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Recently, I was talking with a good friend and colleague when he said, “John – I’ve been really irritable lately. Everything people do and say bothers me.”
I asked if anything particular was wrong. “No. Everything’s fine,” he said. His marriage is happy and strong, his children well, and his work satisfying.
“Yet, I feel impatient all the time. Things that normally don’t bother me now do.”
Knowing the way he works I suggested that he was likely exhausted. “Perhaps,” he said, “but I don’t feel any more tired than normal!”
That’s the rub. My friend’s “normal” isn’t normal at all. Though he does what many rabbis do, such work is so often overwhelming. When I spelled it out for him, he acknowledged that I was probably right.
Certainly, the rabbinate isn’t the only occupation that exhausts its practitioners. No one is immune in any walk of life.
In this week’s Torah portion Vaera (Exodus 6:2-10:1) we see the deleterious impact that relentless demands can have upon us.
The pivotal scene puts Moses talking with God. He and Aaron had appeared before Pharaoh to demand the people’s liberation; but, every request turned Pharaoh’s heart harder.
God responded by promising the people the greatest reward:
“I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt and I will rescue you from their bondage and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great retributions. And I will take you to Me as a people and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God Who takes you out from under the burdens of Egypt. And I will bring you to the land that I raised My hand to pledge to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, and I will give it to you as an inheritance. I am the Lord. And Moses spoke thus to the Israelites, but they did not heed Moses out of (kotzer ruach) shortness of breath and hard bondage.” (Exodus 6:6-8 – translation, Robert Alter)
What’s the meaning?
Rashi’s comment: “The people didn’t accept consolation [i.e. Moses’ message of their impending redemption] for they were too much under stress.”
Though we are no longer “slaves,” our schedules control us, people to whom we’ve given influence over our lives oppress us, obligations we’ve taken on weigh us down, and the legitimate needs of others burden us.
In thinking about the deleterious impact of being constantly burdened, I recall Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future. He showed that in business, manufacturing, construction, law, medicine, the sciences, education, religion, and the arts, creativity will be the competitive difference that distinguishes one thing from another.
Speaking personally, my synagogue is a center of intense productivity, but for me, when I’m in my synagogue study almost nothing creative comes because of the constant demands made upon me in the building by young and old, staff and lay leaders. That’s a central part of my work, so I’m not complaining. Creativity, however, happens for me at home when I’m alone studying, reading, thinking, and writing.
The novelist and Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck wrote:
“The truly creative mind in any field is … a human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him[her]… a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create – S/he must create, … s/he is not really alive unless s/he is creating.”
We need to be able to create environments that catalyze the greatness within us. An essential element to creativity is our solitude.
My rabbinic friend is not me disguised, but like him I too feel the effects of kotzer ruach, shortness of breath. Necessary breaks in our routine encourage ruach shalem, wholeness of spirit.
In this new secular year, I hope for each of you that measure of wholeness leading to your own creativity and expression.