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Torah Reflections

Vayakhel: Start by Planning to Stop

This week’s portion, Vayakhel, describes the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that accompanied the Israelites on their wilderness journey. The focus is so complete that just one verse in the whole section considers any other topic. The reading begins with Moses gathering the community in order to give them assignments and instructions. But his first words seem to have nothing to do with the mishkan:

 You can work for six days, but the seventh day is holy day of complete rest for the sake of Being. The consequence of working [on the seventh day] is death. (Exodus 35:1-2)

Imagine, for a moment, a modern executive calling his team together at the start of an important project. He might start with a motivational speech, but that would quickly be followed by marching orders, and a reminder of the consequences of failure.

Moses does it differently; he begins by addressing the importance of not working, and the risk he identifies is associated not with failing to meet objectives, but with failing to rest.

Vayakhel, pneumonia and me

More than a month after diagnosis, I’m still not fully recovered from a rather serious bout of pneumonia. I still fatigue quite easily and I my mind is still a bit foggy. A wise woman would take it easy, rest, and let the healing process take its course. In this case at least, I’m no wise woman. I’ve been pushing myself to keep up with my work and volunteer activities as if nothing was wrong.

This foolishness stems in part from boredom. I can only sleep, read, and watch television for so long without going nuts. But that’s not the real problem.

The basic issue that my ego has overridden my common sense. I’ve come to believe that what I do is more important than who I am, and that getting things done is more important than getting myself well and staying healthy.

The way I understand Vayakhel, death isn’t so much a punishment for working on the Sabbath as it is a karmic consequence of the enthronement of productivity, achievement, and busyness. I know all too well the ways in which this stress and overwork can devastate the body and mind. We can (and do) quite literally work ourselves to death.

But the risk is not just to our physical and psychological health. Too much work and not enough rest can also kill one’s soul. When I forget to stop, I lose the ability to feel compassion–for myself or anyone else. I become increasingly impatient and prone to anger. I have no access to wisdom, insight or creativity. It isn’t pretty.

There’s a well-known New Yorker cartoon by Robert Mankoff that features an observant Jewish man carrying a briefcase and talking into a cell phone. “And remember,” he says into the phone, “if you need anything, I’m available 24/6.” I find this funny on many levels, but it also has a serious message, and I think it’s time for me to heed it. From now on, if you need me, I’ll be available as my health and sanity allow. I hope you will join me.

May you be blessed…

May you be blessed to know that you are more important that what you do. May you make space in your life for being as well as doing. And in all you do, may you remember to start by making a commitment to stopping.

Ameyn keyn yehi ratzon. Amen, may it be so.

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