When Torah is Boring, This is What We Can Do About It
In the final week of Halacha Shiur this year, I asked my talmidim for some feedback on which topics they enjoyed, what they felt they learned and what we could've done better.
One of the guys, with perhaps a little too much honesty, told me that he loved all of our discussions. He enjoyed our philosophical conversations, our side tangents and debates. But learning Halacha itself? “Rebbe, it's just a lot of rules. That's so boring.”
It's not a very Rabbinic thing to say, but I empathize with his sentiment. The truth is, there are many parts of Torah and Yiddishkeit that are boring. Though, we should note, boring is a relative emotion. We feel most bored when there is a more exciting alternative activity. The obligation to Daven the same text multiple times daily is boring; and it's made more so by the ever present draw of our screens. Yom Tov is boring, when compared flashy cruises and vacations, and learning Chumash is boring when compared with reading Harry Potter.
Rabbis, Teachers and parents are well aware of this truth: It's getting harder and harder to motivate people to do anything important, meaningful or productive in a world where sitting on a couch doing nothing is designed and engineered to be more exciting.
Our natural instinct here is to attempt to compete, and by all standards we are doing pretty well, all things considered. We prepare and produce exciting Torah programs and classes, leibedik musical Tefillah, and themed shiurim paired with food and drink. We'll try almost anything to enable a temporary escape from the reverie of an entertainment induced semi-coma.
All of this has worked with a modicum of success; a series of incentives that (hopefully) works its way up to more serious commitments.
But it's getting harder. Our attention spans are steadily shrinking as we doom-scroll through social media, and content creators and online algorithms are becoming ever more adept at tailoring our experience to ensure that we stay hooked on their platforms.
Long term, it's hard to imagine that learning Halacha will continue to compete – or even rank as exciting in the coming days and years.
Is there a way to solve the issue? I believe so. But it doesn't involve upping the ante of Torah excitement. Nor does it require draconian measures to withhold technology.
The simplest solution is to realize that to some extent, we've been going about this a little backwards. Sure, there is a purpose in learning and teaching in an enjoyable and engaging manner. Were it not for the love, attention, and excitement of our own teachers and Rabbeim, none of us would want to engage in Torah any further. But perhaps the greatest lesson that we've been failing to educate and practice is that boring is not bad. In many ways, “boring” is the point.
Our culture spends a lot of time promoting excellence, creativity and excitement; but in any endeavor, it's simple, boring competency that is far more accessible, useful and compelling.
In some ways, the single most valuable skill for living a meaningful life is the ability to stick with “boring”, rather than giving up. Consider the road to success in business, art, music, marriage or raising children. The vast majority of the things that we do to create the lives we wish to enjoy, are not exciting. Professional musicians play thousands of hours of chords and scales long before fame and fortune. Athletes drill repetitive skills for years, and Talmidei Chachamim study Halacha.
Rather than viewing boredom as something to cure, perhaps we should be teaching it, encouraging it and practicing it as a skill-set to learn. This is not simply to force people into embracing suffering – far from it. When we focus all of our attention on ensuring that Torah is interesting and exciting, we miss out on developing the skills necessary for competency. There are many teens and adults caught in this trap: Their enjoyment and excitement has resulted in a deep love of Torah, but they cannot make sense of a text independently. Many people love davening, but struggle to navigate through the siddur or the machzor unaided. It's a profoundly frustrating place to be.
But it's not all about dry skills. Sure, embracing the boring is the only way to gain competency and expertise, but paradoxically, it's also the surest way to achieve creativity and meaning.
This point is made clear in the our parsha in the most unambiguous manner: Almost without parallel, parshas Naso is the most repetitive and “boring” parsha in Chumash. On each of the days of the inauguration of the Mishkan, a different Nasi, a Prince, from a different tribe brought their contribution. Each one literally identical to the day before. But rather than listing the gifts of the Nesi'im as “this is what they each brought,” the Torah copies-and-pastes the same paragraph twelve times. Aside from the names of the Nasi and tribe, there is no difference at all in the text.
This seemingly unnecessary repetition is discussed by the Medrashim and Rishonim. The Ramban explains:
כי לכל אחד מהנשיאים עלה במחשבה להביא חנוכה למזבח ושתהיה בזה השיעור Each of the Nesiim brought their offering with a different thought and idea.
Each of them brought exactly the same thing – but their thoughts were quite different.
The Medrash Rabba offers an incredible array of intentions for each part of the gifts. Consider the pasuk: כַּף אַחַת עֲשָׂרָה זָהָב – “one gold ladle of ten golden shekelim.”
Yehuda, the lineage of royalty, brought this gift to symbolize the ten generations from Peretz until David, who were all tzadikim: Ten people in one category. Yissachar who championed the study of Torah thought of the כף (which also means a “hand”) as the “Hand” of Hashem writing the Ten Commandments. Zevulun, the sea-faring tradesmen imbued their gift with thoughts of נהרות ימחאו כף – the rivers clapping their hands (תהילים צ״ח:ח) in awesome celebration of the Presence of Hashem. Reuven's כף harkened back to his moment of bravery; when he saved Yosef's life by telling his brothers “Don't lay a hand on him.”
The Medrash continues in this fashion, and explains each and every detail of each of the gifts.
Rav Simcha Zissel Broide (שם דרך נשא, הביורים יא) writes that the fundamental, underlying principle of the Medrash and the Ramban is that the same act, with a different intention is, in fact, a completely different action: “כל המעשה נחשב מעשה אחר, והמעשים הם כשתי מצוות נפרדות”.
In other words, when the action is identical and boring, the meaning and significance is generated by the person, and not the action alone. Perhaps the highest forms of creativity are found within the limitations rather than by attempting to escape them.
To the casual reader of the Pesukim, the Parsha seems exceedingly repetitive. But to the Nasi and tribe that was actually there, bringing that offering to the Mishkan on their designated day; nothing could be more elevated, exciting or creative. It's the feeling of creating a brand new dish from the same ingredients.
This is the secret sauce to a meaningful existence: Most of life is as boring and as limiting as a blank canvas. But it is specifically from within the boring confines of a blank canvas that the greatest creativity, beauty and purpose arises.
Halacha might well be boring from the outside. But learning it, practicing it, and embracing it is effectively building the foundation upon which we move from being consumers of Jewish life to being producers. Within the confines of rules, restrictions and laws we are obligated to achieve competency, and invited to experience and enjoy creativity.
This is out great Tefillah for the Shabbos after Kabblas HaTorah: ותן חלקנו בתורתך – that Hashem should help each one of us to find our unique place in His Torah.