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Shortcuts and Shortchange

06/29/2023 02:41:09 PM


I once did an experiment in college on people’s unconscious behaviors when faced with choices. We were looking at a person’s preference to take the path of least resistance, even if it wasn’t the shortest path. The set-up involved a double set of four doors (like what we use for the main entrance at B’nai Torah) and we’d prop open one of the outside set of doors, and one of the inside ones. Essentially, people would always travel through the open doors, even if they had to go through the most left outer door and walk to the most right inner door, rather than opening a door manually. Or in other words, people would rather walk more steps than open a door. 

Jewish Law considers this behavior when interacting with holy spaces. In the Mishna (Berachot 9:5), the Sages teach that a person is not supposed to use the Temple in Jerusalem as a shortcut. Subsequently, the rabbis of the Talmud applied this same principle to synagogues of their day, and prohibited someone from using a sanctuary or any holy place as a shortcut (Megillah 29a). This is to say, according to our tradition, people ought to take more steps around the holy spaces to go the long way around, rather than diminish the sanctity of a place by treating it lightly. Thus, when I find myself needing to get from B’nai Torah’s office to the social hall, I don’t take the shortest path through the sanctuary, but rather go around through the hallway and lobby. Except when I am in a big rush!

What happens when you need to get to the other side of the sanctuary and don’t want to spend the time to go around? Well there is a workaround! If you spend some time in prayer then you are allowed to take the more convenient exit! Which connects us to this week’s torah portions Hukkat-Balak. In the latter parsha, the prophet Balaam is on a mission to curse the Israelites, but instead ends up blessing the people. And one of those blessings contains the line “How great are you tents O Jacob, your encampments O Israel – Ma Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael.” I was taught that if you had to use a sanctuary as a shortcut, then at least study this verse from the Bible; at least pray this verse which became the prelude to the prayer one says when entering a sanctuary. Thus you’d have come, you’d have prayed, and then you’d have shortcut-ted.

While this Jewish law is pertinent to a synagogue worker who spends a lot of time needing to get from one end of the building to the other, it is also relevant to all the shortcuts we make in life. Humans are often expedient and often looking for the easiest and most convenient way to do something. But what if our shortcuts are short-changing the holy moments that are most important to us? What if we weren’t spending the appropriate amount of time doing the more meaningful things as we rushed around between the already open doors of our lives? On this Sabbath day of rest, perhaps we can also spend some time reflecting on the moments of our lives that deserve a little more time. Perhaps we can follow up and add our own verses and prayers that we can add to those moments, and at least acknowledge the little bit of holiness that they very much deserve. 

Shabbat Shalom

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784