When our twins were born over five years ago, I was informed that my rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, happened to be in Monsey. It was a great zechus that he was willing to serve as sandek for Gavriel Yehuda, the older twin.
A few days later, we made an upsherin for our son Dovid. I called Rabbi Wein and asked if I could bring Dovid over so Rabbi Wein could cut some of his hair and give him a beracha. Rabbi Wein graciously agreed.
After cutting a few strands of his hair, Rabbi Wein told Dovid, “You should be a good, good boy.” Then he added, “And don’t let the gremlins get you!”
It was a classic Rabbi Wein beracha. While I don’t know exactly what he meant about the gremlins, I can share how I understood it.
The concept of gremlins originated in the 1920s among members of the Royal Air Force. When a military plane malfunctioned without apparent reason, the airmen would blame “gremlins,” imagined small creatures in the engine of the plane that were wreaking havoc by unhooking and pulling out wires.
Since then, gremlins have been featured in books, radio programs, television shows and movies. The popular idea is that a gremlin is a mythical, nasty, elf-like creature that causes mishaps. People blame gremlins when they don’t have anyone else to blame.
More damaging than any external gremlin, however, are the gremlins within us. These are the voices of negativity and doubt that discourage and deflate our confidence and drive.
In her book, Daring Greatly, Brene Brown suggests that gremlins are synonymous with shame, the ultimate corroder of self-esteem.
Brown writes that she was once struggling to finish an article and was suffering from writer’s block. When she called a friend to ask for advice, her friend asked her, “What are the gremlins saying?”
She replied that there were a few different gremlins. One was telling her that her writing isn’t that good, and no one really cares about her opinion. Another was saying that she was going to get criticized for whatever she wrote, and she deserved every word of it. The biggest gremlin was saying that real writers don’t struggle with writer’s block.
It’s been said that pain is what happens to us, while suffering is what we do with that pain. Pain is inevitable in life, and there’s not much we can do to avoid it. But suffering is a product of our own thoughts and perceptions about the pain we suffer. When we doubt our ability to handle pain, question why we aren’t able to better deal with our pain, think that we deserve pain because we aren’t worthy, and other similarly self-demeaning thoughts, we enter the realm of suffering. That suffering is the result of our internalizing and accepting the messages that the gremlins are telling us.
The good news is that we can minimize our suffering by shifting our perspective and being nicer and more patient with ourselves.
When the newly freed Jewish nation arrived at the Sea of Reeds and saw the Egyptian army approaching, they panicked. Rashi adds that they saw the guardian angel of Egypt coming from heaven to assist the Egyptians.
Shem MiShmuel (1920) explains that the nation felt the “voice of Egypt” inside themselves, and they realized that they were not yet truly free. They continued to hear in their minds the familiar abusive taunts of the Egyptians that they were worthless, useless failures. That caused them to wonder if they could ever be anything more than enslaved pagans.
It was only when they witnessed the splitting of the sea that they recognized Hashem’s personal love for them, and they began to see themselves as a free nation, not only physically, but spiritually and emotionally as well.
In my daily learning of Tanach, I have just completed learning the book of Sefer Yirmiyahu, and therefore have been thinking about it in this light. Yirmiyahu was given one of the most challenging tasks in the world – to rebuke and admonish the Jewish people. He suffered greatly in his efforts to fulfill his mission faithfully. He was scorned, ignored, beaten and imprisoned.
It is incredible that a person can be so piously committed that he does not allow the many gremlins surrounding him to defeat him. Sefer Yirmiyahu is a living reminder that one can be in tremendous pain, yet not succumb to suffering.
But there is another important idea that emerges. How many Jews viewed Yirmiyahu and his message as a gremlin to be ignored? The Jewish people as a nation did not recognize Yirmiyahu’s ceaseless love for his people, and that he was only fulfilling the mission conferred upon him. Instead of recognizing his message as the path of return to greatness, they saw it as a nuisance that had to be silenced. In the end, silencing his message resulted in their exile and terrible tragedy.
There may be times in life when we think a voice is that of a gremlin when it really contains a message we should hearken to for our own growth and development, painful as it may be. At times it can be challenging to differentiate between the two. One can recognize the difference by contemplating if the voice is squelching his aspirations or goading him back on track.
When Rabbi Wein blessed Dovid that he shouldn’t let the gremlins get him, I understood that to mean that he shouldn’t allow naysayers and pessimists to stifle his dreams and aspirations. He wasn’t only referring to other people, but, more profoundly, to the inner gremlins that seek to discourage and convince him that he isn’t capable enough to accomplish his goals and hopes.
The only way to silence those gremlins is by recognizing one’s worthiness and greatness. Often that’s something that doesn’t come naturally to people, even talented and highly capable people. The gremlins are stubborn and persistent, and one must counter them with stubborn and persistent positivity and reminders of one’s own worthiness.
Rabbi Wein’s beracha was truly valuable and worthwhile, for it holds the key to all success. We can be impactful and effective, but only if we recognize the gremlins and not allow them to wear us down.