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The Guy in the Back

Whether you’re in the front of the shul or the back. Hashem doesn’t care, so neither should we


think the time is ripe to take a moment and give props to the man in the back of the shul. The quiet guy who comes on time for Shacharis, doesn’t talk during davening, isn’t the shul president, doesn’t get the third or sixth aliyah, isn’t on any board or committee, doesn’t have many friends — but is the most reliable and dependable member of the group.

Yes, that’s the guy who gets overlooked all too often by society at large, viewed by some as a “nobody” or a “recluse.” But that’s the guy I want in my corner when it’s all on the line, because he most likely provides the most core value and stability. The “introvert” might as well be called the “underrated.”

The first time I began to think about this topic was when one of my dear children was in first grade, and I got a call from his rebbi.

“I love this child, just like all your other children, but I’m very concerned about him,” he said. I nervously asked what bothered him. He said, “Scholastically he’s great, and his middos are wonderful. But he’s often alone during recess, while his peers are running around in a group game.”

That night, I began a concerted effort to push my child to join in the class fun during recess, and after some cajoling, he began to respond and became more involved. However, after I spent some time reflecting on this, I started to question my approach. Is it wrong for a child to be a quiet person, introverted, and shy? Is this really a flaw that needs to be “rectified”?

At around the same time, someone sent me an excerpt from a book called Quiet (by Susan Cain, also author of Quiet Power), which I thought addressed some really powerful points about this topic. I would like to share a couple of poignant highlights from it, and show how sourced it is in our Torah.

Introverts vs. Extroverts

Society today has a clear bias for extroverts and against introverts. If a child today is exhibiting more shy behavior than his or her peers, the school will recommend — sometimes even aggressively push — outside intervention. The problem needs to be fixed immediately, they claim, because the child isn’t playing with his friends at recess time.

But shyness and introversion — or more precisely, the careful, sensitive temperament from which both often spring — are not just normal. They are valuable.

Theoretically, shyness and a social anxiety disorder are easily distinguishable. But a blurry line divides the two. Imagine a person enjoys a steady paycheck, a strong marriage, and a small circle of close friends — a good life by most measures, except that he avoids seeking a promotion because he’s nervous about leading meetings.

What do you think now? Is he ill, or does he simply need public-speaking training? According to today’s mainstream society, that person would need professional help. However, in reality, he is a normal but shy person, an introvert.

But shyness and introversion share an undervalued status in a world that prizes extroversion. Today, group participation is thought to lead to better learning. Many adults work for organizations that assign work in teams, in offices without walls, for supervisors who value “people skills” above all. As a society, we prefer action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. Studies show that we rank fast and frequent talkers as more competent, likable, and even smarter than slow ones.

In an illustrative experiment, Professor David Sloan Wilson, a biologist, dropped metal traps into a pond of fish. The “extrovert” fish couldn’t help but investigate — and were immediately caught. But the “introvert” fish stayed back, making it impossible to capture them. Had Professor Wilson’s traps posed a real threat, only the “introverts” would have survived. Their “anxiety” about the trap would have saved their lives.

Next, Professor Wilson used fishing nets to catch both types of fish; when he carried them back to his lab, he noted that the “extrovert” fish quickly acclimated to their new environment and started eating a full five days earlier than their “introvert” brethren. In this situation, the “extroverts” were the likely survivors.

“There is no single best personality,” concluded Professor Wilson. “Both can be productive, and both have their weaknesses.”

And the same applies to humans.

The extroverts have fun, make friends, and will take risks, both rewarding and dangerous ones, as they grow. But extroverts are also more likely to be hospitalized as a result of an injury, and in general they have less loyalty. And car accidents are more likely to occur when extroverts are at the wheel.

In contrast, introverts are careful and astute, and tend to learn by observing instead of by acting. They notice more things in general. Introverts, who tend to digest information thoroughly, stay on task, and work accurately, earn disproportionate numbers of awards and intellectual accomplishments — even though their IQ scores are no higher than those of extroverts.

Another study tested 141 college students’ knowledge of 20 different subjects, from art to astronomy to statistics, and found that the introverts knew more than the extroverts about 19 subjects — presumably, the researchers concluded, because the more time people spend socializing, the less time they have for learning.

Another study showed that many of the most creative people in a range of fields are introverts who are more comfortable working in solitary conditions in which they can focus attention inward. Most successful inventors and engineers are shy and antisocial. Artists, as well, are known to work best alone. Not on a committee. Not on a team.

Introverts’ temperaments also confer more subtle advantages. Anxiety, it seems, can serve an important social purpose; for example, when caregivers rebuke them for acting up, they become anxious, and since anxiety is unpleasant, they tend to develop pro-social behaviors. Another advantage introverts bring to leadership is a willingness to listen to and implement other people’s ideas.

The bottom line: The act of treating shyness as an illness obscures the value of that temperament. Ridding people of social unease need not involve pathologizing their fundamental nature, but rather urging them to use its gifts.

Solitude in Yiddishkeit

Today we live in a “public relations society.” If you are famous in the secular world, you need to hire a publicity agent whose sole job is to ensure that his client’s name appears as often as possible in the news and in social media, to remain “relevant” in the eyes of the outside world.

By contrast, Yiddishkeit values solitude and privacy. In fact, some of the most pivotal moments in Jewish history were the ones that occurred in total solitude and isolation, away from the public eye.

The story of Akeidas Yitzchak, invoked in our tefillos during the most critical moments of our year, took place in absolute solitude. Avraham Avinu tells Yishmael and Eliezer to remain behind, and only then ascends Har Sinai with Yitzchak for this epic experience. The Mei’am Loez writes (based on a statement of Chazal) that the second attempt of Moshe Rabbeinu to give the Torah was successful and everlasting due to its private nature, whereas the first try, done with pomp and ceremony, was fleeting and short-lived.

Privacy and solitude are clearly important values in Yiddishkeit. The pasuk in Michah (6:8) advises, “v’hatzneia leches im Elokecha — walk humbly before Hashem.” The reason behind this is that tzniyus reflects the emphasis on internal features — the soul. When we put aside the noise and fanfare of the world around us, and we take some quiet time to focus inward, that is when we can access our inner spirituality — our tzelem Elokim. It is only with the value of calm, introverted time alone that we can really develop our neshamah.

This phenomenon also explains why some of our greatest leaders over the years have engaged in a practice called “hisbodedus,” soulful contemplation done in complete solitude. A person has the greatest opportunity to connect with his soul when he’s alone. When the Chozeh of Lublin was a child, he would seclude himself deep in the woods. His father, concerned, asked him about this habit.

He explained, “I go there to find Hashem.”

His father responded, “But don’t you know that Hashem is the same everywhere?”

“Hashem is the same,” said the boy, “but I’m not.”

Just Be Yourself

So, to sum up, who has more value: the guy in the back of the shul, or the president of the shul?

The answer lies in the following story. The great Rebbe Reb Zushe of Anipoli once said: “When I pass on and I come to Heaven, I might be asked, ‘Zushe, why were you not like Avraham?’

“For this, I will have a ready response. ‘Like Avraham? You appeared to him. You spoke to him. You never appeared or spoke to me!’

“They might then ask me, ‘Zushe, why were you not like Yitzchak?’

“Again, I will have a response: ‘You gave him the opportunity to offer himself to You at the Akeidah. You never offered me that type of test!’

“Then they’ll ask me, ‘Zushe why were you not like Yaakov?’

“My answer will be, ‘Yaakov fathered the 12 Shevatim. How could I possibly have been expected to be like Yaakov?’ ”

He said, “Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe, whoever — if I’m asked why I was not like one of them, I will always have an answer. There is only one question for which I will have no valid response: ‘Zushe, why were you not like Zushe?’ ”

Reb Zushe is teaching us that neither the introvert nor the extrovert is more valuable. Your value is in discovering who you are, your own personality, your own skillset, your own identity, and using it to its fullest in accomplishing your unique mission in the world. Whether you’re in the front of the shul or the back. Hashem doesn’t care, so neither should we.


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


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1009)

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