GOOD MORNING! One of the ever-present issues related to the pandemic and mostly staying at home has been the struggle to balance motivation to achieve with “vegging out” and doing nothing. At the very basic level, many are faced with: “Do I need to get out of bed before 10 am? Do I really need to get dressed? Do I need to take a shower today?”

A few weeks ago, a new book was published (and can be added to the very impressive modern canon of self-indulgent self-help books), declaring that there is no such thing as laziness (the exact title of the book is “Laziness Does Not Exist”). The author, a “social psychologist,” feels that many people are suffering physical and emotional harm by overworking and this is primarily because they don’t want to be considered lazy. The author tries to assuage the feelings of inadequacy that drives people to overachieve by telling them that being idle is okay.

In my opinion, the author is conflating the drive to counter low self-esteem through overachievements with the basic human desire to not work too hard – otherwise known as laziness. Of course, someone who, in a blind desire to overachieve, totally obliterates their emotional and physical health by pushing themselves to the brink of a nervous breakdown is making a terrible mistake. But it isn’t the desire to not be lazy that drives that person so hard; it’s the lack of self-worth and feelings of inadequacy that they are trying to erase.

But the answer isn’t to be idle. The answer is to try and explore the reasons for low self-esteem and inadequacy and begin to address those issues. Of course idleness is okay; after all, in a sense, the whole concept of Shabbat is built on that, but it has to be done purposefully as a time to rest, recharge, and appreciate all that you have been able to achieve. This has nothing to do with laziness.

Most of us can relate to the feeling of laziness that manifests itself in not wanting to do something; “I will get on the treadmill later,” “I will make that difficult apology call tomorrow,” “I will clean the attic next week,” etc. It’s the elemental desire to not want to expend effort.

This topic reminds me of an eye opening experience that I chanced upon in my school. One day I walked into the office and I saw that the copy machine was rapidly spitting out blank pages. I hurried over to the secretary and told her to stop the print job. She looked at me, somewhat embarrassed, and explained, “One of the teachers asked me to give him exactly 76 sheets of paper for a class project. I didn’t feel like counting them so I just printed 76 sheets of blank paper to give to him.”

I stood there wide-eyed in amazement. On the one hand, I was disturbed by her profound laziness, but on the other hand, I was particularly impressed with her ingenuity. Then reality set in; I remembered that the school pays the service company for every piece of paper that comes out of the copy machine. While it’s true it was only about a penny a page, it was still bothersome.

(Upon further consideration, I decided not to mention that cost to her because she undoubtedly would have pointed out that, based on her hourly wage, the time it would take to count the paper would have cost the school more than 76 cents – and then I would probably have had no choice but to promote her to CFO.)

One of the personalities that Rabbi Packouz, of blessed memory, mentioned several times in these pages was a man known as Sam “Sunny” Goldstein. Sunny was a very wise man and a close friend of mine as well. Toward the end of his life he shared with me that the greatest challenge he faced was that of laziness. As he got older, he didn’t want to leave his cozy apartment. He was a movie aficionado and he was content to happily while away his time at home watching movies and ordering takeout. He lived across the street from Central Park, but had no desire to take a walk.

But Sunny was also very smart. He knew that if he caved to that desire for inactivity then his end was near. So, well into his eighties, he adopted a dog. It was an ingenious way to get himself motivated. The dog would need to be cared for, fed, walked, etc. In short, it forced him to remain active and was also emotionally fulfilling; he loved the dog and the dog loved him.

We find in the Scriptures a verse related to this issue; “For man was born to toil…” (Job 5:7).

The 19th century sage, Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Wisser, (better known by his acronym – “Malbim”) makes a fascinating comment on this verse: “A person was born to toil and earn a living through his efforts. A person that achieves wealth without toil and hard work is living a falsehood and in the end his children will never benefit from it. For the main success of a person depends on the effort he expends.”

True happiness in life is a byproduct of self-accomplishment. People who are motivated to achieve and grow are constantly looking for opportunities to improve themselves and their situation; hiring life coaches, advancing their education, scheduling family time. In short, they create situations that ensure continual growth. (Though, to be fair, self-accomplishment alone does not in itself guarantee happiness; there are many other elements a person must have in their life to be truly happy).

Unfortunately, there are many people who wait for external pressures to force them to act. Have you ever had someone tell you that they work best under pressure? That is really their way of saying, “I am pretty lazy and can’t get anything done through self-motivation. I need the external pressure to get me to focus on what I need to do.”

King Solomon, known as “the wisest of all men,” wrote several of the books that are counted among the “Scriptures.” In the book of Proverbs (26:13), King Solomon makes a rather enigmatic statement regarding laziness: “A lazy person says there is a lion in the road.”

On the surface this is very strange: If there is truly a lion in the road he isn’t lazy, he’s being prudent because it’s dangerous to venture outside. If there is no lion in the road, then he isn’t lazy he’s delusional. Why does King Solomon characterize him as lazy?

In this week’s Torah reading we find another example of laziness. The Torah portion discusses all the gifts that were donated by the Jewish people in the desert to build the Tabernacle – known in Hebrew as the Mishkan.

And the Nesi’im [heads of the tribes] brought onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate (35:27).

The famous medieval commentator known as Rashi explains that the heads of the tribes decided that they should wait to see what everyone else would contribute and then they would supply whatever was still missing.

But they underestimated the generous spirit of the people; almost everything necessary for the building of the Mishkan was quickly donated. The only thing left for them to contribute were the precious stones mentioned in the verse. Rashi continues, “Because they were lazy a letter was removed from their title.” (The Hebrew letter “yud” was omitted from their name.)

Rashi’s characterization of the tribal heads as being lazy can be difficult to comprehend. After all, they offered to complete whatever was missing from the communal contributions. In essence, they were offering to deficit-fund the construction of the Mishkan. This is every fundraiser’s dream. Obviously, they cared enough to make sure that the Mishkan would be completed properly; so, why are they referred to as lazy?

The key to understanding laziness is the analysis of individual motivation. Is the motivation internal or is it based on external factors? Do I go to work because I want to be productive or because I need to go grocery shopping and pay my rent? Do I want to get the project done or am I doing it because otherwise my boss will yell at me?

This is what King Solomon is saying: Of course there is a lion on the road, but a lazy person sees that as an insurmountable obstacle, while an industrious person just looks at the situation as a problem that he must overcome. After all, there are a multitude of solutions to almost any situation. Lazy people find excuses while motivated people find workarounds.

This was the mistake of the heads of tribes. They weren't motivated enough to actually help with the building of the Mishkan; they were only motivated by the external pressure of not having a Mishkan. This is why they only offered to deficit fund the project, in case the Jewish people did not come through. However, as community leaders, they should have led the contributions. For this reason, they are called lazy and had a letter removed from their name. (The Torah tells us in the Book of Numbers that they actually learned from their mistake and by the inauguration of the altar they were the first to contribute.)

Motivated people are always looking to move forward and grow. They take on responsibilities that spur them to ever higher levels of achievement – even though it increases the pressure on other aspects of their lives. Of course, this includes one of the most important ways to grow: doing for others.

Torah Portion of the Week

Vayakhel-Pekudei, Exodus 35:1 - 40:38

Moshe relays the Almighty's commands to refrain from building the Mishkan (the Tabernacle or Portable Sanctuary) on the Shabbat, to contribute items needed to build the Mishkan, to construct the components of the Mishkan and the appurtenances of the Cohanim. The craftsmen are selected, the work begins. The craftsmen report that there are too many donations, and for the first and probably the only time in fundraising history, the Jewish people are told to refrain from bringing additional contributions!

  Pekudei includes an accounting of all the materials that went into the making of the Mishkan and details of the construction of the clothing of the Cohanim. The Tabernacle is completed, Moses examines all of the components and gives his approval to the quality and exactness of construction, the Almighty commands to erect the Tabernacle, it's erected and the various vessels are placed in their proper place.

Candle Lighting Times

No pressure, no diamonds.
— Thomas Carlyle


Dedicated in Loving Memory

Ruth bas Leopold
 

In loving memory of
Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Kalman Moshe ben Reuven Avigdor
1950-2019

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

Copyright © 2021 Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig