Updated: May 20, 2020
I had the occasion to attend a synagogue in NY for evening services a few years ago, and walked out with an eye-opening lesson. As the rabbi was five minutes into his speech, I began hearing a subtle rumble. The rumble quickly got louder, and I looked around to see what was going on. I noticed that everyone else in attendance seemed to be completely calm, so I too ignored it. Suddenly it got much louder, and the rabbi stopped speaking. Again I looked around at a room full of people who were completely silent and unfazed. After a few seconds of rattling windows and loud noise, I realized that the noise was from a train and that the rabbi and congregation in perfect sync created a 20 second break to allow it to pass. As the rumble faded in the distance, the rabbi seamlessly returned to his lecture and the congregation focused their attention as if nothing had happened. The lesson for me? We can get used to anything. Something as annoying as the roar of an (almost) overhead train can become normal for us to the point that it does not faze us at all.
In truth, this human nature is a gift that we all use all the time to get over difficulty. If we did not grow desensitized to the sorrow of losing a loved one, we could never get back to regular life. If every week of COVID-19 quarantine was as unnerving as the first, we could never find new ways to be happy, fulfilled, and productive while living in this strange reality.
This human nature also creates a major challenge for each of us. The things that we cherish and value the most become less exciting and compelling for us over time. Specifically, our sages teach us that it can play out in the area of Torah learning. The Mishna in Ethics of The Fathers (1:4) exhorts us to “drink the words of our Sages (ie, the Torah) with thirst.” It seems that we are being taught two lessons. The first lesson is that although we may know how valuable Torah is, our exposure to it can cause us to be desensitized to its value. The second lesson is that we can overcome that desensitization and once again be enamored by the study of Torah.
Let’s take a moment to unpack each of those lessons. Ask yourself the following question: why don’t I spend more time and effort studying Torah? Is the subject matter unimportant or am I desensitized to its importance? If the answer is the latter (and you can probably guess that I believe it is), what can I do to refocus and once again appreciate its importance? How can I become “thirsty” for Torah? It would not surprise me if the answer to the last question is different for every reader, and I would love to hear your perspective and strategy.
I know that if I was the rabbi in that synagogue I would get desensitized to and unfazed by that train. Our Sages are teaching us that if i don’t stay on top of my game, I could even be desensitized to and unfazed by the Torah I was teaching.