Effort is Required
"Boredom is Hashem's way of telling you that you are wasting time." I 'came across the above aphorism in an essay by Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a rebbe in the Block Yeshiva in St. Louis and a not frequent enough contributor to these pages, describing summer vacation with a passel of bored teenagers.
(By the way, anyone who is not familiar with Rabbi Goldson's essays should remedy that defect immediately. He is a truly sparkling writer – original, deep, learned and witty. His most recent book Proverbial Beauty expounds on the wisdom of Mishlei via the Mona Lisa.)
There are few things that annoy parents more than watching their children sitting around doing nothing – unless it's also listening to them whine about there being nothing to do. And while childhood and teenage boredom is perfectly normal, Rabbi Goldson is right that it also signals a childish understanding and level of experience, which it is our task as a parents to help our children grow beyond.
For the truth is the very idea of boredom should be something incomprehensible. There is so much to do, so much to know, how could anyone ever feel bored or that there is nothing to do? Rabbi Aharon Feldman used to tell his students at Ohr Somayach, "Whenever a person speaks of killing time, he is really speaking of killing himself [at some level]." The attraction of Yiddishkeit, in those long ago days, was that it offered a vision of each moment as important, an opportunity to climb higher or descend, with just standing still an impossibility.
Admittedly, it is harder to instill this feeling of the preciousness of time in adolescents, at a period in their lives when time seems a vast expanse extending infinitely before them.
But the sooner our children understand that there can be no true happiness in life without achievement and no achievement worthy of the name without effort, the better. That is the way the world was created. "Ki Adam l'amal yilud – Man was born for toil" (Iyov 5:7). And that toil is for man's good.
The Ramchal explains at the beginning of Derech Hashem that man is born with deficiencies, and the task of his life is to remedy that which he is lacking and achieve shleimus to whatever degree possible. That which is lacking is fundamental to the Divine plan, for only by completing himself, by filling up the emptiness within, can Man come to resemble Hashem and thereby be fit to receive the greatest possible reward – a relationship with Hashem.
That process of self-completion must of necessity be a difficult one, for if Man were born complete, his shleimus would not truly belong to him but would be something imposed from without. As such it would be incidental to him, and thus lack any resemblance to Hashem's perfection, which is His essence. Only by acquiring shleimus through his own efforts does a person truly come to resemble Hashem and become capable of connecting to Him and thereby experiencing the ultimate good.
WHERE DOES THE EFFORT COME IN? At every moment, we are being tugged between our pristine spiritual soul and our earthy physical body. Our "I" is that which chooses between the two. The more frequently we choose rightly the more we perfect ourselves. But the choice is never easy. Nor is it meant to be.
Our physicality expresses itself in many ways. We are probably most aware of it in the context of physical desires. But the most characteristic expression of our physical side is laziness. Our earthbound bodies would prefer to remain stationary or asleep.
Our souls, by contrast, seek to fly free of all earthly constraints of time or place. Zrizus is the characteristic expression of the souls desire to leave its earthly existence and reunite with its Divine source.
Lessening the pull of our physical bodies, whether controlling our desires or overcoming our innate laziness, is necessary to free our souls. Any activity that helps us discover the joy of overcoming our laziness whets the appetite for more such accomplishments in a higher realm. That is why there is a weight room in most non-mainstream yeshivos. Pushing one's limits, even in the purely physical realm, can make it easier to push oneself over a blatt Gemara as well (though no one would argue that the latter follows the former as the night the day.)
There can be no real satisfaction in life without a sense of accomplishment, of having overcome something within ourselves or external obstacles through our own efforts. That is why when welfare becomes not just a safety net but a way of life it leaves only bitter, angry people in its wake, for they have been turned into wards of the state and thereby stripped of their self-respect.
The accomplishments need not be known to the world. Indeed the most important may be known only to us or to those closest to us – stifling an impulse to anger, refraining from witty, but hurtful speech.
But it is important to instill ambition in our children. Many years ago, I heard from Rabbi Moshe Shapira an insight that has never left me: "We did not come into the world just to rearrange the furniture." Each of us was born with a mission to improve the world in some fashion, and that mission will be different for each of us, beyond the primary task of completing ourselves through tikkun hamiddos.
That improvement can take many forms, from discovering the cure for the scourge of disease to creating wealth through some invention or delivering services more efficiently. Raising healthy, generous, enthusiastic Jewish children is a true accomplishment. And so is making ourselves into a walking Kiddush Hashem by being straight in our personal dealings, treating others generously, and walking humbly.
One of our chief tasks as parents is helping our children taste the sweetness of achievement and helping them understand that no achievement worthy of the name comes without effort.
AS I WAS FORMULATING THESE THOUGHTS some weeks ago, however, I realized that achievement is only one aspect of true joy in life. That realization came on a Shabbos morning. My wife and I both happened to get up early – around 5:30 a.m. – and we were both in the living room talking without distractions or pressure of any kind, with a cooling breeze blowing through the open door to the porch. By the time, I headed for davening I had made much more headway than usual through my parashah reading, and it was still early enough to enjoy the birds' chirping unmuted by any other sounds.
At that moment it hit me: Beyond the building and improving and transforming, we also need a time free of striving and pressure to savor our blessings and to connect to those closest to us, and most of all revel in our relationship to Hashem.
Subsequently, I found the description of these two forms of pleasure in Miriam Kosman's remarkable Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism. She provides a truly indispensable guide to a series of issues of direct relevance to each of us. The masculine archetype is defined by the "drive to strive, achieve, succeed, conquer obstacles in [the] path – a desire to take the given situation and change it and improve it." The female archetype is defined by a "drive for harmony, for completion, for wholeness, for peace, for reveling in the moment."
None of us fit exclusively into one archetype. Nor does Judaism want us to. Each of us must find the balance between the two drives within us. Both drives are essential to a full Torah existence.
Androgyny does not just characterize us as individuals; it is rule of the universe, as expressed in the relationship between the six days of work and Shabbos, between hishtadlus and prayer, and ultimately, between this world and World to Come. Shabbos, for instance, a time when we are to feel "as if all our work is done," and when there is no planning for the future, just the savoring of the present, represents the feminine ideal. And it is a taste of the World to Come, when all striving is over and we can fully experience the closeness to Hashem, the ultimate tov that led Him to bring the entire universe into existence.
Helping bored teenagers savor the special menuchah of Shabbos may be an even bigger challenge for parents than helping them experience the joy of overcoming laziness to work hard to a worthy goal.
SHUVU RAISES $1.6 MIllion
The other week I found myself badly in need of something to lift my spirits in the wake of the cascading news stories detailing each new American concession in nuclear talks with Iran. The needed lift came in the form of being present for the final countdown of SHUVU's successful campaign to raise $1.6 dollars in 24 hours using the Charidy.com fundraising platform.
The Charidy formula requires each organization to secure three "matchers" who will match any contribution secured over the 24-hour period. Thus every dollar contributed by individual donors becomes four dollars. The organization can set whatever goal it wishes. The only catch is that if it fails to attain its goal every dollar raised is returned to the donors.
When I awakened on Tuesday morning and saw that SHUVU was still over $400,000 short with less than ten hours to the deadline and most potential American contributors likely to be asleep for another seven hours, my heart sank. I wondered whether SHUVU's campaign, the most ambitious ever run by Charidy, would also be the first to fail. The remaining funds would almost all have to come from Israel, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. Tzedakah giving to organizations is still not as ingrained in Israel as in America.
But I need not have worried. When I arrived two hours before the deadline at the SHUVU's Jerusalem high school, to help with last minute emails and phone calls, I was shocked to find a phone bank of 40 or so Bais Yaakov girls cold-calling potential donors. (The night before a similar group of yeshiva students came in to do the same after night seder.)
In a corner of the room, a huge screen kept everyone apprised of the progress towards the goal. The celebratory moment came with almost an hour to spare, and lively dancing broke out in the room. The volunteers stayed in their places, and succeeded in bringing another $100,000 before the deadline.
Besides helping to repay some of the large debts SHUVU incurred over the past two years due to drastic government funding cuts, the new funds will go to greatly expanding SHUVU's outreach work in schools with the parents of SHUVU students, and hopefully to lay the foundation for frameworks to receive the rapidly growing French immigrant population.
What buoyed me – beyond the boost to a worthy organization with which I'm intimately familiar – was the fact that 1469 Jews rallied within 24 hours to make a seemingly impossible dream a reality.