One Interesting Species, We Humans…

I had to laugh yesterday when I heard on the news that Senator Schumer had issued a public (and private) apology for an insult to a flight attendant that he had muttered under his breath. Evidently she had asked him to turn his cell phone off as the flight was about to take off, and he called her a word that I’d rather not repeat here. Welcome to the human race, I thought to myself. We all have our less than wonderful moments. The measure of who we are is how and whether we own up to them, not whether or not we have them.

Over the almost three decades of my rabbinate, I’ve done a lot of counseling. No two situations are the same, of course, but some trends do emerge.

One that has always fascinated me has been the “I thought I knew him/her” syndrome (at least that’s what I call it; I’m sure there’s a fancier name). In much more than a few instances, people who had been married for twenty, thirty, or even forty years confided in me that their spouse had done something so out of character, that took them so by surprise, that they really had to re-evaluate whether or not they really knew their spouse after all.

Of course, it’s not restricted to spouses or significant others. It’s also true about long-term friendships, and virtually every significant relationship that we might have. People are capable of showing different sides to us when we least expect it, sometimes for good, and sometimes not.

But, as Senator Schumer’s unhappy incident displayed, it’s not always long-term relationships that display this tendency.

I have also found it to be true that, as we approach the dead of winter (it’s pretty cold here in New York, and technically it’s not even winter yet!), people’s fuses get just a little bit shorter, their ability to suffer perceived insults or slights a little less than what we would wish for, and in general, we’re just not always as pleasant to ourselves and each other as all those Courier and Ives-type holiday commercials would have us believe. Psychologists call it seasonal affective disorder. Others just call it grumpiness.

And, of course, in the synagogue world, what begins as a issue between two or three people can all too easily morph into a communal issue, because we Jews do love to mix it up!

One lesson that I have learned over the years is the importance of getting away from it all from time to time. Clergy also have fuses, as do politicians and all people in the public eye. We are hardly exempt from the same capacity to act less than wonderfully on the odd occasion that everyone else experiences. It’s just about being human. It’s also about owning up to being human, and repairing the damage we do before it becomes something bigger, and much harder to repair.

There is nothing more restorative that taking yourself out of the familiar situation from time to time, whether it be for a day off, or better still, some time away. Sometimes, in my synagogue, I encourage people who are among the most active volunteers to “take a break.”

I surely don’t mean to stop being active; I’d never say that!

But I do think that it’s possible to get too involved in community, to the point where the line between who you are a person in your own right and what your place is in the community becomes blurred. That, potentially, is the beginning of the kind of heightened sensitivities that can lead to trouble. Sometimes people who love each other the most- like tight-knit community members and even friends and spouses- just need to take a step back and recharge their batteries.

It’s only human. And maybe the most human part of it is recognizing the need. We’re the only species that is reflective that way. It’s one of our finest qualities.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.