Tuesday, Jun 18, 2024

Two Uninspiring Speeches And A Lesson

A few months ago, over the span of a couple of days, I attended two events, one a yeshivishe, Litvishe event and the other decidedly chassidish. There was something about each one that left me with an uneasy feeling that I have been grappling with over the past weeks. I am still not totally certain that I can encapsulate the source of my unease, but I will try. Perhaps some of my feelings will resonate with the distinguished readers of this column. THE COMMON DENOMINATOR I happened to be sitting towards the back of the room at both events, with a good view of most of the crowd throughout the speeches. The attendees at each event exhibited exemplary decorum, sitting quietly throughout each speech. Nevertheless, in both cases, the faces of the participants were totally uninspired. I even noticed some people almost imperceptibly rolling their eyes as the speakers carried on.


At the yeshivishe event, one of the speakers was describing the optimum conduct of a kollel yungerman. He spoke about how his entire life should be totally devoted to complete immersion in limud haTorah and climbing the ladder of ruchniyus and avodas Hashem. He related stories about great talmidei chachomim who never even carried money with them; after all, what does a person whose entire life is ruchniyus need money for? He spoke about what a zechus it is for the wife of such a ben Torah and such a ben aliyah to facilitate his learning. He spoke about giants who didn’t even come home to help on Erev Shabbos, and whose wives were so pious that they deemed running the house, preparing Shabbos by themselves and doing all the bookkeeping to be their greatest zechus. These wives wanted nothing more than for their husbands to devote themselves totally to limud haTorah and aliyah ruchniyus.


Every single thing the speaker said was true. The stories were true and the message that a yungerman should have nothing else in his world aside from ruchniyus is also true. Why, then, I wondered, did the crowd, comprised primarily of kollel yungeleit to whom the message was directed, look so uninspired and even somewhat sullen during the speeches? Why did it seem like they were just waiting for the speech to end?


At the chassidishe event, the speaker discussed a great tzaddik whose yahrtzeit fell out on that day. He spoke about how the zechus of that tzaddik, who lived hundreds of years ago, would surely protect the gathered assemblage and, without a doubt, would be instrumental in helping every person in the crowd have a better connection with Hashem, hatzlachah in Torah and yiras Shomayim, and parnassah. The darshan was speaking so excitedly, and so eloquently, and with such animation, yet the people were sitting quietly, listening listlessly. It seemed like they were just waiting for him to get it over with, so that they could get on with life.


Once again, there was nothing objectionable with what he said. According to chassidus, the zechus of a tzaddik on his yahrtzeit is a special matter. This is certainly true for those who learn the tzaddik’s seforim and follow in his ways, hoping to have some connection to him and be protected by his merit. That being said, why was everyone so uninspired? Were his words not true?


Why, in both of the above cases, were the speeches met with such lethargy, such a feeling of “Okay. I know this. I have heard this before so many times. It does not inspire me anymore, if it ever did”?




Grappling with this question, the answer that came to mind was that, certainly, everything that was said is true, but, unfortunately, it is so far from where the vast majority of people are actually holding in life. We would all love to learn every second of the day – even the entire Erev Shabbos until not long before candle-lighting – but deep down we know that most of us are not capable of such a thing (nor are most wives capable of doing all Shabbos preparations alone). Yes, we all wish, and fervently daven, that we could have absolutely nothing on our minds but ruchniyus. We wish that food was totally unimportant to us and that we could eat absolutely anything put in front of us, because, of course, our only focus is aliyah ruchniyus. We wish that money meant absolutely nothing to us, and that the kind of car we drive really wouldn’t matter to us one bit, because only matters of spirit interest us. We wish that we could throw away our cell phones, because it is nothing but a distraction and, besides, we do have a home phone…




Those speeches, while true and while important in directing a ben Torah to strive for optimal greatness, are really so far removed from the practical life that all but a select few live. They thus cause one of two reactions. Either they get the yungerman – and his wife – depressed, because they realize how far they are from attaining anything close to such shleimus, or they begin to think that the rov, rosh yeshiva or maggid shiur delivering the speech is so out of touch with their world that he has no connection to them and the daily nisyonos hachaim that they must overcome.


Similarly, so many of today’s chassidishe yungeleit listen to a droshoh about a yahrtzeit and wonder, “What do these platitudes about how great that tzaddik was have to do with the very real nisyonos that I am facing today? Why can’t the speaker get up and give guidance on how to live in a world gone mad, in a world where one confronts spiritual challenge and temptation wherever one goes, in a world where one sometimes has no one in whom to confide because, wrongly or rightly, he thinks that his mentors or his rebbe are so holy, so far removed from his world and his daily struggles while interacting with the outside world and earning a parnassah, that he feels alone and bereft?”


Yes, he believes that the tzaddik’s zechus can help him and he really wants to connect with the approach to avodas Hashem espoused by the tzaddik in his seforim, but his own world is so far removed, and he needs so much hadrochoh on how to do that. Hearing about the tzaddik’s zechus protecting him doesn’t do it for him. In fact, it strengthens his sense of detachment from his spiritual mentors who are giving this kind of speech.


Another example is how, in certain circles, there is a tremendous emphasis placed on the scourge of Zionism. Certainly, the secular Zionists created a churban and continue to create one, but how does the constant focus on how terrible they are and how all of the problems of this long and bitter golus are because of them help a yungerman deal with the real life nisyonos that he currently faces? Can knowing how bad they are equip him to deal any better with his own yeitzer hora and the hurdles that he must overcome?


In a way, what this emphasis – albeit on things that are true – accomplishes is to strengthen one’s feelings of detachment from one’s leaders and inadvertently makes him feel, “They are not talking to me,” “They don’t understand my world,” or“This is not what I really need to enliven my parched neshomoh at this juncture…”




Sometimes, the solutions and the madreigos that were demanded from an elite population of bnei Torah or chassidim a couple of generations ago do not seem as relevant to a decidedly un-elite or at least very varied population of today.


When one constantly hears a message that is so far from where he is, that message may initially seem to be harmless. In fact, it may be a way of showing him what he should strive to become, but, in truth, due to the fact that the people listening become increasingly detached, it serves to distance him from the very mekor hachaim, the source of true life, that he so desperately needs.


Just some food for thought…



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