Variety is the Spice of Productivity (Shabbos 49)

Right now during the Corona crisis, working from home, shopping online, home-schooling, and cleaning the house all seem to blend into one overwhelming nightmare. 

In the early centuries of the common era, the Roman empire treated the Jews of Israel with contempt and cruelty.  Life in Israel under the Romans was often spiritually unbearable.  At one point, they issued an antisemitic decree, forbidden the wearing of tefillin, on penalty of death.

Elisha the Man of Wings was fearless. Each day, he would don his tefillin and go out into the marketplace defiantly. One day, he was spotted by a Roman officer. Elisha ran away from him, and the police officer ran after him. But the Torah scholar’s speed was no match for the athletic young Roman.

When the officer reached him, Elisha removed the tefillin from his head and hid them in his hand. The Roman asked him, “What is that in your hand?”

Elisha replied, “All I have here are dove wings.”

“Sure thing,” said the Roman. “Open your hand!” he ordered.

A miracle occurred. He opened his hand, and, indeed, inside there were dove wings.  In commemoration of this miracle, from then on, everyone would call him Elisha the Man of Wings.

אָמַר רַבִּי יַנַּאי: תְּפִילִּין צְרִיכִין גּוּף נָקִי כֶּאֱלִישָׁע ״בַּעַל כְּנָפַיִם״. מַאי הִיא? אַבָּיֵי אָמַר: שֶׁלֹּא יָפִיחַ בָּהֶן. רָבָא אָמַר: שֶׁלֹּא יִישַׁן בָּהֶן. וְאַמַּאי קָרֵי לֵיהּ ״בַּעַל כְּנָפַיִם״? — שֶׁפַּעַם אַחַת גָּזְרָה מַלְכוּת רוֹמִי הָרְשָׁעָה שְׁמָד עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁכָּל הַמַּנִּיחַ תְּפִילִּין יְנַקְּרוּ אֶת מוֹחוֹ, וְהָיָה אֱלִישָׁע מַנִּיחָם וְיוֹצֵא לַשּׁוּק. רָאָהוּ קַסְדּוֹר אֶחָד רָץ מִפָּנָיו וְרָץ אַחֲרָיו. וְכֵיוָן שֶׁהִגִּיעַ אֶצְלוֹ נְטָלָן מֵרֹאשׁוֹ וַאֲחָזָן בְּיָדוֹ. אָמַר לוֹ: מַה זֶּה בְּיָדְךָ? אָמַר לוֹ: כַּנְפֵי יוֹנָה. פָּשַׁט אֶת יָדוֹ וְנִמְצְאוּ כַּנְפֵי יוֹנָה. לְפִיכָךְ קוֹרִין אוֹתוֹ ״אֱלִישָׁע בַּעַל כְּנָפַיִם״. וּמַאי שְׁנָא כַּנְפֵי יוֹנָה מִשְּׁאָר עוֹפוֹת? מִשּׁוּם דְּאִמְּתִיל כְּנֶסֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל לְיוֹנָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״כַּנְפֵי יוֹנָה נֶחְפָּה בַכֶּסֶף וְגוֹ׳״ — מַה יּוֹנָה כְּנָפֶיהָ מְגִינּוֹת עָלֶיהָ, אַף יִשְׂרָאֵל מִצְוֹת מְגִינּוֹת עֲלֵיהֶן

כנפיה מגינות עליה – אור”י דאמרינן במדרש כל העופות כשהן יגעין נינוחין ע”ג סלע והיונה בשעה שהיא יגעה פורחת באחת ונינוחת באחת

Rabbi Yannai said: Donning tefillin requires a clean body, like that of Elisha, Man of Wings. What does that mean?  Abaye said: It means that one may not pass wind in them. Rava said: It means that one may not sleep in them.  And why did they call him Elisha Man of Wings? Because the Roman empire once issued an antisemitic decree against the Jews forbidden the wearing of tefillin, on penalty of death. . . In commemoration of this miracle, from then on, everyone would call him Elisha the Man of Wings. And what is different about doves such that Elisha chose to describe his tefillin as dove wings specifically?  Because the congregation of Israel is likened to a dove, as it is stated: “You shall shine as the wings of a dove covered with silver”.  Just as the dove is protected by its wings, so too the Jewish people are protected by their performance of mitzvos (such as tefillin).

Tosfos: What is the meaning of ‘protected by its wings’? R”Y says it refers to the teaching of the Midrash that says when all other birds are tired, they rest on a rock (and run the risk of being attacked).  When the dove, however, is tired, it uses one wing to fly while the other rests (thus, being constantly protected from harm). 

How do some people accomplish so much while others don’t have enough time to get half as much done? We all have twenty-four hours in the day, no more, no less.  Do they sleep less? How are they able to achieve what they achieve in the same amount of time?

The key to maximizing productivity lies in the secret of the dove. No individual, whether man or beast can continue, non-stop, without taking a break. While all other birds will take the occasional rest on a rock along the way, the dove juggles their wing performance, so that each side takes turns flying, while the other wing rests. That way, it never needs to stay still.

While human beings don’t have wings, we do have different brain hemispheres.  Each side of our brain serves a different function. Emotional activity originates in the right side of the brain. Speech production is more dominant in the left hemisphere.  Certain aspects of logic and creativity also stem from either side of the brain.

Contrary to popular myths, we all utilize both sides of our brain. Nobody can fly with only one wing. Nevertheless, each of us has different proclivities. Some people enjoy some activities more than others. And so you end up using certain parts of the brain more regularly than others. Nevertheless, no matter how much you love something, after a while it gets exhausting. And so you take a break to recuperate.

That’s the mistake. You don’t need to settle on a rock – or throw your feet up on the couch – to rest. The longer you remain in that position, the likelier you will run the risk of danger.  While the danger of the dove is physical attack by another bird or animal, the danger to a human being is becoming engrossed in non-productive activity.  You tell yourself you need a short break.  Just a half hour Netflix hit.  And then you’ll get right back to your studies or work.  Before you know it, you’ve let your defenses down, and half an hour has turned into three hours.  In fact, you are now more exhausted and distracted than you were before you sat down to rest!

The dove’s approach is to rest one wing while the other continues to soar, which for us translates to resting one side of the brain while the other continues to fly.  That means engaging in activities that you would ordinarily postpone or avoid because you don’t really like doing them.  The truth is, you’ve probably never really given them a proper shot.  You’ve focused on activities that you enjoy and convinced yourself that you’re a right-brained or left-brained person.

When you get tired of engaging in certain activities, the key to productivity maximization is to switch to other activities.  Of course, that’s easy to define if you’re a student.  When you get bored of English, switch to Mathematics.  When that gets a little exhausting, switch to Art or History.  That’s all well and good for students, how about for everyone else?

We all have various tasks to perform in our lives.  From work to family commitments to shopping to household chores to community volunteering, each aspect of your life is very different to the next.  When you think about everything you need to get done, it can feel daunting before you’ve even started.  But when you focus on one task at a time, you’ll find that the next task feels like a breath of fresh air, a welcome relief from your previous engagement.  As the classic adage goes, ‘a change is as good as a holiday’!

It’s especially important to separate your various tasks during the current corona-crisis.  Working from home, shopping online, home-schooling, and cleaning the house all seem to blend into one overwhelming nightmare.  If you want to stay on an even keel and be as productive as you can under the circumstances, the key is to endeavour to stay focused on one task at a time.  That’s not always easy with babies screaming and children struggling with virtual classwork.  But wherever possible, maintaining a schedule assigning specific and differentiated tasks to each hour of the day will increase your efficiency and productivity.

During challenging times like these, think about Maimonides who wrote his Commentary to the Mishnah while he was escaping the destruction of the Almohads.  On the run with his family, he wasn’t going to let the storm around overwhelm him.  While everyone else was struggling to survive, he remained focus on maximizing every day of his life.

It’s tempting to want to just switch off and perch on that rock for a while until the rough winds subside.  But you know that you have the inner strength to overcome any adversity and accomplish great things in life.  May the Almighty grant you the energy to stay focused, levelheaded, and variegated every moment of your day!

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Daniel Friedman is the author of The Transformative Daf book series.
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