The Antidote to Busyness: Judaism
Shanah tova! My name is Rabbi Alex Kress.
If we haven’t had the opportunity to meet yet, well, it’s very nice to meet all of you at once. I enjoy reading the newspaper, good coffee, and Jazz clubs. I love social media - so after services, find me on Facebook or follow me on Instagram and Twitter. I promise to enhance your day with a curation of digital Judaism and pictures of my adorable daughter.
One of the things you will find on my pages this year is something called 10Q. In short, this Jewish startup asks you one question a day from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur to reflect on your year and perhaps challenge yourself to improve in the year to come. Then, as we break our fast after Neilah & Havdalah next week, 10Q will lock up your answers for you to revisit next year before Rosh Hashanah.
As I was preparing for the holidays this year, I got an e-mail with my answers from last year, one of which made me laugh out loud. It asked me to “describe a significant experience that has happened in the past year. How did it affect you? Are you grateful? Relieved? Resentful? Inspired?”
I answered: "We got a puppy! So grateful, a little stressed about having her in an apartment. Having an added responsibility has certainly made me appreciate my wife and our teamwork more than I ever had before."
Oh, how innocent I was.
Little did I know my wife was already pregnant during Rosh Hashanah last year and, in addition to getting a job and moving thousands of miles across the country, our world was about to be flipped upside down with a sassy, little baby. I told myself that moving across the country, transitioning from full-time student to full-time rabbi, and becoming a dad all at once, would be a piece of cake.
In some ways that was true: our new reality all happened at once. But as we all know, as we enter new chapters and adapt, we are often just trying to keep our heads above water. Being an adult comes with great blessings and great challenges, great joy and great responsibility. And living a balanced life as an adult is a difficult task, whether you’ve just become a Bat or Bar Mitzvah or are welcoming great-grandchildren.
Take a second to think about how you answer the question, “How are you?” One of the most common answers today is: “Busy!”
Our 21st-century obsession with busyness is often legitimate, but can also be a self-imposed box that we trap ourselves in. Demands are high: work, school, children, ailing relatives, housework, errands. We’re just trying to keep our heads above the water.
But think about your reaction when you’re asked, “How are you?” Often, we instantly go on about how busy we are instead of answering the question, “How are you?” This relentless busyness, is toxic. It makes us overwhelmed. It’s mentally exhausting. It keeps us from being present in the moment, always thinking about the next thing we have to do.
And studies have shown that incessant busyness is detrimental to our physical and mental well-being, not to mention our productivity and ability to learn.
In an essay on busyness, author Tim Kreider writes, “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides are necessary conditions for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — [idleness] is, paradoxically, necessary to getting anything done.”
Judaism mandates idleness. Judaism prescribes standing back from life and seeing it whole. That’s what the Days of Awe are all about.
One of the most prolific Jewish thinkers of our time, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, suggests that: “Judaism is a religion of time aimed at the sanctification of time.” (The Sabbath) So what does that make incumbent on busy Jews, if Judaism is a religion of time that prescribes idleness? And how, in our busy schedules, can we sanctify time?
Our tradition offers a lot of guidance. The first and most foundational teaching of sanctifying time, is Shabbat. The Torah teaches us, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work and the seventh day is a Shabbat to Adonai your God [on which] you cannot do any work.” (Ex 20:9-10) Pretty simple, but utterly fundamental to Judaism.
As 21st century Jews, we celebrate Shabbat in many ways. We spend Shabbat here with our community. We say the Sh'ma before our little ones go to bed or call our college kids to wish them "Shabbat Shalom!" We go to ballgames and Broadway. We host Shabbat dinners and lunches, or take a break from cooking and go out to eat or order in. Maybe Saturday is family time to catch a movie or play games.
The key to sanctifying time is to set it apart from the rest of the week physically and mentally and do something special, something unique to create what Rabbi Heschel calls a Palace in Time. Time is fleeting, and Judaism provides us with a framework to appreciate every precious moment with our loved ones.
In fact, our tradition teaches we must prioritize our loved ones over our profession. Our society talks a lot about work-life balance, but Judaism wants your priority to be life and family. Judaism unequivocally says, “Your family comes first.”
In the book of Numbers (32:16) we learn of two tribes, Reuven and Gad, requesting to stay in the lands the Israelites had already conquered instead of resettling in the land of Israel, under divine protection and Moses's jurisdiction. And the Torah provides their rationale. It says: So that “[they] might build sheep pens for [their] flocks and cities for [their] children.” - in that order.
And the early Rabbis took issue with that order. They say this order displays Reuven & Gad’s priorities: “[Reuven and Gad] were more worried about their possessions than they were about their sons and daughters, for they mentioned their flocks before their children. Moses said to them: ‘Don’t do that; what is primary in your life should be primary and what is secondary, secondary. Build first cities for your children and afterward pens for your flocks.’” This biblical text shows us how long we’ve struggled to create a work-life balance. And our tradition doubles down with a warning.
The Talmud teaches, “[That] earlier generations made the study of Torah their primary concern and their ordinary work secondary—and they succeeded at both. [But] The later generations made their ordinary work their primary concern and their study of Torah secondary—and they failed at both.” (Berakhot 35b)
Judaism understands how easy it is to get wrapped up in work and bogged down in busyness. And Judaism suggests the antidote is to regularly create palaces in time, to regularly set aside unique pockets of idleness surrounded by our loved ones, which enrich our lives and allow us to recharge.
And Judaism’s ancient wisdom is proven by some of modern society’s most prolific achievers.
Charles Darwin, for example, started his day with a “morning walk and breakfast, [and] was in his study by 8. He worked an hour and a half.Then he would read the morning mail and write letters. At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, conducting his experiments. By noon, he would declare, “I’ve done a good day’s work,” and set out on a long walk.” [Source]
Charles Dickens locked himself in his study from 9 until 2, and after those five hours, declared he was done for the day.
In the offseason, Kobe Bryant limited his workouts to six hours a day. For six months, Kobe channeled his energy into 2 hours of running, 2 hours of basketball, and 2 hours of weightlifting. The other 18 hours of his day were spent recharging and relaxing with his family.
Roger Federer and LeBron James make sleep a priority, aiming for as many as 12 hours a night. They’re the best in their game and sleep nearly twice as much as the average American.
No two people implement balance the same way, and high achievers are no different. But contrary to the 21st-century fetish with being busy, science proves that balance is, in fact, the path to achievement, to health and to happiness. And Judaism has known this for millennia and provided a constant foundation for us to build our own palaces in time.
Every week, as we welcome Shabbat with kiddush, we say:
Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, m’kadeish ha’shabbat.
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, for sanctifying Shabbat.
And we conclude Shabbat, with the blessing of separation at the end of Havdalah.
Barukh ata Adonai, ha-mavdil bein kodesh l’chol.
Blessed are You, Adonai, who distinguishes between the holy and the ordinary.
So in the coming days, I encourage you to think about ways to balance your life using our holy tradition. Find new opportunities to distinguish holy moments with your family and friends. Build new traditions on the foundation of our holidays. There is no one size fits all solution to excessive busyness. For each of us, Shabbat and holidays look a little different. But Judaism provides a universal foundation to build our own, unique palaces in time.
To a year of sanctifying time and distinguishing the holy from the ordinary. L’shanah tova u’metukah - to a sweet and happy year creating palaces in time together.
Delivered at Temple Sinai of Roslyn on 9/20/2017.