My grandfather used to smoke a few packs of cigarettes a day for most of his life. I know I shouldn’t have, but I loved the smell of his cigarettes, even though I knew they were harmful. Nonetheless, I would ask, “grandpa, when are you going to stop smoking?” And he always gave me the same answer: “Tomorrow.” The next day, I would see him smoking again and I would say, “Grandpa, you said you would stop smoking but you still are. When are you going to stop?” He would ask, “What did I tell you yesterday?” I said, “Tomorrow.” He said, “My answer hasn’t changed.”
It’s hard to make changes in our lives, even if the changes are for the better. That’s why this time of the year is so important. The month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, is the time when we say to ourselves, “Not tomorrow, today.” Let’s not wait to elevate our lives and make them better.
I actually think that one of the little secrets to improving our lives is hidden in this week’s Torah portion. In our story, the Children of Israel have been wandering around the desert for forty years and they are about to enter the Land of Israel. Moses is giving them some final instructions and laws that will help them to thrive.
But the spark of wisdom is hidden in a very odd law. Remember, this law was written at a time when men were able to marry more than one woman, so we have to look beyond that practice to discover the wisdom. But let’s agree that marrying more than one person may not be appropriate for our times, even though in some circles, it is making a comeback. The Torah describes a man with two wives, one that is loved and the other that is unloved, and both wives have children. Back then, the first-born child received a double portion of the inheritance and took over as the head of the family. This was done because they believed that families ran better with a clear leader who had authority and wealth. We may have different beliefs today about what makes for a good family and society, but in their time, these rules helped them to flourish. The Torah imagines a situation that must have been all too common. The older child who should be receiving the double-portion of the inheritance is from the unloved wife, while the second child is from the loved wife.
So what would we naturally want to do? We want to follow our hearts and give the double-portion to the child of the wife that is loved. The Torah knows where our heart is leading us. In fact, almost every older child in the early stories of the Torah are usurped by the younger child. So the Torah is warning us: “I know you want to follow your passions alone, but that’s not the wise move.
Let’s be clear, this story is not just about loved and unloved wives and double portions of inheritance. It’s really teaching us about where we should devote our time, our money, and our attention.
We all have the metaphoric equivalent of children from our beloved spouse and children from our unloved spouse. In other words, we all have places we want to give our time and money and attention and places where we are not as moved to give. So, what’s the equivalent of giving the larger inheritance to the younger child of the beloved spouse? It’s when we give the larger portion of our time, our attention, and our money to the activities we love to do. We all have our own list of things that we love. For some, we just like to sit and gab with people, for others, we want to watch TV or get lost on social media. Some of us are passionate about travel or reading novels or exercising. For me, I love to eat and could get lost for hours watching pointless YouTube videos. It’s not a problem to have activities we love doing, the problem is when our priorities are only based upon what we love rather than priorities that are also based upon what is good or right.
If we only lead with our hearts, we give a double portion to the child of the loved spouse. If we only lead with our desires, we do the things that delight us and ignore the things that enrich us. The message is not that we should never do things that delight us. The message is to understand what is important to make us and the world better and devote ourselves to those activities first.
But how do we not simply follow are passions exclusively? First we have to realize that sometimes we have room in our life to follow passions. That’s great. But other times, following our passion becomes a way for us to avoid doing things that are good for ourselves and the world. In these cases I have three ways that we can do good and still feel good.
Take a Dive
Sometimes we follow our passions and do what is fun because it helps us avoid the negative feelings of doing what is good and important. That’s exactly what I experience when I was here three years ago and learned about our amazing Winter Shelter where we provide a meal and a place to sleep on Sunday nights between December and March. I knew that they needed people to work at the shelter, but frankly I was afraid that working with the homeless would make me uncomfortable. One way to handle it is to slowly overcome our fear and discomfort, one Sunday, just serve dinner, the next Sunday stay until the residents of the shelter go to sleep. The Sunday after that, serve as a host and sleeping over for the night. There is nothing wrong with doing that. But there is another tried-and-true way to deal with the fears that lead us to follow the fun rather than focus on the good, and that is, just jump in.
Part of what communities do is remind us of what is good, not just what is fun. When I heard that the Winter Shelter needed a volunteer, I didn’t think about it, I didn’t stew in my insecurities, and I didn’t arrange to go to concerts every Sunday from December through March, so I would have a convenient excuse for not participating, I just said “Yes, I’ll do it.” Sometimes we all need to take a dive into the tasks that we fear.
Energize don’t Enervate
Finally, I want to teach you a very helpful phrase that I want to popularize in the congregation that can help us to enjoy volunteering here and also help us to focus on important deeds. It is the distinction between energizing and enervating. There are times when I talk to someone and at the end of that conversation I feel inspired and excited and ready to accomplish great things even though the work seems hard. I walk away energized. Energizing conversations are not always about how great I am. Often an energizing conversation may be about ideas that improve the world. The question is, what is the tone of that conversation. There are also times when a conversation leaves me enervated, like a balloon that has lost its air or a battery that has been depleted. There is a clear psychological cause for enervation that is captured in one single Yiddish word: kvetching. Kvetching is when we focus exclusively on our own personal negative reactions to something. “Ick, I don’t like the food.” “Blech, I don’t want to go to that program, it seems stupid.” That leaves us enervated. So how do we turn an enervating kvetch into something energizing? We change from “I don’t like XYZ” to “I have a thought about making XYZ better in the future.” I am enervated by past or present failures. I am energized by the possibility of future improvements.
We can choose to energize ourselves or enervate ourselves. I can say, “I don’t like to exercise,” which is an enervating kvetch, or I can say, “What I really want do is be healthier and this will help,” or “I enjoy exercising much more when I have someone to exercise with.”
Let’s energize ourselves and each other.
I’ll tell you one place where we, as a congregation are working to energize rather than enervate is with voter engagement. Complaining about political situations is folly. Bringing people together to create something better than we have today is exciting. That’s why we are trying to bring as many people into constructive political engagement as possible. Help us to organize and energize and engage one another.
Our Torah talks about the importance of love and passion. Let’s remind ourselves to embrace our loves and foster our passions while focusing on what is good and right and important. Let’s remember that sometimes we have to dive in to overcome our fears, and that we can chose whether to enervate or energize. I know that I am energized by being here with you a feel the excitement and confidence that we can find the delicate balance that allows us to enjoy life and improve it at the very same time.