When I went to Aish way back in the summer of ’79 and was in the beginners program, there was a class billed as Tefillah – Prayer that purported to teach the ins and outs of the daily and Shabbat service. It was taught by a Rabbi Ackerman who might best be described as a religious version of Curly from the classical Three Stooges. Almost as zany but without the bruises from Moe. He was a very opinionated fellow and would spend most of the time giving us his views on life. In between his rants, he would show us when to bow, stand and sit and what we could skip in shul.
This was in the days before what I call the Artscrollification of Judaism with the advent of the Jewish publishing house, Artscroll that came along and made Judaism idiot-proof. Back then we used the very user-unfriendly Birnbaum Siddur created sometime after the Jews left Egypt and never updated since. Alas, we were left to needing the Rabbi Ackermans of the world to help us navigate the sometimes interminable and perplexing prayer services.
I don’t recall a whole lot from that class but there is one thing that Rabbi Ackerman would repeatedly say that has stuck with me ever since. He would mention that if you want to know what is true or what is genuine, then you need to do the opposite of what everyone else was doing. A simple avenue to truth and values was available in the reverse of what popular culture would find worthy.
If everybody believed that there was no such thing as truth, and that moral relativism was the ruling philosophy, then rest assured that indeed there was an absolute truth to be found. If the entire world was getting on Israel’s case as they are wont to do, then you know that the Jewish state is in the right. If most people thought that NFL football was the best sport on the planet, well then… oh never mind.
Long before Rabbi Ackerman, King Solomon offered us a similar idea but from a different angle. Solomon informs us that if we would not have Torah to guide us in life, we could take lessons from the natural world and the qualities of different creations. “Go and regard the ant you lazy one! See her ways and take counsel. Even though there is no officer nor guard nor ruler over her, she prepares her food in the summer and stores up her food in the harvest time.” (Proverbs 6:6ff) There is much wisdom to be had by observing the natural world and learning from it. In a similar vein there is much wisdom to be had by believing in and doing the exact opposite of what the masses do and think.
It’s a bit like Bizarro World in the Superman comics where everything is the opposite of our world. (Click here for a brief explanation from the Seinfeld episode “Bizarro Jerry”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LPIc5JIFwk). Or, to use another episode of Seinfeld, like the time where George discovers that he is much more successful if he does the opposite of what his initial intuition or habit would have him do.
So, for instance, if you see a list of the ten top television shows and discover that not only do you not watch any of them but that you aren’t even familiar with most of them, then you are in good shape. (Classic episodes of Seinfeld being the exception of course.) It is a good thing for your soul to be somewhat out of touch with popular culture. Not that one should be a hermit – but when you consider the usual trash coming out of Hollywood, as well as much of the music and fashion industries, it seems to be a never-ending effort to push the envelope of decency and values. Let’s face it, their job is to sell programs, clicks and advertising and they will often succumb to the lowest common denominator to achieve that. So why would you want to fill your soul with that garbage?
The more you find yourself out of touch with what the masses love, the better off you will be. McDonald’s, Apple, CNN, the UN, late night talk shows, Netflix Unorthodox, Dunkin Donuts – the more ubiquitous, the greater the chance it stinks. Stay far far away.
The holiday of Rosh HaShana is soon approaching. It is a time for us to examine our life, our behavior, our goals and our aspirations. We need to look inward and ask how much of our life is merely buying into the mishugas, the insanity of the masses and how much is truly good, uplifting and not merely an acceptance of what happens to be most readily and easily available. Junk-food for the soul that provides zero nutrition and meaning. We need to note what Maimonides called הבלי הזמן hevlai hazman – the vapid and meaningless trends that offer us no deep sense of worth but are merely passing fancies – here today and gone tomorrow.
And if you are ever in doubt about the real and ultimate worth of anything – do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. Become a Bizarro being. Because most of the time, if we follow the opposite of where popular culture tells us to go, we will end up heading in the right direction.
How bizarre, how bizarre
Ooh baby (Ooh baby)
It’s making me crazy (It’s making me crazy)
Every time I look around (Look around)
Every time I look around (Everytime I look around)
Every time I look around
It’s in my face