Straight Talk Parshat Va'eira: Your Busy Life
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Va'eira(Exodus 6:2-9:35)

Your Busy Life

The Sages tell us that Pharaoh is an archetype of the yetzer hara - the "evil inclination." In Hebrew, Pharaoh's name is a composite of two words, peh and rah - evil mouth. He represents the part of each of us that, so to speak, whispers evil in our ears. If we see how Pharaoh works, we can understand how this part of us works, too.

Moses comes to Pharaoh and asks that the Jewish people be allowed to leave. Pharaoh's response is to immediately decree more work for the Jewish people. This is not just spiteful anger. It is the root of his whole strategy: the more that people work, the less they think. And the less they think, the less they make meaningful and independent decisions.

This is also the strategy employed by this part of ourselves. The more we mindlessly do, the less we meaningfully achieve. If the yetzer hara can keep us busy with busy-work, it knows that ultimately we will not accomplish.

Anyone who works in an office, for example, understands this inclination. When you arrive at the office, here are your priorities: check your email, tidy your desk, organize your papers, check your email again in case more has arrived, take a quick look at the news in case anything of significance has happened, clean your computer screen, untangle your telephone wire and, of course, check your email again - just in case. Before you know it, it's time for lunch. It all makes you feel like you are accomplishing, when in fact you are just wasting time.

The yetzer hara, like Pharaoh, will move us constantly from one task to the next in order that our days become so full that we have no time to stop and think whether we are accomplishing what we really want. It happens to everyone in one way or another. We subconsciously look for things to do to keep us busy - things that we can feel are in "some way" meaningful, so that we don't feel like we're wasting our lives.

True, I will work better with a clean computer screen and untangled telephone wire. True, if I check my emails constantly I will know if there is anything that requires my immediate attention. It all sounds so credible that it's often hard to discern when Pharaoh is speaking, and when the issue is a real one.

There is only one solution to this problem and that is to become a thinker. Wake up in the morning and ask yourself what you are living for, and what do you need to do today to make that a reality. Get to the office and prioritize what you have to do; untangling the telephone wire is unlikely to be high on the list. Before you embark on a task, ask yourself why you are doing it right now and whether there is anything you should be doing instead.

It's hard work and quite challenging to live this way. It means thinking and choosing, instead of mindlessly doing. And it takes a lot of practice before it becomes in any way second nature. But ultimately, it's much more rewarding. We can build empty pyramids for Pharaoh or we can build meaningful accomplishment that will remain with us for all eternity. Constantly thinking and choosing is the only way to do so.

Published: January 17, 2009

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