Replacing Small Talk with Big Talk

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, January 29, 2016

Why is it that it takes such a long time to develop meaningful conversations with people – not just strangers, but co-workers, casual acquaintances, and people you see regularly, for instance at synagogue?

In a recent NYTimes article, the author asks: “Why can’t we replace small talk with big talk and ask each other profound questions right from the start? Replace mindless chatter about commuting times with a conversation about our weightiest beliefs and most potent fears? Questions that reveal who we are and where we want to go?” (read the article here)

We can easily spend ten minutes chatting with another person about the weather, the latest sports scores, or the difficult commute into the city, and walk away with no more real insight into what is going on in her life, or what he feels passionate about.

I believe that synagogue life is about Jewish journeys, and it should be a place where we can have those deeper conversations. Yes, it’s okay to chat with the person sitting next to you at services, or in a committee meeting, about the weather, or how the Leafs are doing this season. Yes, and there is also more. Being part of a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community, means we are here to discover the wisdom of Jewish tradition as we become more personally engaged, and help one another to grow. Ultimately, being part of a kehillah kedoshah is about building community, learning and flourishing on the path of Torah, and supporting one another on that journey. Synagogue life is a place where we can share who we are, know that who we are matters, and find meaning and purpose.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: Often when I ask someone why they’ve become synagogue members I get a few standard answers: “for the religious school”, “because I want my son to have a bar mitzvah”, “I needed somewhere to say Kaddish”. If we don’t look below the surface, this is all that our connections may become, a transactional relationship. Hardly anyone ever answers “because I want to grow as a Jew”, “because I want to find a different way of living”, “because I need to be in a place where others are questioning and seeking answers to repair the brokenness in our world.” But here’s the secret: If we replace the small talk with big talk the profound answers begin to emerge from underneath the surface answers. Even though we don’t often articulate it, the profound answers are there, because we want to practice a different way of living, both inside the synagogue, and then carry that beyond the walls of the synagogue into the outside world.

Being part of a kehillah kedoshah is about teaching our kids, and learning for ourselves, what we want the world to be. It’s about gaining the skills to do Jewish, and building relationships, and embodying the core values of Jewish tradition, and having conversations with God and about God. That is transformational Judaism. And that is why we are here. And when we engage in the wisdom of tradition and the rhythms of Jewish life that teach us not only how to live in here but out there, we are transformed and ultimately find a deeper and more meaningful way to live.

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