For all our talk about passion and trying to do away with boredom, let us be honest and admit that at times it seems it’s unavoidable. As we have said before, the very nature of doing the same things repeatedly can lead to a dullness of the senses, no matter how committed you may be. Ironically, for many people this erosion of feeling rears its head most frequently in prayer, the time one would expect feeling to be at its most intense.
But the challenge is probably millennia old. I wonder how different my tefillah would have been when I was younger had I known that the Rabbis, the ones held up as the paradigm of proper intention and spirituality, probably had similar difficulties. Witness what I think is a most provocative gemara from the Jerusalem Talmud 2:4:
“Rabbi Hiya said: ‘I never concentrated during prayer in all my days. Once I wanted to concentrate, but I thought about who will meet the king first: the Arkafta [a Persian high official] or the Exilarch?’
Shmuel said, ‘I count clouds [during prayer.]’
R. Bun bar Hiyah said ‘I count the layers of stones in the wall [while I pray].’
R. Matnaya said ‘I am grateful to my head, because it bows by itself when I reach Modim.’”
In other words, having difficulty focusing on a mitzvah one does repeatedly is not unusual. Even living one’s life in a constant state of spiritual bliss can probably be difficult. Consider the experience of the Jewish People when they left Egypt. They witness the miracles of the ten plagues, and the destruction of their oppressors at the miracle of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, they sing praises to God, then they get thirsty and water appears miraculously, they want food and manna drops miraculously from heaven – manna which can taste like any delicacy they want. And then what happens? They long to go back to Egypt! “We remember the fish that we ate for free!” Apparently, miracles big and small, direct evidence of the existence and presence of God, are no guarantee that one will not get bored.
But rather than make another plea for more passion, I’d like to suggest that the absence of spiritual excitement or intensity or feeling is not necessarily always a bad thing or at least it’s not something that is cause for concern, if one is aware of it and works on it.
Erica Brown, a gifted educator who has taught both teens and adults, wrote a book called Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism. In it, Dr. Brown reminds us that boredom is not always something to get so upset about. When I was young and I got bored, I specifically remember my mother trying to come up with all sorts of suggestions for activities that I might do. And when I found each one of them to be more boring than the next, her answer was, then go entertain yourself. “Many of the most rewarding games we played as children came out of a stretch of boredom that seemed interminable,” writes Dr. Brown. Boredom “helps us figure out how to use our time appropriately, how to advise others, and what our personal likes and dislikes are.” “When we get bored and take responsibility for our boredom, we arrive at a new level of interest, introspection, or action that has been stirred by the very creativity used to keep boredom away.”
In other words, boredom can be an energizing creative opportunity to evaluate and move forward. The rabbis who were sitting in shul unable to focus, nevertheless continued going to shul and their greatness lies in their collective attempts to help us find communal prayer more meaningful. Sitting at the Shabbat table for long meals can indeed be trying at times, but it also can be a time for bonding with family or for getting lost in oneself in the company of family and friends. Long Shabbat afternoons with “nothing to do” can force one to confront oneself and ingrain the value of getting away from electronic friends and supports for a while.
Indeed, the challenge may be especially great on Shabbat since the day can be so long, and there is only so much time a child can be expected to entertain themselves. Consider the following request from one reader. I hereby invite other readers to send in their suggestions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org:
“We live in a small frum community and my 13-year-old boy is bored on Shabbos/Yontiff. He is athletic and does not like to read. Often there are only 1 or 2 or no friends in town. He does not like game boards either.”
Is this one of those cases where you let your child fend for himself and get used to entertaining himself and ultimately find his own connection to the mitzvah or is it one of those times for us to jump in lest it backfire? For, on the one hand, when our kids tell us that they are bored with some aspect of Judaism, our initial response need not be panic but neither should it automatically be letting them off the hook; sometimes they just need to figure it out for themselves. On the other hand, we can tell them that we all have moments like that, we can try to help them see the meaning and the beauty that we ourselves see, and we can try to help them out by suggesting ways to find their own personal meaning in the ritual. Of course, when to stand back and when to get involved is a judgement call, for as we all know, parenting is as much art as it is science. But, like all parenting, religious parenting is something that must be reflective, proactive and deliberate. Our children’s souls depend on it.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.