I was walking down the street last Shabbos when I saw, or rather heard, something strange.
A funeral cortege was making its slow way down the avenue, each car with its hazard lights blinking in a slow, reverent tempo and a sticker on the windshield identifying it as part of the procession. As one does at such times, I felt instantly solemn, less caught up than I’d been a moment before in whatever trivial thoughts had been occupying my mind. I wondered about the deceased person, and how the drivers of those many slow-moving cars felt about their loss. There’s nothing like being forced to confront the great, sweeping issues of life and death to, at least temporarily, make you focus on the important things.
Suddenly, about midway through the procession, I heard something that didn’t fit: the thump and melody of Latino music. Loud Latino music. In disbelief, I realized that it was coming from one of the funeral vehicles, a pickup with its windows wide open to let the song blare out. The discordance between the solemnity of the occasion and the blasting music was disconcerting, to say the least. It was also, in my humble opinion, highly disrespectful both to the deceased person, his loved ones, and the setting as a whole.
A few cars down, there came a second pickup, with the same wide-open windows and similar music set at a similarly ear-splitting decibel level. Again, the dissonance struck me forcibly. Those two drivers probably had a habit of blasting their music whenever they drove their vehicles. The fact that they were part of a funeral procession did not deter them from doing the same thing that day. They were in the mood for music; never mind that music was wildly inappropriate for the occasion. They certainly didn’t!
I tried to get into the heads of those drivers. Okay, the thinking might have gone, somebody I know has died. He (or she) wasn’t especially close to me. I’ve sat through a long funeral service but I’m behind the wheel of my vehicle now, king of my own little world. And I feel like listening to music! Issues of respect and appropriateness had zero bearing on that decision.
When an individual or a society allows itself to be dictated by mood rather than what is fitting or right, you’re going to get this kind of thing.
From our earliest days, we let our moods dictate our behavior. “I’m not in the mood” will cancel a proposed activity; “I’m in the mood” promotes it. When mood clashes with context, we struggle.
Like those funeral drivers who did not have a funeral mindset, we can find our mood at odds with the setting or circumstance. Worrying about our yom tov menus when we’re supposed to be transported to spiritual heights during davening. Feeling sluggish and uninspired when listening to a passionate shiur. Having the urge to chat and giggle during a shivah call.
Our moods stem from our emotions. Like untrained children, they carelessly defy logic and thumb their noses at responsibility. It’s the job of our minds to remind our emotions to behave themselves.
Listening to the news in my car recently, I heard with horror about a shooting that took place in a public parking lot. Apparently, a young man who happened to be carrying a gun ran into someone he was angry at. One thing led to another, and the situation ended with a bullet that took a man’s life.
The shooter did not plan to meet his nemesis in the parking lot that day. Presumably, the encounter was coincidental and the subsequent violence unpremeditated. It was the impulse of the moment. An impulse with catastrophic consequences.
How often do we give in to impulse, wreaking small but significant havoc in our own lives? Shooting a gun may be more dramatic than shooting off one’s mouth, but the two fall into the same dangerous category: a negative impulse that’s given free rein.
Twenty times a day, I feel an impulse to do, or say, or think something that does not fit the moment, or the situation, or my value system. Twenty times a day, my mind has to gently nudge the impulse out of the way. To live a morally committed life, as a human being and especially as a Jew, we are called upon to contend constantly with a writhing nest of snakes: our moods, mindsets and impulses. It isn’t always easy.
That parking lot shooter nurtured a mindset which classified the other guy as “the enemy” and therefore, at least on a subconscious level, worthy of being shot. Having such a mindset made it easy for any spark of controversy to flare into an inferno of rage. When the moment came and the mood was right, he let the momentarily impulse carry him… all the way to a very long prison sentence.
A certain nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and author whom I’ll call David Polsky (not his real name), while not strictly observant, harbors a deep respect for Judaism. One of the things he respects most about it can be gleaned from a story he likes to tell about himself as a Jewish day-school student many years ago.
One afternoon, the rebbi announced to the class that it was time to daven Mincha. Young David didn’t feel like stopping what he was doing to address his Creator. “I’m not in the mood for Mincha,” he protested.
Dead silence fell. “David Polsky is not in the mood for Mincha,” the rebbi repeated slowly. He fixed the boy with a steely eye. “So what? It’s time to daven!”
Judaism is based on a system of divinely given laws, and those laws bind us with certain obligations. We wouldn’t tell a police officer about to hand us a ticket for speeding that we weren’t in the mood to drive within the speed limit, would we? We all recognize the absolute irrelevance of mood in navigating the daily routines of life in a civilized society. So why should we allow our mood or impulse of the moment separate us even an iota from the mindset or spiritual obligation that any given moment demands?
The answer, of course, is that we shouldn’t. And yet, sadly, we so often do. That’s because, as Raban Yochanan ben Zakkai lamented on his deathbed, we are more afraid of the human consequences of our actions than we are of displeasing Hashem Himself. Totally illogical, right?
Going along with our mood means living strictly in the moment, with no thought of the possible consequences of our actions. Like the shooter in the parking lot, we see, we feel, we pull the trigger. In a world where mood and impulse reign, going with the flow of emotion makes perfect sense. But who wants to live in such a world?
This is the time of the year when we pause in the busy rush of our affairs to think about such things. To recalibrate our values and remember our priorities. It’s a time to reassert the mastery of our minds over our fickle emotions, which dictate our equally changeable and sometimes destructive moods.
By doing that, we’ll be giving ourselves the very best tool for earning a good judgement on the awesome Day of Judgment. Something that I wish with all my heart for each and every one of us!