Question & Answer With Chabakuk Elisha - A Wandering Mind
A Simple Jew asks:
Whether it is the minhag to recite the entire Sefer Tehillim on Shabbos Mevorchim or the minhag to stay awake all night on Shavous and recite the Tikkun Leil Shavuos, it is inevitable that a person's mind will wander far from the words he is reciting for large segments of time. In your opinion would it be better for such a person to simply make use of an equivalent amount of time and learn the Torah he desires to learn, or do you think he would be bypassing the tikkunim he would accomplish by following by these minhagim?
Chabakuk Elisha answers:
First, let me tell you that I struggle with this question as well. That said, there are different elements that we all need in our relationship with G-d and Yiddishkeit. We need elements that are intellectually fulfilling and elements that are emotionally fulfilling – and by the same token we need elements that are emotionally selfless and we also need elements that are intellectually selfless. We need it all.
All of these things exist in Yiddishkeit. Minhag – tradition – is extremely important. I dare say that without it, Judaism is lost. I find that it is specifically through mesora, through individual minhagim, we are able to maintain and continue the Torah's legacy throughout the ages with flavor and meaning. At the same time, if we are off-balance, i.e. too much of one of the four elements above, we will feel something is wrong. Should we feel that something IS wrong, we need to evaluate it, and ascertain whether or not our motives are (reasonably) pure.
I, for example, do not have an easy time with Tehilim or Tikkun leil Shavuos. I'm bored stiff, and I find that it's a burden that I get very little out of – but I also know that my motives are impure. I'm lazy. I like to sleep. I know that getting up early to say Tehilim isn't my favorite pastime, and if I'm going to get up I'd rather get up to learn – but I think that specifically because saying the entire Tehilim once a month isn't stimulating is actually a good reason to do it. It's not for fun and it doesn't boost my ego – I don't get even the slightest bit smarter from it. But I do connect with who knows how many Jews who do it, and have done it, for who knows how many hundreds of years. That in itself gives it extreme merit.
Nevertheless, I think that things change somewhat in different circumstances. For example, I know that in today's day and age there are many Jews that struggle with reading Hebrew quickly – as do I – and what was once more manageable may be less so today. I wouldn't tell someone who is new to Hebrew that he should say the entire Tehilim, and certainly not the entire Tikkun – it's a burn-out and not practical. I knew a fellow that didn't eat bread for a couple years because bentching was too long for him to read – I don't think that's ideal at all. So we need to understand ourselves and our realities. We should speak with our Rov, or close friends about it. But personally, I try to say the Tehilim every Shabbos mevorchim (and I often don't finish it), and I have spent many a Shavuos night learning with a chavrusa instead of saying tikkun… but I should be better with these minhagim than I am, I am far – very far – from where I should be.