Parents, teachers, and assorted adults dread no word more than the B word: boring. It is the most prominent complaint that young people offer about the world.
But, what precisely is boredom? The Jewish educator, Erica Brown, taught:
Boredom can be identified or characterized by a range of emotions and behaviors, from a profound inability to find purposefulness or meaning in existence to a simple lack of interest in one’s environment caused by an absence of stimulation. Boredom might describe the feelings of a corporate executive who sits at his desk without interesting tasks and questions his choice of profession, or it can describe the seemingly endless expanse of time on a Sunday afternoon experienced by a seven-year-old with nothing to do (I know—I have one). Boredom counts as its synonyms tedium, dulling numbness, passivity, inactivity, and lassitude.
Some years ago, I became friendly with someone who wrote a history of boredom, which I learned about over a long (and un-boring) lunch.
She taught me that apparently, no one was ever bored until the eighteenth century. According to the Oxford Universal Dictionary, the word bore – “to weary by tedious conversation or by failure to interest” — did not even exist until 1768. The word “boredom” — the state of being bored — did not exist as a concept until 1852.
Let’s look at the ancient history of boredom. No one was ever bored in the Hebrew Bible, with the possible exception of the royal author of the book of Ecclesiastes, which we read during this festival of Sukkot. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” he writes, and continues on to state that all of his pursuit of wealth and knowledge turned out to be, frankly, meh.
What about in the rest of ancient Jewish literature? No one is ever bored, with the possible exception of the inhabitants of the legendary city of Luz. This was a Shangri-la of the rabbinic imagination, a place that barred its gates to the Angel of Death — but, says the Talmud, when the old people in it grow weary of living, they would simply go outside its wall and die.
Death by boredom.
Ancient Christians knew about boredom — except, they called it acedia, one of the ancient deadly sins — otherwise known as sloth, the sin of spiritual lethargy.
If you are looking for the quintessential modern malady, I would nominate boredom.
- We have more leisure time that ever before. Leisure time simply did not exist until the Renaissance. When people have more time on their hands, they find that they cannot possibly fill it only with the scintillating. That breeds boredom.
- We have emphasized individualism. After the Enlightenment taught people about the joys of individualism, it went on to trumpet the inalienable rights of the individual. I do not think that it is an accident that the concepts of boredom and the rights of the individual were both born in the eighteenth century. The Industrial Revolution and the growth of free market capitalism taught us how to seek endless pleasure. Americans constantly search for the new and the untried. It is the by-product of rampant individualism.
Jews are bored as well, and it is a frequent complaint about our institutions.
- “Religious school is so boring!” If only lesson plans were more exciting! If only the teachers were more motivating! If only the material was more relevant!
Sadly, such complainers are frequently correct.
But, note what happens when we change all those factors. Young people are still bored. Why?
Boredom is associated with two emotions — anger and numbness. Our young people may be bored because they know the truth — what we are teaching has little relevance to their family lives. Sensing this, they become angry — or, failing this, they stifle their emotions and they shut down. Hence, numbness. Hence, boredom.
- “Worship services are boring!” The same tunes, the same words, the same themes. I knew of a Reform congregation that made sure that there would be a new creative service every Friday night. Written on Wednesday; compiled on Thursday; printed Friday morning; worshiped from on Friday evening; repeat cycle, every week. Why? As a congregational leader said: “Because people want something new every week. If not, it will get boring.”
The sages who created Jewish liturgy, over a period of centuries, understood this problem. They understood the tension between prayers that were fixed, and those that were invented anew.
Eventually, they resolved the tension by finally committing the liturgy to writing, and thus to posterity. But, there would also be ample time for worshipers to silently add their own thoughts and feelings to the worship experience.
There is something to be said for honest, disciplined repetition of a liturgy. It’s like rock music; I don’t expect to hear the B-side of “Abbey Road” anew each time I listen to it.
Or, better: It’s like Shakespeare. I might have seen “Hamlet” four times, but a particularly new production might reveal something to me that I had never quite seen or understood before.
Similarly, if we bring new meaning into the words of worship every time we pray, it does not get stale. People who pray every day do not get bored. People who study the same passages of Torah, year in and year out, do not get bored. People who search for meaning do not get bored.
Again, Erica Brown:
Boredom assumes the right or expectation to be entertained or stimulated by the world around us. Parents, teachers, and managers are expected to provide a stimulating environment for others that minimizes boredom; this expectation sets up the individual in charge of “excitement” for failure and assumes an incredible personal burden of responsibility for the inner landscape of someone else.
If we seek entertainment and glitz, many places do that better than the synagogue. When a religious institution performs according to entertainment standards, it rapidly becomes trivial. Triviality is far worse than boredom.
Finally, we Jews must critique this culture of boredom.
The poet John Berryman wrote:
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) Even to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources. I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
If we are bored, it is because our inner resources are impoverished.
Jews conquered the threat of boredom through the bracha, the blessing. If you say a blessing over the most common and mundane facets of existence, you are saying that God creates the world every day, and that there is always something for which to be grateful.
Gratitude destroys attitude. God left this world in an unfinished state so that we could conquer our own boredom and find a genuine sense of mission in life — to repair it, to redeem it, and therefore redeem ourselves from the pitiful prison of ennui.
In the words of the Israeli poet, Leah Goldberg, as translated by Pnina Peli, included in the Reform siddur “Mishkan T’filah:”
…Teach my lips a blessing, a hymn of praise,
as each morning and night
You renew Your days,
lest my day be today as the one before;
lest routine set my ways.
Unexamined routine — the killer of the spirit.
Finally, I have noticed something about Israel. In all of my more than fifty trips to Israel, and in spending time with Israelis, I have never once heard any of them complain about being bored. Never.
It is not only the constant threat of war that prevents boredom; it is the ubiquitous sense of national purpose.
Some years ago, I heard my teacher, the late Professor Eugene B. Borowitz, quote the words of what he had said was an ancient prayer. I have never found it, but I trust in my departed mentor that he was not simply making it up.
“May God save us from the dissipation of our spiritual energies.”
And, may you never get bored.