“How was school today, dear?”
“How was the class outing?”
“There’s nothing on TV.”
“There’s nothing to do on Shabbat except read!”
It is said that Heinrich Heine once wrote that “I fell asleep reading a dull book and dreamed I kept on reading, so I awoke from sheer boredom.” Boredom is that thing that can be one of the most debilitating forces in our lives – we run away from it, we spend countless dollars to avoid it, and yet it seems to keep rearing its head.
Indeed, the more we try to escape it, the more persistent it seems to become. “We gaze at television in order to forestall boredom,” wrote one author on the subject, “and television generates more of it.” The more we watch out of boredom, the more bored we become or the worse we feel when we are done. Think about how much further along we are technologically than our grandparents’ generation, how many more opportunities we have to keep ourselves busy and entertained, how many diversions we have in our homes, and yet I would venture to say that collectively we are probably much more bored than they were.
My goal here is not to explain this phenomenon – believe it or not there is a whole literature out there on boredom (type the word on Amazon.com and see the hundreds of hits, although many of them look boring). Rather, I am concerned with the role that boredom plays in our religious and spiritual lives.
Let’s begin with but one example from a parent who once wrote to me about the subject of shul-going. “We as parents don’t necessarily enjoy shul ourselves and our kids have picked up on it. Let’s face it, most shuls are just too long. The davening experience is not an enjoyable one. The ‘shushing police’ stand over you. The rabbis talk too long. The day is just too long. Going to shul is not an enjoyable experience anymore for anyone.”
To the extent that any of us has ever felt this way, it behooves us first and foremost to be honest with ourselves – aspects of Orthodox religious life can sometimes seem like a chore to some people. It is in the very nature of doing the same acts over and over again that our sense of excitement, spirituality, love and appreciation can be worn down. As I often tell my students “Anyone who tells you that they daven with complete kavanah (proper intention) every time, is either a tzadik or a liar.” There are very few of us who can keep up that kind of momentum.
If that is true for us, then how much more so for a generation of kids who were raised on television, computer and cell phone screens that change within milliseconds, kids who can talk to six different people at the same time, and can multitask relationships while surfing websites and listening to music all at the same time? One study installed a program on students’ laptops that took a screenshot every 5 seconds. They found that students switched between tasks every 19 seconds on average. More than 75% of the students’ computer windows were open less than one minute! Now take kids and put them in shul for three hours in the same place, or the Shabbat table for two hours, or a Shabbat afternoon without any electronics and it is no wonder that many will at times come to find an observant life, well, just too boring.
But before we talk about the kids, let us talk about ourselves. For as I always tell teachers, if you are not on your own spiritual journey, then you cannot really hope to light the spark in your students. As the parent above wrote, if we, as parents, don’t necessarily enjoy shul ourselves, then our kids will pick up on it. And what is true of shul may be true for the lack of passion with which we prepare for Shabbat, sing at the Shabbat table, learn Torah, attend or listen to a shiur. That assumes, of course, that we do these things already and didn’t stop doing so at some point in the past because we were, well, bored. Our kids will quickly realize if we do and speak about these things in front of them but without the same intensity and excitement that we would about finding something on sale or going to a game or checking out that new kosher restaurant. And with that realization comes their own sense of disconnect. If we don’t have the passion then how are our kids going to catch it?
For a parent, then, the first goal, it seems to me, is to be honest about our own spirituality and commitments. Am I in a rut? Am I bored? And, if so, is my child bored because I am bored? And, if so, how do I avoid being bored? What can I do to jumpstart my own excitement and passion? And let’s be fair to ourselves and first ask not about the mitzvot that we do not (yet) do, but rather the ones that we already do consistently, habitually, yes, religiously. Assume for a moment, that there are times that you occasionally find them wearing on you. Why do you continue to do them anyway? What attracted you to those things to begin with? When did they have meaning and how can you recapture it? How can you share it with your children? Perhaps in answering those questions we can inspire our children to develop their own excitement and passion so that even if there are times when they are caught in a routinized observance they will never really think of themselves as bored.
Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than 35 years who currently teaches full time at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is Educational Director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.