Channeling the Personalities of the Jewish Holidays
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
September 26, 2013
(I am indebted to Rabbi Joshua Heller and Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove for introducing me to Susan Cain’s book Quiet and drawing key connections between the book and Jewish life in prior sermons.)
There’s a story of a yeshiva high school that wanted to boost its sports profile. They thought it would be good for recruitment and fundraising. The school was near a river, so they figured they would start a crew team. Unfortunately, they lost every race. One day, they sent one of the students to spy on another school’s team. The student came back to report: “I know their secret! They have eight guys rowing and just one guy yelling.”
We see in this story a certain stereotype of Jews that suggests each one of us wants to be a big shot. When we get together, we are boisterous and assertive, and we actively seek out such opportunities. However, this is not always the case. Jews are as likely as anyone else to favor traits that require good listening skills, patience and quiet. Let me ask you some questions.
Do you prefer one-on-one conversations or group activities?
Do you prefer to express yourself in writing or orally?
Do you enjoy solitude or crowds?
When your phone rings, do you prefer to send it to voicemail, or answer it right away?
Are you risk averse, or a risk-taker?
Do you feel drained after a weekend of social activities even if you enjoyed them, or do you feel recharged?
If you answered yes to the first half of each choice, you are more likely to be introverted. If you answered yes to the second half you are more likely to be extroverted.
There’s a compelling book that has been on the New York Times best seller list for over a year called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. The author, Susan Cain, a self-proclaimed introvert, offers an in-depth analysis of different personality traits. She asserts that modern Western culture, particularly in America, tends to favor extroverts, particularly over the last century. In the early 1900s, Dale Carnegie started his course “How to Make Friends and Influence People.” That reflected a trend then that has only deepened since in which Americans tend to favor style over substance. In other words, our society puts more value in extroverts. Cain argues that this trend has largely been to our nation’s detriment. She illustrates how introverts and extroverts each have essential strengths and that society benefits when they work together.
Cain notes that the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was enriched by both Martin Luther King, Jr. AND Rosa Parks. Dr. King, an extrovert, was the grandiloquent spokesman. Parks, was a quiet, soft-spoken woman who was not one to make waves except when she felt compelled to act as a matter of principle. She was an introvert. The Montgomery bus boycott and the subsequent civil rights movement succeeded in large measure because Parks and King’s personality traits complemented each other so well. Each was essential to the success of the larger cause.
Cain cites scientific research that shows how extroverted and introverted personality traits are hard-wired into people. An introvert can be perfectly outgoing and extrovert can listen and do quiet activities like reading. However, an extrovert derives energy from being in contact with other people, while an introvert derives energy from quiet and from inner contemplation. Neither personality trait is inherently better than the other, but she cites examples showing that our society has suffered by over-emphasizing the virtue of extroversion. As a case in point, the financial meltdown of 2007-2008 she notes was the result of reckless decisions of highly extroverted executives. Over the last few years, it was found that more introverted analysts working at many of the financial institutions issued warnings of the problems with such things as mortgage-backed securities years before the meltdown, but they were ignored by their high-rolling superiors. Their voices were snuffed out. Our entire economy suffered from this lack of balance.
Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret (Thursday, September 26), together remind us of the need for balance. After a week of festivity during Sukkot, the rabbis in the Midrash understood the Torah’s word atzeret to convey stopping or delaying. “‘I have stopped (atzarti) you, from leaving,’ [says God]. [It can be likened to] a king invited his children to a banquet lasting many days. At the banquet’s conclusion when it came time for the children to leave he said, ‘My children! I beg of you, delay your departure by one more day. It is difficult for me to take leave of you.'” As long as the fall holiday season has been, let’s let it linger a little bit longer, our tradition tells us. Up until now, it’s been a big, brash party. Let’s take a quiet moment, one on one.
In another midrash, the sacrifices of the seven days of Sukkot done in Temple times were in honor of the 70 nation of the world. On Shemini Atzeret, just one bullock is sacrificed, symbolizing the relationship of God and Israel. It’s as if throughout Sukkot, God is “working the room” of a big party at which all the nations of the world are guests. At the end though, God wants to have a quiet, intimate conversation with Israel.
For me, the Midrashim suggest that the relative calm and simplicity of Shemini Atzeret is a necessary complement — perhaps, even, a corrective — to the pomp and circumstance of the surrounding holidays. On the High Holidays, the synagogue is like a grand concert hall in which the sound of the shofar pierces our hearts. On Sukkot we have the pageantry of the lulav and etrog and the multi-sensory ritual of dwelling in a Sukkah. Shemini Atzeret lacks the grandeur and ritual of the preceding holidays. The revelry of Simhat Torah we delay another day. The message of Shemini Atzeret is that God is not to be found only in the peak moments of petition and celebration. These serve as catalysts for intimacy with the divine in daily life, not as substitutes for that closeness. Shemini Atzeret reminds me that God seeks my presence as I seek God’s. God needs some one on one time, and so do we. Shemini Atzeret reminds us that the opportunity for a more intimate encounter with God exists every day of the year, with or without a shofar, sukkah, or lulav and etrog. It seems from all of this that God has both an extroverted side as well as an introverted side. An extrovert might thrive in a party with a room full of people, while an introvert would prefer having a more subdued conversation with one other person. The midrash provides an image God requiring both settings.
Within the Torah itself, we find models of both introverts and extroverts. On Simhat Torah we read the end of the Torah, including the death of Moses. Moses is the Torah’s introvert par excellence. Yet, his brother Aaron was an extrovert. They needed each other and complemented each other just like Dr. King and Rosa Parks did in more recent times.
As a younger man, Moses was perfectly comfortable spending 40 years tending sheep- (a solitary activity). When God comes to Moses, he refuses a public role. He says “Lo Ish Devarim anochi”- I’m not a man of words. I’m a stutterer. I’m a back-office guy. In the end, God has Aaron serve as Moses’s mouthpiece to take on the public role. Moses grows into the public role of leadership, but the high points of his life are still relatively solitary. He goes up Mount Sinai for 40 days, just him and God. He is often separated from his family. According to many rabbinic commentaries to Numbers 12:1, when Aaron and Miriam speak against him regarding the “Cushite Woman”- they are saying that he is so enwrapped in holy activities that he is neglecting his wife and family. They can’t let him be. Moses would not be regarded by others as the “life of the party.” Rather, God singles out Moses for praise as the most humble of people.
In contrast, Aaron is the classic extrovert. When Moses is coming back to Egypt, the proactive Aaron is already on the road to meet him. Throughout the encounters with Pharaoh, Aaron is the mouthpiece. Once they reach the desert, when the Israelites want to make an idol, Aaron is there, swayed by the crowd, and facilitates the making of the golden calf. The midrash tells us that Aaron was ohev shalom v’rodef shalom, he loved peace and pursued it. He was aggressive and proactive in social situations. When two people fought, Aaron would go and sit with one and say “My son! See your friend, see how he tears his heart and his clothes, and says ‘how can I stand to see my friend- I’m embarrassed before him because I was unkind to him.'” And he would sit with him until the anger passed. And he would go sit with the other, and say the same thing and sit with him until the anger passed. The two rivals would meet, and they would kiss and make up. Aaron was able to approach people he barely knew and touch them deeply.
What is fascinating about both Moses and Aaron, not only do they complement each other, but they also each find ways to step out of their comfort zones to do great things. For Moses, the man who said “I am not a man of words” – lo ish devarim anochi–wrote an entire book of the Torah called, Devarim—words. It is essentially a series of major speeches Moses delivers to the people on the banks of the Jordan River. We complete that book tomorrow. Conversely, Aaron the High Priest was a highly public figure. He brought many offerings, he wore many types of garments. He washed many times. All eyes were upon him. However, on Yom Kippur, his most important task was in privacy, in solitude, entering the holy of holies, alone.
We should each cherish our essential nature, as introverts and as extroverts. At the same time, let’s recognize that Jewish practice enables us both to live comfortably in our nature, and to feed and stretch the other aspects of the soul. Our tradition bids us at times to make an effort and step out of our comfort zone and go against our type.
As we gather for Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret at the end of this extensive holiday season, we recall our departed loved ones who loved us unconditionally regardless of, or perhaps because of, our personality type. We honor their memory today by reflecting on their being present for us. In some cases, we might express regret that at times they might not have been present enough for us or that we were not present enough for them. If we are lucky, they challenged us to step out of our comfort zones while at the same time remaining true to our essential character. We honor their memory today by resolving to do the same in our present relationships—be true to ourselves while pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones for the sake of strengthening our relationships.
As we pause to reflect on our relationships today, we realize that being in relationship is complex. Only God can manage to perfectly balance introversion traits and extroversion traits. Some people, like Moses and Aaron, can find ways to complement their respective strengths, but we know that even they experienced tension with each other at times. Still, our tradition, calls upon us to imitate God to the best of our ability in order to bring God’s presence into our lives and the lives of others. On Shemini Atzeret, we think about God seeking to linger in our presence because God needs quiet intimacy as much as grand pageantry. Shemini Atzeret reminds us that God and Israel are like a pair of loved ones who seek both intimacy and mutual growth. May the memory of our departed loved ones inspire us to be present for one another, to validate others as we were validated and to challenge one another towards meaningful growth.