I've been a terrible friend recently, hardly staying in touch and meeting up only occassionally. Once of the things that I have been struggling with recently has been the simple matter of small talk. Whilst it took me some time in my early 20's to overcome my incredible shyness and develop some ability to converse in a normal fashion with my fellow human beings - I now seem to be going in to the other direction. Perhaps it's just that I am more conscious of the passing of the years, perhaps having small children has taken much of my time and energy.
Anyway, the reason for all this negative self-analysis is partially inspired by the extract copied below. It's made me ponder that perhaps my reluctance to engage much in small talk may be driven by something greater. Then again perhaps I am just anti-social by nature.
“WORLDMASK” by Rabbi Akiva Tatz
Extract form Chapter 10 “Speech, Prophecy, and Wasting Words”
Perhaps we can now begin to understand the severity of sins of speech in Torah. Speech is the basic tool of Creation and revelation, as we have noted, and the ability to speak is the hallmark of the human. Misuse of this central gift is particularly devastating – the first sin ever committed was brought about by improper speech: the serpent’s devious words to the unsuspecting Chava (Eve). In that immoral and treacherous temptation lay all the danger that misused speech can hold.
There is an aspect of the misuse of speech which needs special study: wasting words. There is a particular problem in wasting words, even when the words spoken are not false or intrinsically sinful. In general, this is part of the problem of wasting any human resource: any time or effort wasted in a human life is wastage of that life itself and therefore a very serious matter. But wasted words, d’varim b’telim, are particularly problematic.
A lie presents a false picture of that which is hidden within, it betrays the inner dimension. D’varim b’telim, wasted and meaningless words, present a picture of that which has no inner dimension, and this is no less a betrayal. Words are given in order to reveal meaning, to clothe a deeper reality; empty nonsense betrays the very fact that there is a depth at all.
The Vilna Gaon states that the consequence of wasted words is a particular suffering in the next world: kaf ha’ela, the “cup of the slingshot”; a neshama which must endure that particular suffering as a result of wasting words experiences the sensation of being flung from one place to another, but before arriving at the destination is flung yet again in another direction and so on. The Gaon says that for every empty statement a person must be flung from one end of the world to the other. There is an experience of constant travelling towards a goal, but never arriving – this is the reality generated by a life which used the tools of human growth for nothing other than their own sake, a life which moved through the world but wasted its creative energies.
Such a life consists of talking constantly but not saying anything; the version of such a life which is reflected in the next world, the world of reality, is the experience of moving but not arriving. To speak and create is to live in the Divine image; to speak without creating is to negate that image.
The world is full of empty words. The nature of modern media is such that there is virtually no limit to the amount of words which are spewed out constantly, and our society is inundated with talk. But it seems that the more words are poured out, the less meaning they convey. We have plenty of words, but very little communication.
One of the mysteries of the sin of wasting words is why it feels so good: why do people relish spending hours talking nonsense? It is a particular feature of human interaction that there is intense pleasure in speaking to an acquaintance or in a group of people for long periods even when no important or relevant subject is discussed. People often get together for no purpose other than to chat. If one cares to analyse the flow of conversation one will find that the topics discussed range widely and wildly with almost no logical connection between them other than mere association of ideas – one topic leads to another, some detail of that topic suggests another topic, the discussion veers in that direction for a while, and so on. Very often one cannot even trace the course of the discussion or remember what was covered. And yet – the experience was thoroughly enjoyed by all.
It is sobering to note that a large proportion of human conversation, perhaps the major part, belongs to this category of idle and directionless speech. One has only to listen to a party of people relaxing over dinner or socializing in some other context to be struck by the random and irrelevant nature of the talk. And again, it is pleasurable. If nothing in the make-up of the psyche is accidental, why is this so?
In order to understand this phenomenon we shall have to study a particular depth of human motivation. The gemara states that Anshei Knesses Ha’gadola, the Men of the Great Assembly, annulled the human drive for idolatry. They reckoned that due to the relative descent of the generations in spiritual power, the ordeal provided by the temptation to idolatry was greater that the reward to be earned in overcoming it. Since it offered too dangerous a test, they decided to work for its obliteration, and they successfully exorcised it from the human psyche. From that time on, people do not have a natural and intrinsic drive to worship idols.
But the very act of abolishing the drive to idolatry also abolished prophecy. That generation was the last to experience prophecy; in fact, Chaggai, Zecharia and Malachi were the last three prophets and they were the members of that convocation of Sages and prophets. What is the connection between idolatry and prophecy? Why must they stand or fall together?
The answer is that both of these ideas relate to transcendence. The human mind and neshama long to transcend the bounds of the finite and physical, and essentially, such transcendence is possible. At a high enough level of human preparation and purity, prophecy is the result. In prophecy, the neshama breaks through into a transcendent realm, breaks through into a zone outside of the self and closer to that of the Creator, and the experience is of a magnitude that is impossible for us to understand.
But there is a false channel for transcendence, too. That is the idea of idolatry; the desire to annul the self in an experience of merging with a greater reality can be misdirected to idolatrous ends. Idolatry provides an opportunity for going beyond the self; it provides a sense of transcendence, but of course in a false and misguided way. In fact, in its impure heart, idolatry is really the worship of the self, but its guise is worship of that which is above.
Prophecy is a pathway, a channel, to reach above the self. Idolatry is a false pathway to reach above, a misguided application of the faculty of relating to that which is above the human realm. And that is why they both inhabit the same zone within human consciousness and motivation – the very pinnacle of the mind, the point at which consciousness can transcend into superconsciousness, is that faculty which is activated by prophecy and betrayed in idolatry.
And that is why they stand or fall together. If that most powerful drive, the drive to connect with the Divine in prophecy ,is removed, then the temptation to worship a false version of holiness is removed too. And the reason is that they are one and the same faculty in the mind. There is no intrinsic good or bad in the human form, only energies which are more or less powerful; good and bad lie solely in the application of those energies. If there is an energy directed at rising above the finite, at transcending, then that energy will be the stuff of prophecy, and of necessity it will be the stuff of the drive to idolatry. If prophecy goes, the temptation to idolatry will be deflated too.
What happened is that the organ, the faculty of the mind which is able to reach above itself has been excised, and all its functions must disappear as a result. If one removes an organ of the body surgically, all of its functions are lost – one cannot expect some functions of the liver to remain intact in the body if the liver has been removed, and similarly, when the Men of the Great Assembly removed the craving for idolatry from the human heart, they were simultaneously removing prophecy from the realm of human attainment. What was in fact removed was not idolatry or prophecy in themselves, but rather the mental and spiritual faculty which spawns them, when that faculty was removed, its functions disappeared.
Now the fascinating question is: when a part of the mind is thus weakened or removed, what remains in its place? And the answer i: nothing. But let us understand: we are discussing the highest faculty, the point of origin of the mind, the point of origin of consciousness. This point represents the highest point imaginable, the drive for reaching up, the drive for the ecstasy of bonding with the Creator. And when that point is emptied, what is left is a drive for nothing at all. The drive to move out and beyond has become a drive to be where one is and not to progress. The space remains, that area of the psyche remains , the drive remains; but instead of being geared to reaching up and on, it remains as a drive to be involved in movement which does not have to go anywhere. The pleasure of being able to transcend has become the pleasure of being in a place which is an end in itself. Talking about nothing, using the deepest and most creative of human faculties for nothing other than its own sake, is the result.
When the real transcendence of prophecy was possible, a sane individual would not have enjoyed talking nonsense, talking or working or moving without the achieved of tangible progress; nothing would have been more frustrating. But now we have a zone of emptiness where the zone of transition to a higher state once was, we enjoy simply using out tools of progress to go nowhere.