Gutter Language

With such a headline, one might expect this article to be about politics. After all, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are accusing each other of all types of horrible things. Politics today is gutter language. In truth, however, this article has nothing to do with politics, though its message certainly also applies to politicians and all those in the political swamp.

The message that I want to outline in this article is one that I wish to share with chareidim ledvar Hashem. What was the inspiration for this message? A game of bowling.

Over the summer, I went away with my family for a few days. One of the days was hot, humid and rainy, so where did we go? Bowling. I have found bowling to be a great, low-pressure family activity that bonds everyone. Another perk was that due to Covid-19, the bowling alley was virtually empty. There was only one other bowler there. (Yes, bowling with a mask can be challenging…)

When we walked in, the proprietor took one look at our family and said, “You are going to need two lanes. One lane should be for the older bowlers and the other for the younger children. I will put up the bumper,” he concluded.

For those unfamiliar, a “bumper” is a gutter protector. Since many young bowlers are not adept at accurately aiming a large, heavy bowling ball, more often than not, their shots go into the gutter. Bumpers work as shields to ensure that when the ball is about to go into the gutter, it bumps off the shield and is back in play. I am not sure if it was the intention of the person who designed the bumper, but to me, the message is that in today’s times, if a young child would have to deal with the trauma of having most of his shots become gutter balls, his sense of self-esteem might become so damaged and eroded that he might possibly suffer unimaginable lifelong damage to his psyche.

(As a child, I did a fair amount of bowling, and I don’t remember such a thing as bumpers. Actually, the fact that we initially bowled countless gutter balls spurred us to perfect our game and learn how to aim properly. The best way to become good at something is to first make mistakes and learn from them. But what do I know? I may just be too old and lacking sufficient sensitivity to understand the fragility of today’s youth and the lifelong trauma that multiple gutter balls can cause to a young sensitive soul.)

Rejoicing in a Strike…A Bumper Ball Strike!

I watched my young children bowl. I saw how, when they rolled a ball down the lane, it often repeatedly hit the bumper as it went down. Then, as a result of the impact with the bumper, the ball went back to the middle of the lane and, amazingly, scored a strike. You should have seen the satisfied look on the child’s face as he pumped his hand in the air with a type of victory sign. He was so proud of himself. As for me, I thought to myself, “Look how happy he is with that strike, which was really a gutter ball and should have been a zero…”

I watched this happen with a few other kids as well. They exulted in their “talent” and their high scores, showing off how good they were, while I knew that if there hadn’t been a bumper there, their scores would have been in the 20s, not in the 80s.

Are We Also a Bunch of Bumper Bowlers?

I pointed out this interesting insight into a human being’s assessment of self to some of my older children, saying, “Look at how these kids are really proud of themselves. They really think that they are great, but, in truth, they have such a long way to go until they can even be considered average bowlers.”

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks.

The thought was so scary, so powerful, that it took my breath away.

Are we not all the same? Why was I so smug when watching the false pride shown by my children when I and so many others are exactly the same?

We all have talents. We all have things that we naturally excel at and that make us feel pretty good about ourselves. Let’s say that Hashem endowed Ploni with an excellent brain. He chaps the Gemara the first time and often thinks of the question that Tosafos asks before it is even asked.

She has the best, neatest and clearest notes, and all the girls in the class hover around, wanting to borrow them.

He is the best kid in sports and everyone wants to be his friend.

He writes for a newspaper, and when people come over and say that they appreciate his articles, he modestly acknowledges their praise, but inside, he feels smug, perhaps even a bit arrogant.

He is a k’nock of a maggid shiur and all the talmidim spend hours each night reviewing his shiur and coming to talk to him in learning. He just loves it when they refer to him as “rebbi” in the third person.

She is a wise woman, whose talmidos often consult her about shidduchim. She has such a presence and makes sure that you recognize it.

What about the wealthy man who inherited money or was given a tremendous amount of money by a parent to start a business? He might walk around pompously, but really everything was given to him on a silver platter.

All these talents are bumpers. Yes, some of them were greatly enhanced by hard work, but for most of us, the core talent was given to us by Hashem. Does that make us better? Should that make us feel superior?

In truth, anyone who feels that he or she is somehow better than others is not dissimilar to the child who exults in the strike that he got despite the fact that the ball hit the bumper on the way down.

Using Our Talents to Score a Real Strike, Not a Bumper Strike

So, if we are good at something, what should we be thinking? Should we beat ourselves up, thinking that we are all a bunch of arrogant baalei gaavah? No, that is certainly not what Hashem wants us to think. Why not? Because if we beat up on ourselves, we won’t be able to utilize our talents in His service.

He does, however, want us to understand that if He gave us those talents, He gave them to us to use for the good, to help others bring honor to His name, not to our name.

Hashem wants us to do whatever we can to help others with the talents He has given us and realize that helping others is not us doing a favor for others. Rather, it is our tafkid. It is the reason He gave us those talents. He did not give us those talents to be arrogant and think that we are superior because of those talents. Rather, He gave us those talents because we have an obligation to use them and bring kavod to His name and help His people.

Perhaps this is the depth of the words that we will be saying shortly in Selichos: “Kedalim ukeroshim dofaknu delosecha – Like poor and destitute people we are knocking on Your door.” Why? Because that is the truth. Our talents were only given to us by Him. Really, we have nothing on our own. We are poor and destitute and, on the Yom Hadin, the day of absolute truth, we beg Hashem to have rachmanus on us, because even what we do have and what we have accomplished are all a “bumper” – only because He gave us a bumper and made us look like we are scoring strikes and spares when, in truth, without Him we are just a bunch of gutter bowlers…