One of my yearly summer projects is a digital house cleaning of my inbox. This year, I thought I would feel some sense of accomplishment when I got through more than four thousand emails, but I was wrong: I still had some 11,000 left. And because new emails keep popping in, It’s an endless job.
This week’s parasha of Re’eh alludes to a similarly Sisyphean task. Moshe commands the people that when they enter the Land of Israel, they must completely destroy — abed te’abedun — all of the idolatry. And these idols are everywhere: al he-harim ha-ramim, “on the high mountains,” ve-al ha-giva’ot, “and on the hills,” ve-tachat kol etz ra’anan, “and under every blossoming tree.” Rabbi Akiva in masechet Avodah Zara (where else?) comments that the Torah is saying that if one sees such a place, one can count on the fact that idols were worshipped there.
Indeed, this seems almost like a bizarro Uncle Moishy song: whereas Uncle Moishy reminds us that “Hashem is truly everywhere,” here the Torah tells us that the idolatry is up, up, down, down, right, left and all around, so to speak. (This begs the question of whether we recognize Hashem’s presence in as many places and spaces as the idol worshippers saw their gods, but that’s another topic for another time.) Bottom line: the Torah commands the people to literally search high and low to root out any vestiges of idolatry in the Land. It’s a massive task.
Sometimes navigating our daily parenting lives can also seem an overwhelming job. We have errands to run, appointments to make, carpools to drive, and homework to supervise. It’s like trying to empty an inbox that keeps refilling. Author Cal Newport, in his new book A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload explains that the introduction of email to the workplace (or to our daily lives) has not helped us work faster; if anything, it has only complicated things, since we now spend so much time processing what we have to do that we are left with little time to actually do it. And when we do accomplish anything, we have less focus; there’s a nagging feeling caused by the emails, texts and WhatsApp messages that await our attention. And the more of these messages we answer, the more that arrive.
But don’t worry. Newport also offers suggestions for how to break this cycle. One is what he calls his “specialization principle:” if we work on fewer things at a time, but do each task with “quality and accountability,” we can then move on to our next set of goals. We cannot do a good job on many things at once. That may work in an office, I’d respond, but parents don’t have such luxury. All our tasks need to get done, often at the same time.
That’s true, but Newport has another suggestion: “outsource what you can,” he writes, “so you can excel at what you can’t.” If we relax our need to control and approve everything that happens in our kids’ lives (which is challenging), and if we outsource some of our tasks to the kids themselves, we will be freed up to do whatever it is that only we can do. Years ago a friend of mine taught English in a Brooklyn girls’ elementary school. She needed to call home because one of her students, Sarah Leah, had missed a number of assignments. She called Sarah Leah’s father and explained who she was and the reason for her call. He interrupted her before she could finish. “Sarah Leah? She’s number seven. Baila Rivka, my oldest, is in charge of her. Let me get her on the phone.” This is an extreme example, but we can all give our kids more responsibility than we sometimes give them.
If we do so, we will have more time to do what only we are qualified to do, and, as a bonus, our kids will learn such key life skills as cooking, cleaning, setting a table, and simply owning a particular area of the family’s existence. That’s not bad for a day’s work.