Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

Are You Working Too Much?

Shelach

One of the causes of anxiety are the doubts that arise regarding your success or failure when you are faced with a new challenge.

The more important the venture is, the greater the stress it can cause you even to the extent of paralyzing you or making you decide not to go ahead with the risk.

How do you overcome this natural fear?

In this week’s Torah portion [1], Shelaj [2], we read how the Jewish people experienced a situation that caused them great anxiety, the consequences of their fear and the tools necessary to help overcome it.

After leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Jewish people were getting ready to take the next step: the conquest of the Promised Land.

At the request of the people and with G-d’s authorization, Moses sent twelve men, each one a prince of his tribe, to explore the land and its agricultural conditions and to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the inhabitants in order to develop a strategy for conquest. He instructed them regarding the details to be observed. He also asked them to bring samples of the fruits of the land so that the people could see the abundance of the land they were about to inherit.

The twelve spies scouted the land for forty days and returned to the desert with their report. Ten of them reported the following: “the land is very fertile”, they said and displayed the extraordinarily large and succulent fruits they had brought with them as samples. “But,” they continued, “the people who inhabit the land are very strong and the cities are heavily fortified. We also saw there the children of the giants”. One of the scouts, Caleb, seeing the direction the conversation was taking, intervened with the intention of giving it a positive turn, and concluded that they would definitely be able to conquer it. His companions (except for Yehoshua (Joshua)) argued with him saying that it was impossible to conquer the land. The people believed the negative report of the ten and began to weep and complain to Moses for having taken them out of Egypt to die by the sword, “Let’s go back to Egypt,” they demanded.

It was a moment of acute crisis for Moses and Aaron, the leaders of the people. 

The conclusion of the story was that G-d intervened. The ten spies who spoke evil died an unusual death, and as for the rest of the people, instead of going directly on to conquer the land, they were to wander forty years in the wilderness until the generation of adults who had come out of Egypt died (except for Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who spoke good about the land), and it would be their children who would merit to go on to conquer the land.

It’s very understandable why the situation caused so much anxiety. How should a recently freed nation of slaves react when told that they have to wage war against strong, well-armed and trained nations? Why were they punished for their fear; was it not logical that in the face of such a challenge they should be afraid? Also, why were the spies punished for their negative report? Had not Moses sent them on a mission precisely in order to assess the situation and describe what they had seen? Why were they punished for being honest?

There are many explanations. Amongst them: 

The ten spies who came back with the negative report were wrong on several counts:

  1. They were sent to evaluate how best to conquer the land; and not in order to give opinions about whether or not it was possible to conquer it. G-d had already decided that it was possible;
  2. Moses did not send them because he needed to know what the land was like; he sent them so that they could see what it was like. He wanted the Jewish people to go on to conquer the land based also on their own conviction and not only because they trusted Moses.

Let’s examine these two explanations and see how they can help us understand the anxieties that arise in our personal lives and how to deal with them.  

  1. One of the foundations of Judaism is Divine Providence, which means to say that everything that happens in the world is by Divine design.

When one finds him or herself in any situation, it is not by chance, but by design. You cannot control what happens to you; you can control your decision regarding what to do with what happens to you. Every situation you experience is brought about by Divine Providence. If G-d brought you to any particular place at any particular moment it is because there is something there that you must and can do, both for your own personal benefit and fulfillment as well as for those of the specific situation (person, time and place) in which you find yourself.

The decision regarding your personal mission —“the specific territory of the spiritual Promised Land whose conquest depends on you”— does not depend on you, nor does success or failure. The only thing that does depend on you is to choose to do everything in your power to fulfill your mission. It is not up to you to determine whether or not you are able to “conquer”, fulfill, your mission, but how best to do so. Knowing with certainty what your mission is and that success does not depend on you, only the decision to do your best does —success depends on G-d— serves to eliminate, to a great extent, doubts and anxiety that naturally arise and can paralyze. If G-d trusts you, rest assured that He knows what He is talking about and that you are more than qualified to meet His expectation. Nobody said “easy”; possible.

  1. Anxiety is often caused when one attributes too much importance and responsibility to himself. A lot of responsibility serves to empower and motivate; too much responsibility can paralyze and crush.

How do you determine the difference between “a lot” and “too much”? My personal definition is: “Too much” is when what you think, say or do is not productive. 

So how do I determine whether my efforts will be productive and if I am assuming enough, too much, or too little?

First of all, you need to determine what your capabilities are. If the responsibilities assumed are within these capacities, the more responsibility you take on, the more productive you will be and the more fulfilled and satisfied you will feel after having fulfilled them. On the other hand, if you take on responsibilities beyond your ability, motivated by an inflated ego, you will end up crushed and disillusioned. 

How can I know which goals and objectives are healthy challenges that will ultimately express and fortify me and which ones will end up destroying me?

It’s very difficult to determine that alone. Self-love interferes with objectivity. As a consequence of self-love you can either be too forgiving, not wanting to leave your comfort zone or, because of your inflated ego, can end up demanding too much of yourself.

In order to solve this challenge, our sages gave us a recipe [3]: Ase lecha Rav; designate a master for yourself. It is not easy to choose a teacher whom you can trust and consult with in order to help determine —free of your personal subjectivity— the right path to choose when options arise; it is even more difficult, however, —perhaps even impossible— to go through life successfully without doing so.

Dedicated to the 26th Yahrtzeit-Hilula of the Rebbe —may his merit protect us— (the 3rd of Tammuz).

———————

  1. According to the cycle in the diaspora.
  2. Numbers,13:1-15:41 
  3. Pirkei Avot, 1:6
About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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