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Parshas Behaaloscha (5774)

"When I Have Some Time to Think, I'll Think About Thinking"

In the Torah we find the following story (Exodus 5:1-14): Moses returns to Egypt, and, with his brother Aaron, tells Pharaoh that G-d demands the Children of Israel be set free. Pharaoh tells them, "I've never heard of G-d. I have no intention of freeing the Hebrews. And if they have leisure time to think about freedom, it probably means they're not working hard enough." So he doubles the Hebrews' work quota.

Our own lives are often informed by Pharaoh's malicious prescription that being busy will shear us of thought. The television goes on as soon as we wake up in the morning. In the car, the radio goes on. All day we're busy at work. As we drive home, the radio plays. The evening is filled with more television and some web-surfing, and then we go to bed - no moment of the day is spared for peaceful contemplation that might permit us to consider who we are and what our lives are really about.

We don't seem to leave much time in our daily schedules for thinking about things. We tend to be so busy working on every other part of our bodies - we exercise to make sure our heart is functioning properly, we work out to tone our tummies and build up our biceps and triceps, we put in long hours at the office to bring home good money in order to afford vacations where we can sit on the beach and, you guessed it, not think about anything - that we sometimes neglect the most amazing tool our body has - the human brain and its capacity to think!

Instead, we sort of go through life doing what we do and living how we live "because that's what everyone else is doing", but often without thinking too much about why we live this way and what life is really all about, and other important, soul-searching questions.

Albert Einstein once said, "He who joyfully marches in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice."

A guest lecturer I once heard in the States quoted the following statistic:

1% of the population thinks ….
4% of the population thinks that they think …
and 95% of the population would rather die than think!

Now, I grant you, this statistic is quite exaggerated. But the bottom line is that we don't leave ourselves much time to think, and maybe it's also easier to march in rank and file, and not to give life too much thought.


The funny thing is that even when we do actually set aside some time to attend a thought-provoking sermon, lecture or discussion about issues which are relevant to how we should live our lives - we tend to have a certain threshold of "thinking pain" that we can handle, and after that .... see ya, we need a break!

This is, in reality, an old-age phenomenon that dates back to our Jewish ancestors wandering in the desert, over 3000 years ago.

In this week's Torah portion, Parshas Beha'alosecha, we find a very strange thing that can’t be found anywhere else in the Torah. The two verses that begin with "Va'yehi bin-soa ha'aron....."(Numbers 10:35-36) are surrounded by two inverted nuns (i.e. upside down Hebrew letter nuns .... not the gals in the convent!!), which serve to separate them from the verses before and after them.

Nachmanides, a medieval Bible commentator, explains that these two strange upside down Hebrew letters create a break between two sins that the Jewish committed as they journeyed forth from Mount Sinai, where they had just received the Torah from G-d. The more obvious sin, that of the "complaining Jews" (so what else is new?), is mentioned in the beginning of Chapter 11, right after the second inverted nun. The first sin is alluded to in verse 33, right before the first inverted nun, where the Torah states that the Jews left the mountain of G-d, on which Nachmanides comments, citing a Midrash, that "they fled from the mountain of G-d like a child running out of school at the end of the day", happy to leave that holy place because G-d might give them even more commandments.

It’s like … the Jews were sitting in class, at Mount Sinai High, learning Torah and thinking intensely about life and our purpose here on earth, when all of a sudden, the school bell rings, and - BOOM-ZOWIE - they're outta there! "Quick, Reuben, let's scram, my brains are fried!" …. "Hey, guys, I'm skipping out now before ‘Teach’ gives us any more homework!" And this was considered a sin on the part of the Jewish people! G-d is telling us, "You finally have an opportunity to study and focus and think about the important things in life - and you bolt out the door the moment the lesson's over?"

Sadly, though, this is human nature. It's not so easy to spend time seriously thinking about our lives and where we're headed. Even if we manage to take some time out of our busy work schedules to utilize a small portion of that think-tank called the brain, it's not always a pleasant experience. And if we get together periodically to study Torah and think about "the bigger picture of life" (which is commendable enough considering the lack of such activity among the general population), there is a certain tension that exists and that is ultimately resolved when the class is finished and we can return to our previous activities.

But, ultimately, we were given that great big brain between our shoulders in order to use it - to ponder our existence, and to constantly challenge and rethink the assumptions that we have held to be true till now. And to grow spiritually from all the thinking that we do, and for which purpose we were given the Torah in the first place.

I know that for most of my early years, I hardly thought about anything in life (!). When I reached 18, I started to think about my purpose here on earth, and about what it means to me to be Jewish. But then, only a few years ago, I realized that all along I merely thought that I was thinking, but, in reality, hadn't been thinking at all! So now, I have really started thinking. And boy is it tough …. but well worth it!

Well … what do you think?

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