A Twice-Told Tale
“Tell me another story!” a drowsy child might beg his parent as the bedtime ritual winds down. But just as often, the child can be heard demanding, “Again!” Rather than hear a new tale, he wants his mother to repeat the same one. Again. And again. And again.
It’s tempting to make a sweeping statement about there being two kinds of people in the world: those who thrive on the stimulation of something new, and those who derive comfort from the tried and true. But I think that such a sweeping statement would be wrong. While any specific individual may be temperamentally disposed to be one way or the other, I think that there are seasons of our lives when we all crave one or the other.
There are times when the thrill of something new excites and energizes us… and other times, when we want to wrap the familiar around us like an old blanket.
Anyone who’s ever taught or cared for a child has seen both these things come into play as the child goes through his day.
Life offers youngsters a constant stream of new experiences and impressions. Things to look at, to play with, and to wonder about. Very early on, parents will hang colorful or musical mobiles over their infant’s crib to stimulate the child’s senses. Later, in the classroom, it becomes the teacher’s job to animate her students’ minds with new and unfamiliar ideas. Everywhere in between, the child’s own natural curiosity prompts him to investigate the unknown and to challenge himself to new feats, sometimes with precarious results.
But even the most exciting play group program will have a built-in naptime or quiet time. No one can live on a constant high. Everyone, at whatever age, needs at some point to stop, decompress, and wind down. That’s when we turn to our familiar comforts: a child’s favorite toy or blanket, a grown-up’s hot drink, magazine, or soak in the backyard sun.
Hashem created the world with an inbuilt “naptime,” eight or so hours of it during the period when our world is plunged in darkness. Along came electricity and blurred the lines between light and dark. As a result, it is all too easy to lose ourselves in never-ending stimulation and forget that we need some down time, too. An excitement junkie can go overboard in his quest for new and ever more hair-raising adventures, ever more challenging mountains to climb. Day or night he seeks out the new, the newer and the newest thrill.
The problem with craving endless stimulation is that, after a while, nothing seems quite so thrilling anymore… which prompts the jaded adventure-seeker to go out and search for something even more electrifying. I’m not talking only about high-risk thrills like skydiving. Some people are social junkies, always on the lookout for another conquest to add to their list of friends. Such friendships tend to be shallow and ultimately unrewarding, which hurls the social junkie headlong into his next quest, always hoping for the nirvana that true connection will bring.
What he doesn’t realize is that the paradise he longs for is not to be found, in enduring form, through short-term excitements. It is a reality that is built only through consistent, loving, and repetitive acts over a long period of time.
Boring or Comforting?
I know someone who, as a girl, reread her favorite book, Alice in Wonderland, so many times that she eventually lost count. I know someone else who loves to read in general, but whose greatest pleasure lies in rereading old, beloved favorites. What is the motivation behind reading again something they already know?
When you start a novel whose ending is hidden, suspense and tension are your constant companions. Suspense is stimulating, and therefore enjoyable. It keeps you turning the pages. Where’s the pleasure in rereading something whose ultimate outcome you already know? Can such an experience be fulfilling?
Surprisingly, the answer is a definite “yes.” The loss of that tingle of suspense is compensated for by the joy of anticipation. And what you lose in terms of the excitement of the unknown, you gain in terms of deeper understanding. The second (or third or fourth) time you read a good story, you start picking up all the sly hints and foreshadowings with which the author has seeded the tale.
You begin to notice things that you didn’t spot the first time around, the subtle comments by various characters that seem trivial but are actually laden with import. The unfolding of the characters’ relationship presents itself to your analysis in light of what you already know will happen at the end. As the tale progresses, you derive a delicious pleasure from knowing what’s coming. That pleasure is not based on suspense, but rather on familiarity. It’s like watching a family video and knowing exactly what’s around the corner.
Some might call these things boring. Others call it supremely comforting. Like that worn throw or blanket that you wrap around your shoulders when you need a quiet moment. Something whose look and feel and smell are as familiar as an old friend, just when an old friend is exactly what you need.
In that comforting familiarity, there is strength.
Hakadosh Boruch Hu established a calendar for us that includes both the soothing plateaus of repetitive familiarity, and the exciting highs of the unusual.
There are plenty of “ordinary” days, filled with the ordinary business of living and small, consistent acts of Divine worship. Our week is a steady climb to the peak of Shabbos, when our avodah peaks as well. Then, sprinkled throughout the year, come the major festivals to create an upheaval in our placid routines.
Building a sukkah, cleaning for Pesach, searching our souls in the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah—all of these stimulate us in a different way from the repetitive rituals of the rest of the year. We gain from them both. And there is no doubt that we need both.
I used to wonder what the benefit is in saying the same words of tefillah day after day. Wouldn’t it be better to innovate constantly in our relationship with our Creator? To offer that which is most creative and alive in our personalities rather than the same, familiar words that we said yesterday?
But that’s the whole point. Just as a marriage is built on an infinite number of repeated acts of kindness and consideration, our relationship with Hashem is built on a foundation of building blocks that don’t change. We build anew each day, an edifice that may look the same on the outside but is injected with fresh intention each time. The words may be the same, but the person saying them is a little older and a little different than he was the day before.
In the unchanging structure of our tefillos, we find room to pour in our unique selves, our needs and our hopes and our dreams.
There is comfort and strength in familiarity. We approach our King, who never changes, with words that don’t change. Our ancestors used these same words in their day, and our offspring will do the same in theirs.
In both the sacred and the mundane aspects of our lives, the new and exciting may make our hearts beat faster… but there is a great deal to be said for the oft-repeated prayer, the well-worn blanket around the shoulders, and the beloved twice-told tale!