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The Art of Boredom

Chazal in Pirkei Avos warn against the dangers of boredom, and how it can bring a person down


Yes, it’s that time of year again. Montreal — along with many other cities, I assume — is about to become a ghost town. The school year ends, and life stops completely. The shuls begin to empty out, the shiurim all take a break, and there’s suddenly tons of parking space. The summer break — lasting over two full months — has officially begun. An overwhelming majority of the population leaves the city to spend summer in the country.

For the first few years that we lived in the community, as part of a kollel that continues the zeman until Tishah B’Av, I felt that life was somewhat depressing for those brave enough to stay in town during the summer months. The vibrancy and energy that permeate the city during the rest of the year is suddenly gone, and societal pressure pushes you to leave. The destination doesn’t even matter, as long as it’s not somewhere you call “home.”

At some point, though, you begin to truly appreciate the quiet of summertime “in town.” The ability to learn and daven with an internal focus, the joy of spending quality time with your young children, the space to develop one’s inner self.

But now, as my children are growing older (I know, “older” is all relative…) and we try to keep them content and satisfied during this extended break, I have a new goal this summer. Teaching my children how to cope, and better, how to thrive, when they are in a state of boredom.

When school ends, our instinctive reaction is to pile as much structure as possible onto our children’s schedule. We arrange chavrusas to learn with them, we try to fill every hour of their day, and we try to maintain the overall feeling of discipline they developed over the course of the year. That’s certainly valuable and something to be encouraged. But my focus this year is on teaching them how to succeed during the “down-time.”

One of the most frustrating things a parent can hear from his child is “I’m bored.”

Chazal in Pirkei Avos warn against the dangers of boredom, and how it can bring a person down. They teach us that boredom brings one to depression, isolation, and troubled behavior.

But in today’s day and age, we have created a lifestyle that conditions us to easily feel “bored.” We have so many gadgets and technologies designed to stimulate our children, and keep them engaged and enthralled, that after the computer screen or other entertainment has been paused, the child struggles to properly function. If he is under-stimulated, he will complain, fight with his siblings, act out, or do something else out of line to fill the gaping hole caused by this dreaded empty time.

So what’s the antidote to this challenge of boredom? How can we learn to use empty time in a healthy way, rather than falling into the pit of unstructured inactivity?

Rav Miller’s Life Lessons

My avodah for my family this summer is for us to inject a healthy dose of Rav Avigdor Miller’s life lessons into our home. They offer the ultimate cure for boredom. The idea here is to learn to appreciate the simple, trivial things in life. The sun shining. The birds chirping. Having gratitude to Hashem for the awe-inspiring beauties of daily life. It is about thriving and growing from our state of boredom. I quote one of the well-known passages of Rav Avigdor Miller’s lessons (Toras Avigdor):

According to Chovos Halevavos (Sha’ar Habechinah), one of the primary functions of life is to study the world around us, so that we recognize the wisdom of Hashem and the kindness of Hashem.

When you eat an orange, you should look at it and say, “Why is it that the outside of the peel is so beautifully colored, while the underside of the peel has no color? Why doesn’t it happen that some oranges by accident are beautifully golden-colored on the inside of the peel and on the outside they’re plain, without any color?”

It never happens, however. Always, the beautiful color is on the outside.

The purpose of this is to attract people. The color makes you more interested in eating them. It advertises that it’s ripe. You see a wonderful thing here; it’s the hand of Hashem — the chochmas Hashem, the wisdom of Hashem, and the chesed  of Hashem, the kindness of Hashem.

It’s a greater pleasure to eat an orange that’s brightly colored than an orange that has no color at all. Suppose all oranges looked like potatoes, or all apples looked like potatoes. You might not want to eat them. So HaKadosh Baruch Hu made fruit beautifully colored, so that they attract your attention and so that you enjoy them more.

But potatoes? HaKadosh Baruch Hu didn’t color potatoes, because if potatoes were beautifully colored, you might eat them raw and become sick. So potatoes are a bland, plain color, so that you’ll be patient and take the time to cook them. But apples have a beautiful color, which means, “Eat me immediately. I’m ready for you to enjoy.”

That is an example of looking at the world around you and seeing Hashem everywhere. That’s one of our most important functions in this world.

Chochmah U’Mussar writes that merely reciting birchos hashachar in the morning with the proper intention can instill an incredible appreciation of Hashem.

Before we say each brachah, we should consider carefully what exactly we are about to thank Hashem for, and then contemplate how best to appreciate it. For example, one of the brachos is Pokeiach ivrim — that Hashem gives eyesight to the blind. On a simple level, we are saying that when we go to sleep, we cannot see, and each day when we wake up, Hashem restores our ability to see. But on a deeper level, we should imagine being blind, and then learning that doctors discovered a treatment that could cure blindness. How much joy would a blind person experience at finally being able to see?

That is the precise amount of appreciation that we should have every single day, because nothing is a given. And just because a person has something today doesn’t mean he’ll necessarily have it tomorrow. It is only because of the kindness of Hashem that we are able to enjoy the blessings He gives us every day.

Look no further than your own hands and you’ll marvel at the arrangement of the joints on your fingers. The way your fingers bend, the way they lock around an object to give you a firm grasp, the way they allow you to hold a pen and write neatly. Imagine living without opposable thumbs. How would we function?

So now we see how much there is to appreciate in the wonderful world Hashem has bestowed upon us. But how, in a practical sense, can this help us learn to combat the dangers of “boredom”? When my nine-year old son tells me tomorrow that he is just “so bored,” do I simply tell him to grab an apple and appreciate its attractive color, and hope that the issue resolves itself?

The Value of Just Being

We have been conditioned, as a society, to be very accomplishment-focused. We respect those who have the most important jobs, who have done the most klal work, who have contributed the most to society. This is generally something positive, for it instills in us an internal urge to strive for greatness.

The other side of this coin is that we may feel empty — and “bored” — when we are not accomplishing. However, if we study and then apply the lessons of Rav Avigdor Miller, we learn to live with a new perspective.

We can teach ourselves — and our families — that taking a pause from all the rush of today’s world is an accomplishment in and of itself, because it affords us the golden opportunity to thrive and grow by appreciating Hashem’s simple yet wondrous gifts in our daily life. When we take a break from running and stand in place for a moment, we begin to appreciate the scenery along the path to success. That is when we can begin to bond with the Creator of all that is around us. That is how we master the “art” of boredom.

So how do we implement the lesson of Rav Miller on a practical level?

We can start by making this summer about spending quality time doing simple yet meaningful activities with our children. Having the children take a hike, play in the backyard, visit the park, and be surrounded by nature. Family time based on the magic of simplicity. Using Rav Miller and his creative methodology to rediscover the mundane can help show us the way and transform our relationship with Hashem’s nature.

This summer, with our heightened appreciation of the “mundane” wonders of life, we will learn to master the art of boredom. We will show ourselves, and our children, that yes, there is nothing exciting happening right now. Yes, we can feel under-stimulated at this moment. But if we challenge ourselves to take this quiet time and focus on what we usually overlook, this period of boredom will generate energy that lasts a lifetime.


Rabbi Aryeh Kerzner is the rav of Agudas Yisrael of Montreal and a noted posek and popular speaker. Many of his shiurim and speeches are available online. He is the author of the sefer Halachah at Home, published by ArtScroll/Mesorah.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1019)

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