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Keeping Track of it All

12/08/2022 01:00:18 PM

Dec8

There is an exercise I like to do with B’nai Mitzvah students when I have them try to remember a random number. I start off small and ask them to remember four numbers, and after they repeat them back, I then add subsequent sets of three or four numbers for them to remember, until they become overburdened and overwhelmed. Most students get to about 10-12 numbers. Some get a little further. Inevitably though, the students reach a breaking point where they just can’t keep all the numbers in their head at the same time. At least not without a lot of effort. 

I use this exercise when exploring how we remember the mistakes we make when trying to learn a Torah portion. When someone corrects one mistake, it is easy to remember to correct the single mistake next time. However, when those mistakes continue to pile up, it is harder and harder to keep track and remember all the words, notes, and vowels that need correcting. I argue that when we go slow and focus on a smaller set of items, it is easier for us to keep track of everything and prevent mistakes from slipping through the cracks. The less things that are occupying our attention, the more brain-space we have to focus.  

And then after this analysis and explanation, I return back to that 10-12 string of numbers which usually is even harder to recall as the memory has deteriorated further. 

In Parshat Vayishlach, I am reminded of this feature of human attention. As Jacob makes his way back home and is poised to encounter his estranged brother, he is worried that Esau still bears a grudge and is out to kill him. And it doesn’t help that Esau is coming to meet him with an army of four hundred men. In an attempt to cut his losses, Jacob splits his family in half. He reasons that if Esau attacks one camp, the other can get away to safety. It’s a smart tactic, but it is one that distresses Jacob. In his prayer for divine protection, Jacob laments that his family has to be split up (Genesis 32:11). It’s as if he is saying to God: “Look what has become of me and my family!”

The sage Rabbi Hillel used to teach “More property, more anxiety,” (Avot 2:7), or as the hip hop artist Biggie Smalls put it, “Mo Money, Mo Problems.” Running a household comes with many tasks that vie for our attention. There always seems to be a never-ending to-do list, and the needs of the household continuously evolve. Dishes always need to be washed, laundry always needs to be done, the garden still needs to be weeded, and you seem to have run out of soap again! Multiply this by two and we can begin to imagine the extra anxiety facing Jacob as he splits his camp in two (let alone the threat of the potentially vengeful brother!)

It is almost impossible to go throughout our day without multitasking. From expectations of work and family, to the personal resolutions we make about our own health and wellbeing, there are many things we keep track of and work towards. We don’t just divide our lives in two, but maybe even into four or fourteen! It can be overwhelming. When we look at the larger picture, life is overwhelming and there is a lot to keep track of. But if we focus smaller, and pay attention to one thing at a time, perhaps we can still get everything done in a less stressful manner. Taking one step at a time, we might even better fulfill the tasks that we are doing now, not having to waste brain space on things that are coming down the pike.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sun, January 29 2023 7 Shevat 5783