Friday, January 02, 2004

Finding Your Inner Nudnik

Every so often people call me with the following request: “I’m giving a speech tomorrow; can you help me find something to say?”. Often they’re nervous, perhaps with pre-speech jitters. But I also imagine that like me, they find the notion of “saying something” to be intimidating.

I know it’s difficult to believe that any Rabbi could be at a loss for words. Yet each time I speak, I’m apprehensive. I worry that the jokes won’t be funny, the stories won’t inspire, the speech will flop. Much of sermonizing, no matter how high minded the topic, is entertainment. And like any entertainer, I’m never sure the crowd will like my performance.

My anxieties aside, the truth is that public speaking is easy. We all have something to say, we’re just too polite to say it. It’s our inner Canadian, the part of us too timid to offend, that stops our most impassioned thoughts from taking flight. We worry if we talk too often about our enthusiasms people might mistake us for fanatics. So we suppress deeply felt beliefs because we’re afraid of being nudniks.

Unlike entertainers, nudniks are often unpopular. Jeremiah and Moses nearly lose their lives for repeating their message over and over again. The few who challenge the consensus usually end up as social outcasts. But at the least, nudniks have something to say, a genuine, heartfelt message.

Over the years, I’ve seen previously mild mannered people transform into nudniks. One Rabbi, because of the Rabin assassination, now works tirelessly on inter-Jewish dialogue. A mother of a disabled girl now crusades on behalf of disabled children. In response to the intifada, a housewife now orchestrates a powerful grassroots lobby for Israel. These previously respectable people met a moment of rage, and found their inner nudnik.

There are entertaining speeches, and nudnik speeches. Entertaining speeches include poetic language, wonderful jokes and interesting anecdotes. Nudniks need none of that; because the heart speaks a language all its own, a passionate speech doesn’t require entertaining asides.

A rabbinic mentor once told me that every sermon should have a moment of outrage when you feel like saying “damn it” and banging the table. I now realize he wasn’t just telling me how to get an audience’s attention; he was telling me I have an obligation to speak about issues I’m passionate about. A Rabbi is no mere entertainer; he must be a bit of a nudnik as well.

So you’re making a speech, and need something to say? Here’s my advice: find your inner nudnik. Get excited, bang on the table, and speak from the heart. Your inner nudnik will help you make a better speech; and you never know, it may also make you a better person.

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