Monday, September 8, 2014

Is "take it easy" a Jewish idea?

The past week has been humbling for me. Eight days ago, my family completed our move to a new home, and I spent a great deal of time hauling boxes and doing amateur landscaping. The result was not only a cluttered new house and an attractive oakleaf hydrangea, but also waking up Monday morning with severe back spasms. I was largely bedridden for the next few days, and I am still using a walker and having difficulty sitting. Acknowledging my need for rest and rehabilitation during the past week did not come easily.

I grew up in a hockey-mad family that adored players who fought through pain and ignored injury, who lost teeth on the ice but did not miss a shift. My New York Rangers role models were Tom Laidlaw, Ron Greschner and Dave Maloney - not the scorers and finesse players but the scrappers and checkers.

The same message was broadcast in the holier context of yeshiva; the highest value was self-denying hatmadah (constant, continuous commitment to study), as the Talmud made clear with its choice of role models. Hillel froze on the roof listening to Torah being taught. Rabbi Eliezer scowled when students left the beit midrash (study hall) for a Yom Tov meal. Rachel endured abject poverty when her wealthy father disowned her for marrying Rabbi Akiva. And so on. I'm having a hard time thinking of a talmudic role model who takes a break when he is tired or hungry or ill. [Yes, the Talmud does discuss the importance of looking after our health, and see midrashim like Vayikra Rabbah Behar 34, but there is a difference between that broad approach, and a specific imperative of surrendering to physical challenges rather than trying to tough it out.]

So cancelling chavrutot and classes was more than disappointing; it felt like failure. Of course, I know it's not failure - and that incorrect response raises the question of how we ought to educate our young students. Training them to ignore the messages sent by their bodies is unhealthy and unsafe, but then why does the Talmud present scores of models for "toughing it out", but none come to mind who took it slow and easy when suffering? [The biblical Yitro does tell Moshe to set up associate judges rather than handle the nation's entire caseload himself, but it is pitched more as a concession to the nation's needs than to Moshe's.]

Did none of our heroes have moments of physical weakness? Unlikely; no one makes it from 40 to 80 without their body failing them at some point. So either all of them overrode their personal suffering, or the Talmud felt that discussing the times they surrendered was not worthwhile. If it's the latter, then is the Talmud's logic that life will teach us to take it slow, but playing through pain requires indoctrination via talmudic role models? Or is there some other reason why "take it slow" was omitted from the canon? What do you think?


  1. "Take it slow" has no place in the Jewish canon for the same reason that fish would not think of making a word for water, and why people had words for wind millennia before coming up with one for still air.

    The entire Jewish project is to work on refining one's tzelem E-lokim and that the task takes a lifetime. Judaism is all about a project that is as slow as the practitioner can get.

    To be seasonable about it: some people think that a good Yamim Nora'im resolution is to add something major to their avodas Hashem. Truth is, big jumps rarely "stick". And besides, we aren't so much judged for where we are as much as where we are headed. So even a big jump wouldn't be a big change in what we're doing, but a large change in direction (or speed). Small incremental changes that show a major change in priorities are actually more emblematic of teshuvah, aside from being more likely to work.

    1. R' Micha-
      Interesting points. I must admit that I meant "take it slow" like "take it easy", but I still like what you wrote...

  2. "The biblical Yitro does tell Moshe to set up associate judges rather than handle the nation's entire caseload himself, but it is pitched more as a concession to the nation's needs than to Moshe's." - why can't you take solace in this very concept? Your recovery is imperative in continuing to educate so many people who rely on it.

    1. Anonymous 2:33 PM-
      Thanks for writing. Indeed, I am trying to do that.

    2. Although I am fully aware that there are many other, better educators out there; no single cog is crucial for our gears.

    3. Every cog is crucial, otherwise G-d wouldn't have "bothered" making it.

      "אבל אם תהיה הרגשתו מאומתת, שכללות הבריאה הוא האדם הגדול והוא ג״כ כאבר קטן בגוף הגדול הזה, אז רם ונשא גם ערכו הוא, שבמכונה גדולה גם מסמר היותר קטן אם רק משמש כלום להמכונה, הוא דבר חשוב מאד..."

      "But if his feelings are broader and include [all of] creation, that he is a great person and also like a small limb in this great body, then he is lofty and of great worth. In a great engine even the smallest screw is a very important thing if it serves even the smallest role in the engine...."

      - Rav Shimon Shkop, Shaarei Yashar, introduction