This week’s parsha is a good one. It’s the story of Moses’ father-in-law telling him that he’s doing too much and that he needs to assign judges and chiefs to help him manage the workload of being God’s prophet. And, as I’ve said before, each year as we open an old Torah portion, we see something different because we’re different. This year, Yitro’s words to Moses in Exodus 18:17 spoke to me a different way than years past:
But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; 18 you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you;
No, I don’t need chiefs and judges to help manage my workload, though that does seem nice; instead, I started to think about what was wearing me out, about what was wearing out those around me. What seemed like too heavy of a task these days? The answer came to me in the form of one of those daily emails that sends the latest articles based on my interests. This week, labeled under the category of “Mind Café,” I found one called, “The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective People.”
It begins with some words of wisdom:
Fortunately, you don’t need to be productive for a super long time to succeed and once you start being effective, the past tends to fade away no matter how long you spent being ineffective. So the good news? You can change. The bad news? The odds are stacked against you. The best route? Instead of trying to figure out what to do, focus on what not to do, starting with these habits that practically guarantee you’ll fall short of your own expectations.
So what was the one habit that I thought Yitro was trying to talk to me about, telling me that I will “surely wear [myself] out”? That would be number one on the author’s list, which was focusing too much on political news, or what he calls the “Clown Show…Circus.” The author of the article states:
If you had a ton of positive things going on in your life — career, business, health, networking, etc — you wouldn’t have time to be obsessed with the news… The effectiveness equation makes no sense. Where is your focus more effective? Focusing on changing yourself as an individual? Or trying to change the world? Not only is it not useful to be obsessed with the news and mainstream media, but it’s also counterproductive and sucks your energy. War, rape, kids dying, shootings, stabbings, political fighting. How could you be in an effective ‘go-getter’ mood if you spent a bunch of time focused on subjects like these?
Now, before some of you breathe a collective sigh of relief and think, at long last, the Rabbi will stop discussing politics, let me say right away that I disagree a bit with what he’s saying. It is our duty and charge as Jews, particularly Reform Jews, to attempt to change the world and focus on the community more than yourself. Hillel taught “If I am only for myself, what am I?” He knew that if we only focus on ourselves, if we only attempt to be “go getters” we leave the world to burn. But, here’s what I did agree with in the article:
Almost 100% of the people I’ve observed who are obsessed with the news in politics have the following traits: They look unhealthy and worn down, irritable, never have a project in their life that provides meaning.
So I’ve thought about that a lot, and I’ve decided that what’s really happening is that I’m outraged. I’m outraged a lot. I’m outraged at the corruption, at the lying, at the hypocrisy; I’m outraged that children are dying in schools, in cages at the border, from preventable diseases. I’m outraged that people are uneducated and purposely misinformed. I’m outraged that climate change is being denied because of greed. I’m outraged that I’m being made to feel outraged by angry talking heads on cable news. I’m outraged because I’m made to feel outraged by alerts on my phone, by insulting memes on Facebook, by trolls on Twitter. I’m worn down, I’m unhealthy, I’m irritable, I can’t focus on projects that bring me meaning. The important stuff isn’t getting through. The author’s right. I’ve been obsessing about all of this. So many of us have.
And I’m pretty sure Hillel would agree with the author. Because remember, he also said “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Hillel, like this author, understood self-care. In this case, if you obsess with political news, the traumatic and outrageous terrors that are occurring in this world, you are not being effective. So, how do we use this understanding and balance it with Hillel’s approach, which gives equal rank of self-care and world care?
The answer comes not from Yitro, but from God, in some of the most sacred instructions provided. Exodus 23:12 states:
Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed.
Exodus 31:15 tells us:
Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to Adonai; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. 16 The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: 17 it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days Adonai made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed. There shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to Adonai;
The authors of the Torah knew that the body, the mind, the soul all need rest. There is something inherent in Judaism that teaches that we cannot do the same thing all week, that there has to be balance. We can’t be outraged all the time. We can’t spend all our energy being angry, being disillusioned, being hurt and scared all the time. We need a break. We need balance. The Torah knew this when it created Shabbat, the 7th day of rest; it knew it when it created Shmitta, the 7th year of rest, and it knew it when it created Yovel, the 50th year of rest. We need a reset. Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, in his work “The Sabbath,” “Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work.”
The Sabbath is a metaphor for paradise and a testimony to God’s presence; in our prayers, we anticipate a messianic era that will be a Sabbath, and each Shabbat prepares us for that experience: “Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath … one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come.” It was on the seventh day that God gave the world a soul, and “[the world’s] survival depends upon the holiness of the seventh day.” The task, he writes, becomes how to convert time into eternity, how to fill our time with spirit: “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else.”
Heschel is spot on, but I’d say it a bit differently. For we who live in the digital age, the age of CNN and Fox News, of Trump and Brexit, of Iran and Israel, of refugees and immigrants, of White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis, of hate crimes and school shootings, of alerts on our phones and angry hosts on news and radio, we need a new interpretation of Shabbat, and for us it shall be:
Six days shall you outrage, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to Adonai; whoever continues to outrage on the sabbath day shall be run down, irritable, and unfocused 16 The Jewish people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: 17 it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel.
Six Days shall we outrage. We can take that literally and turn off our phones and take a breath on Shabbat, or we can understand it more psychologically, in that we need to limit exposure to the trauma of political news or it will consume us. Heschel said, “Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath … one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come.” I’d say it differently: unless one learns how to reset, take a break, stop obsessing, one will be unable to enjoy the taste of this world, let alone the world to come. Heschel said: “[the world’s] survival depends upon the holiness of the seventh day.” I agree. The world’s survival depends on the balance, a balance of healthy outrage, social justice, action, marches, and protests, but it also depends on our ability to rest, to reset, to take a breath and cherish God’s gifts, the joys of this world.
Six days shall we outrage, but on the seventh day, let’s take a break. We must each decide for ourselves what that seventh day looks like. Is it a day, a month, a year? Is it a particular news outlet or a particular colleague or friend? What do we need to metaphorically or physically turn off so that we can enjoy the fruit of this world, enjoy family, friends, the beauty of nature, the potential for change. Let it be a sign between us and God, a covenant for all time, for even God rested and so shall we.