During my first year in the Rabbinate, an experienced colleague gave me some wise advice. Quoting that famous Jewish sage, Woody Allen, he told me that “showing up is 80% of life”. Actually, he underestimated the percentage. For a Rabbi, 99% of life is showing up: Brises, shivas, meetings, etc.. Remarkably, it isn’t that important what I actually do at these events, as long as I show up. Perhaps it’s because many people feel it isn’t a religious event without a Rabbi (a notion more Catholic than Jewish). Or it may be the magic factor; some people actually believe a Rabbi’s presence brings luck, as if the Rabbi were some sort of two legged amulet.
The mindless appearance is not the exclusive domain of Rabbis. Politicians have to be visible, performing the unremarkable tasks of shaking hands and hugging babies (In this regard, Rabbis are a sort of religious politician as well). Celebrities, in order to remain celebrities, have to stay in the public eye, waving blankly to the paparazzi. However, in actuality the mindless appearance is significant for everyone, famous or unknown.
Talk is overrated . Our society assumes that every encounter requires nonstop conversation, otherwise things are “awkward”. (Think of how you feel when you’re in the elevator with a stranger). This feeling is not universal. Robert Levine in A Geography of Time describes his experiences in India, where during visits people “drop by one another’s homes, only to sit and remain silent, sometimes ....for hours.....”. When Levine asked his friends whether they considered the moments of silence uncomfortable, they couldn’t understand why he would consider silence awkward.
The West is obsessed with verbal interactions. In India, the company counts for more than the conversation; simply sitting together is a worthwhile pursuit. Personally, my sympathies are with the Indians. Companionship in its own right is valuable; as the Talmud says “it is better to sit as two than to sit alone”.
No, I don’t look down on the profound, intimate conversation. But conversation is not the only route to friendship. Sitting together satisfies our existential need for companionship. When Adam in the Garden of Eden is searching for a companion, he isn’t looking for banter or insights or a soulmate; he just doesn’t want to be alone. He is waiting for another person to show up.
People often feel uncomfortable going to shivas. They feel they have nothing to say, and think it’s pointless to go and sit quietly. The truth is, there is nothing to say; but visiting is a gesture of concern that is more eloquent than anything one could say. Showing up is all that matters.
Showing up requires no skill, yet is immeasurably meaningful. Thank God it’s 80% of life.