William Hamilton

Be present or be elsewhere

“Few people wave, but almost everyone waves back” observes behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley. Try it. Wave or nod at the next unoccupied passerby and enjoy the results of our being hardwired for reciprocal responsiveness.

Such an exercise feels even more welcome now, with necessary masks limiting the communicability of verbal greetings.

One other piece of seasonal advice feels timely as we turn from Summer’s relaxation to Fall’s busyness. Multitasking is not possible.

We all believe it is. Most of us think we’re good at multitasking. I rather enjoy it. But the truth is that we can only give the purity of our attention to one thing at a time. Even though rapidly switching from task to task generates a hefty dopamine release, “the brain is very good at deluding itself” says says MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller. How many cooked dishes do you burn because you were on the phone or finishing an email?

Two words signifying ‘presence’ (ha-yom) and ‘responsiveness’ (amen) occur frequently in this week’s portion of Torah. Each word appears 12 times (excluding the admonition passage) indicating a personal responsibility for each of the 12 tribes to invoke them. Covenantal renewal, the portion’s theme, requires presence and responsiveness.

It’s not accidental that we annually learn this passage as we move from the middle of the month of Elul toward the personal renewal that a New Year invites.

It has been an earth-scorching Summer. Yet torn ground is often ideal for seed.

May we now enter a quiet procession that activates deeper presence and more purposeful responsiveness. Be present or be elsewhere.  Enjoy the responses to the greetings you signal. And celebrate the quiet wonders that seek less attention.

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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