Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

Extremes and Apathy

“Stay tuned to the storm center for the latest update. You don't want to miss a minute and risk getting stuck or worse, so keep your dial tuned for minute by minute updates…” I am sure that most readers have heard such announcements or a variation thereof. Every time more than two inches of snow or rain is predicted, the news outlets go berserk. They breathlessly tell us that this storm might be one of the worst the area has seen. There may be flooding, high winds and blizzard conditions. We have heard the whole song and dance. Often, the “blizzard” ends up being no more than a dusting and the “thunderstorm” nothing to write home about.

As for me, I don’t even pay attention to those reports. I realize that the outlets, in an attempt to increase their ratings, are willing to play with our emotions and scare us unnecessarily. Sadly, when there is a real storm, I am not prepared either, but that is the price one pays for being fooled and being pointlessly put on high alert by umpteen false alarms.




A while back, I read a thought from a conservative commentator which dovetailed with my thoughts about the constant stream of “impending storms.” He was discussing his frustrations with the choices of what some members of the Republican Party had chosen to focus their energy on. He related that just like a person has only a certain amount of physical energy until he tires, a person also has a finite amount of emotional energy before he tires, and once his emotional energy is sapped, he just “turns off the switch” and becomes jaded.


The commentator went one step further, though, stating something that is important for us to internalize. He said that just like the individual has only a finite amount of emotional energy to expend, so too, the public, the tzibbur, has only a finite amount of emotional energy to expend. If you keep on riling them up about one issue, they may respond in kind, but other important issues, perhaps even more important issues, will fall by the wayside, unaddressed, because their emotional energy has been spent. He was referring to the tendency of some in the Republican Party to expend extensive emotional energy focusing on several social/moral issues at the expense of defense, foreign policy and economic issues. But Republican politics is not the subject of our discussion.




This lesson is about the finite amount of emotional energy that a tzibbur possesses and the fact that after a certain point, both the individual and the tzibbur simply become jaded. That is an important lesson that perhaps should be better studied and understood by the many well-intentioned people who desire to promote “pet” mitzvos or discourage certain transgressions.


There are so many mitzvos that need promoting and there are numerous issues that need improvement. Nevertheless, one of the greatest forms of bal tashchis is putting too much focus on things that, in the larger scheme, are relatively small, thus sapping the emotional energy of the community and rendering them deaf or indifferent to more important issues. Bal tashchis of emotion is also bal tashchis.




There is a lot of confusion out there. People are so swayed by emotional stories that, often, a story or an appeal advocating a hiddur in a certain area, or the fulfillment of a neglected mitzvah or an appeal for a tzedakah, gets bumped up to the top due to hype and vested interests, leaving no emotional energy and funds for things that are far more important.


There are so many needy people out there, and there are tzedakah campaigns that tug at your heartstrings, but that does not necessarily mean that this is where most or even any of one’s money should go. Thinking Jews should consult with a rov or a posek on this issue the same way they consult with a rov or a posek about any other issue.


Perhaps most importantly, we are constantly being bombarded by those advocating for certain mitzvos that we should be doing and, even more so, by admonitions regarding aveiros that we are transgressing. It is pivotal not to overhype things that are less important, because if one does, then, ultimately, something else will invariably be neglected. A person and a tzibbur have a finite amount of emotional energy.


So many examples of this come to mind, but I hesitate to cite them and enter that minefield for fear of offending well-intentioned mitzvah doers and mezakei horabbim who will not understand where I am coming from and may take my words as an attack. Let’s also be clear: This column addresses issues and trends, not specific individuals or specific events.


The rule of thumb must be that just because an emotional appeal is made, a massive asifa is called, and ads shouting “chov kodesh” are plastered all over does not necessarily mean that those issues are your number-one priority. Every person and every family should have a spiritual leader whom they consult about prioritizing mitzvos, undertaking new hiddurim, tzedakah giving, getting involved in askonus, and so much more. Just because it is a great mitzvah doesn’t mean that you or your family is holding by doing it.


I have no particular event, person or organization in mind. Rather, this is an appeal to be levelheaded, to constantly strive to grow in Yiddishkeit, but not to foolishly focus on things that are of less importance and thus lose those that are of prime importance.




As we approach Kabbolas HaTorah, the following vort comes to mind. We know that Hashem approached all of the nations and asked if they would accept the Torah. Each one questioned, “What does it say in the Torah?” We know that Hashem told each nation something that was against its very nature. He told Eisav, “You can’t kill,” so Eisav declined. The same was done for all the nations. The question is: What did he tell the bnei Yisroel that went against their nature?


The simple answer is that the Jews accepted the Torah right away and thus never opened themselves up to such a question. The Avnei Neizer, however, says that Hashem did indeed give the Bnei Yisroel a commandment that contradicted their innate nature. He gave them the mitzvah of hagbolah, commanding them to stand at the foot of the mountain and not come close. The nature of a Yid is to try to come close to kedushah, breaking the boundaries and going up the mountain to be closer to Hashem. The Bnei Yisroel overcame that innate desire and, with great restraint, remained behind the boundary.


Klal Yisroel is amazing. We want to become better. It is in our collective DNA to want to become closer to kedushah. The Jewish people are receptive to calls for spiritual improvement. At the same time, we must understand that sometimes we are enjoined to engage in hagbolah, not jumping at every new thing because someone told us breathlessly that it is what we must do.


The key is to say, “Na’aseh venishma, but at the same time know – or find out – whether it is time for hagbolah too.



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