we do nichum aveilim, the comforting of the mourner is to shift their perspective ever so softly. So too Shabbos Nachamu. It’s here to tell us, that yes, things are broken, things are bad, things are terrible. The heart of the Jewish People is splintered indeed. But instead of griping and complaining, instead of turning even more people off from what we know to be beautiful, Shabbos Nachamu asks of us to change our perspective and to change our tone. To speak instead about how we change those problems, how we can fix them, and how we could do better. Not to ignore what’s wrong or to brush even more under the carpet. No! Shabbos Nachamu asks of us to not lose sight of all the brokenness in the world, but to speak in a language of building and hope, and not the corrosive language of cynicism.

The heart of the Jewish People is splintered. Mashiach is not here. The heart of the Jewish People can be healed by us, if we so choose it! Mashiach is around the corner.

(h/t to Rabbi Efrem Goldberg whose post on optimism and pessimism inspired this piece – https://rabbiefremgoldberg.org/jewish-community/the-heart-of-orthodoxy-is-healthy-and-strong-seeing-the-opportunities-within-every-difficulty/)

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