| Voice in the Crowd |

Winners and Losers

We’ve created the perfect setup, so why aren’t we winning?


mail released an update again, ruining a good thing.

If you manage work relationships and communications by e-mail, you probably don’t want updates every six months; you just want to do your work with the format and style you’ve grown comfortable with.

Among the great favors they’ve done is to create an auto-response suggestion, so that if someone e-mails you, for example, that “Your order is ready to be picked up,” and you hit reply, Gmail will helpfully offer ready options like “Thank you so much” “I’m on the way” and “Will come get it.” I spent a long morning, during which I should have been working, testing the new feature, trying to figure out which keywords in the incoming e-mail generated the suggested response, then trying to beat the system. (But look, I’m using this info for this column, so it was work after all!)

Along with it being another nail in the coffin of genuine personal interaction, in which Human A identifies an emotion and expresses it to Human B, there’s an inherent insult in this new feature (called Smart Reply, by the way), an implication that Gmail users can’t figure out how to convey a simple “Sounds good,” or “Let’s meet” without their help.

It’s not baseball season and this isn’t a sports column, or even a publication that would include a sports column, but maybe you heard that the Houston Astros cheated to win the 2017 World Series, using sophisticated technology and also very unsophisticated means, transmitting messages by banging on trash cans to steal signs from the opposing team. The batters knew which pitches were coming, and they were ready.

Major League Baseball punished the administration and leadership of the team, but not the players — even though most of them took part in the scandal. There were many explanations for this, but here’s one more, a pshat I don’t think anyone else has suggested.

The players are the biggest victims. They were already punished so badly.

When a coach tells his players, “We will be cheating to give ourselves an advantage,” what he’s really saying is, “Your talent, drive, and work ethic aren’t enough to win games.”

It’s the ultimate insult, and every single player who received that message, who was told again and again that he could never win if he didn’t buy in to the cheating scheme, was humiliated.

These are people who wanted to play baseball, to compete, to fight back, to persevere, and all that was denied them: They won, but they lost.


The Astros are on my mind because of a conversation I had at a simchah with a sweet Jew, a real uncle-of-the-chassan type seated next to me at a Shabbos sheva brachos. We were chatting, when, in the corner of the room, five figures suddenly rose and took choir formation. Then this perfect group of smooth-voiced young chassidim standing in a semicircle launched into a medley that somehow combined Bobov, Vizhnitz, a little Shlomo, and Ishay Ribo in a single stream.

I saw pain in the uncle’s pinkish, lined face.

“I used to sing Kah Ribbon at simchahs,” he said simply. “That was my job.”

Meaning, before it became the style to hire, hire, hire away, to pay people to sing zemiros for you (yes, of course I understand that the groups add simchah and genuine atmosphere, this isn’t about them but about us), to outsource every single part of every single thing, a simchah was time for the uncles/shvoggers/neighbors to shine.

At that seudah, I learned that “Uncle Duvid, you don’t have to exert yourself, we have singers to do Kah Ribbon” is an insult.

My friend Reb Yossel Rappaport once commented that he’s not a fan of those special “yaknehaz” candles that hit the kosher stores before a Shabbos that segues directly into Yom Tov. The candles are cleverly created to avert the risk of violating Yom Tov during the combined Havdalah and Kiddush — they’re made of wicks fused together so they self-extinguish, sparing you the worry of transgressing an issur that can often happen when moving apart two typical candles. The yaknehaz candle is a nice innovation, Reb Yossel said, but once upon a time, every family had that dexterous, nimble-fingered brother who could make a homemade version perfectly.

Now, when will he get to shine?

Like the Astros, we want to win, and end up losing. More productivity, more atmosphere, a smarter, better way — for nothing. Moichel toivos, e-mail response-inventor: Maybe my answers weren’t as perfect as yours, but they were real. Maybe the uncle krechtzed too many times during Kah Ribbon and maybe he switched keys suddenly and you grimaced, but it was real and beautiful and pure. We haven’t won anything.

And if I’m doing this, one more — then we’re done. Don’t ask rabbanim to speak at events or simchahs and then complain if they go over the allotted 11 or 14 minutes and if they don’t make the requisite joke and tell a story, the way you’d like them to.

Again, we’ve become so focused on winning — we finish on time! We keep the program exciting, the clip went viral — that we’ve exchanged the old uncle’s song for the sleek choir, opting for the soaring rhetoric and oratorical flourish of professional speakers and then expecting the rabbanim who we turn to for life advice and guidance on where to hang the mezuzah to learn those tricks as well.

They don’t know about projecting their voice, but they do know about real. That’s their brand.

I was at a recent event where they had a little digital timer under the microphone facing the speaker, so that he knew precisely how many minutes and seconds he had left to speak. Guess what? Besides the fact that it didn’t work (not even close), it’s also not fair, because that’s not what they do.

Instead of asking three rabbanim to speak for precisely eight minutes each, ask two, or one, and let him do his thing; the others will understand and appreciate it when it’s their turn. Some of our greatest gedolim were weak speakers, but the organizers and baalei simchah who asked them to share divrei brachah made a calculated decision: It’s hard to run a dinner celebrating kevod haTorah, or raise a bar mitzvah bochur to appreciate Torah, if you yourself can’t sit tight for another five minutes while a talmid chacham shtells tzu one more Ramban.

Now, blessed as we are with so many talented professionals, we expect them all to fall into place. We want to win, so we replaced authenticity with efficiency, the rambling derashah with the perfect, precise dinner speech.

So why doesn’t it feel like we’re winning?

 Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 796. Yisroel Besser may be contacted directly at besser@mishpacha.com

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