Rabbi David Zauder
"When I have some time to think, I’ll think about thinking" Rabbi David Zauderer explorers the lost art of thinking.
"When I have some time to think, I’ll think about thinking"
In the Torah we find the following story (told here in short form): Moses returns to Egypt, and with his brother Aaron, he tells Pharaoh that G-d demands the Jewish people be set free. Pharaoh tells them, "I’ve never heard of G-d. I have no intention of freeing the Hebrews. And if they have leisure to think about freedom. it means they’re not working hard enough." Then he doubles the Hebrews’ work quota (Exodus 5:1-14).
Our own lives are often informed by Pharaoh’s malicious prescription that being busy will shear us of thought. The television goes on as soon as we wake up in the morning. In the car, the radio goes on. All day we’re busy at work. As we drive home, the radio plays. The evening is filled with more television and maybe some Web surfing, and then we go to bed—no moment of the day is spared for peaceful contemplation that might permit us to consider who we are and what our lives are really about. We don’t seem to leave much time in our daily schedules for thinking about things.
We tend to be so busy working on every other part of our bodies—we exercise to make sure our heart is functioning properly. We work out to tone our tummies and build up our "bis" and "tris." We put in long hours at the office to bring home good money to afford vacations where we can sit on the beach and, you guessed it, not think about anything. We neglect the most amazing tool our body has—the human brain and its capacity to think! Instead, we sort of go through life doing what we do and living how we live "because that’s what everyone else is doing," but without thinking too much about why we live this way and what life is really all about, and other important, soul-searching questions.
Albert Einstein once said, "He who joyfully marches in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice." (And this, coming from a guy who, when scientists opened up his brain after his death in 1955, was found to have only used a fraction of his brain’s total capacity. Yikes!)
A recent guest lecturer here in Atlanta quoted the following statistic:
1% percent of the population thinks.
4% of the population think that they think
and 95% of the population would rather die than think!
Now, I grant you, this statistic is quite exaggerated. But the bottom line is that we don’t leave ourselves much time to think, and maybe it’s also easier to march in rank and file, and not to give life too much thought.
School’s over: Let’s get out of here
The funny thing is, that even when we do actually set aside some time to attend a thought-provoking sermon, lecture, or discussion about issues which are relevant to how we should live our lives, we have a certain threshold of "thinking pain" which we can handle, and after that......see ya, we need a break.
This is, in reality, an age-old phenomenon which goes back to our Jewish ancestors wandering in the desert, over 3,000 years ago. In this week’s Torah portion, we find a very strange thing which we don’t find anywhere else in the Torah. The two verses that begin with the words "Va’yehi binsoa ha’aron..."(Numbers 10:35-36) are surrounded by two inverted "nuns" (upside down Hebrew letter nun’s—not the gals in the convent), which serve to separate them from the verses before and after them.
Ramban, the classic medieval Torah commentator, explains that these two strange upside down Hebrew letters create a break between two sins that the Jewish people committed as they journeyed forth from Mt. Sinai where they had just received the Torah from G-d. The more obvious sin, that of the "complaining Jews" (so what else is new?) is mentioned in the beginning of chapter 11, right after the second inverted "nun." The first sin is alluded to in verse 33, right before the first inverted "nun," where the Torah states that the Jewish people left the mountain of G-d, on which the Ramban comments, that "they fled from the mountain of G-d like a child running out of school at the end of the day." They were happy to leave that holy place because G-d might give them more and more commandments. The Jews were sitting in class, at Mt. Sinai High, learning Torah and thinking intensely about life and our purpose here on earth, when all of a sudden, the school bell rings, and BOOM-ZOWIE—they’re outta there!
"Quick, Reuben, let’s scram, my brains are fried!"
"Hey, guys, I’m skipping out now before ‘Teach’ gives us any more homework!"
And this was considered a sin on the part of the Jewish people. G-d is telling us, "You finally have an opportunity to study and focus and think about the important things in life—and you bolt out the door the moment the lesson’s over?"
Sadly, though, this is human nature. It’s not so easy to spend time seriously thinking about our lives and where we’re headed. Even if we manage to take some time out of our busy work schedules to utilize a small portion of that think tank called the brain, it’s not always a pleasant experience.
And if we get together periodically to study Torah and think about "the bigger picture of life" (which is commendable enough considering the lack of such activity among the general population), there is a certain tension that exists and that is ultimately resolved when the class is finished and we can return to our previous activities.
But, ultimately, we were given that great big brain between our shoulders in order to use it—to ponder our existence, and to constantly challenge and rethink the assumptions that we have held to be true until now. And to grow spiritually from all the thinking that we do, and for which purpose we were given the Torah in the first place.
I know that for most of my early years, I hardly thought about anything in life. When I reached 18, I started to think about my purpose here on earth, and about what it means to me to be Jewish. But then a few years ago I realized that all along I merely "thought" that I was thinking, but, in reality, hadn’t been thinking at all. So now, I have really started thinking. And boy is it tough. But well worth it.
What do you think about that?
Rabbi David Zauderer is a card-carrying member of the Atlanta Scholars Kollel.
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