William Hamilton

Attentive, but not agitated

Attention need not produce tension. This should be obvious. When we pay attention to majestic sunsets and gentle streams, we typically feel calm. Yet, too often these days attention-grabbing news can feel nerve-racking. As we prepare to enter an emergent new chapter of COVID infectiousness, it seems like a good time to restore our ability to be attentive without being agitated.

This week’s portion of Torah opens with a Pharaoh who not yet knows Joseph, dreaming two successive dreams. He awakens very agitated, anxious to learn what the dreams foretell. The Hebrew phrase describing his emotional state at that moment is va-tipaem ru-cho, which can mean anything from his spirit was troubled to there was a happening in his soul. Which is it? Is Pharaoh unnerved or is his spirit moved? Perhaps within the range of these possibilities, we can be awakened to a healthy tension between agitation and amicability.

How can you tell when paying attention isn’t elevating your blood pressure? One way is to appreciate a quiet truth about what happens when we elect to linger and reflect at a particular setting, like some paragraph you just read or some courtesy you just witnessed. If you’re like me, doing so can make a setting into a site of revealing. Perhaps you just bumped into someone you haven’t seen or thought about in years, except by the strangest coincidence, they had crossed your mind earlier that morning. When your curiosity is peaked as a result of attention paid, a warm breeze of wonder is a lot more common than stormy agitation.

It’s time to reacquaint ourselves with occasions when paying attention can bring us to a state being curious and untroubled. We don’t need to familiarize ourselves with stress. Alas, too many of us know that halting-jolt we feel when we’ve misjudged a step on a stairway. Instead, this is a season for the spirit-warming sensation of responding to friend who asks for your help, or to a neighbor who needs your attention.

As the Hanukkah lights brighten, may relearning how to be attentive without be agitated propel us forward into more ambient days ahead.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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