Burnout, Shavuot and Living with Purpose by Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Pursue meaning, not happiness.
It’s official. Last week the World Health Organization just concluded that the official compendium of diseases needs to include one more common contemporary disease under its list of sicknesses to be taken seriously by the medical profession.
Burnout has been upgraded from a “state of exhaustion” to a “syndrome” – which means that a truly significant number of people are not just sick of their jobs and sick of their lives; they are sick in the literal sense, ill mentally, emotionally and physically to the extent that their condition requires professional attention.
Perhaps this new phenomenon can shed on a famous biblical story, a seminal event in the life of Moses which may have much greater meaning than commonly understood at first reading.
Moses’ first encounter with G-d took place at a bush. Bush in Hebrew is called sneh. Commentators claim that very spot would be the location for the giving of the 10 Commandments. From the word sneh comes the word Sinai. The holiday of Shavuot and the giving of the Torah are inextricably linked with the scene of the miracle shown to Moses. A bush burning with fire was strangely not consumed.
Superficially it was simply the scene of a miracle. It was G-d demonstrating his supernatural power. It was the prelude to G-d asking Moses to assume the heavy burden of leadership. Yet the question begs to be asked: Could not G-d have performed a more amazing feat than this? Surely there must’ve been some greater meaning to this particular miracle. Indeed, the specific nature of the miracle must have also been a sign and a message.
Permit me to suggest that G-d was giving Moses a powerful answer to the very same problem currently identified as key to contemporary culture. A bush was burning – yet it was not consumed. So too, G-d assured Moses, doing G-d’s will, having a life filled with meaning and purpose, is the best way to never suffer from burnout.
The “burning bush” is not so much the story of a miracle as it is a vivid depiction of the miracle of lives filled with fiery passion for a greater cause.
Burnout, psychologists tell us, is apathy, akin to the feeling that life has no meaning. There is a crisis of purpose in our world today. People feel overwhelmed, lonely, and unfulfilled. In chasing the “good life,” they have sacrificed their relationships, their health, and, at the end of the day, still find themselves with lives and work that bring them little joy and meaning. Depression is on the rise and many people can’t cope with the pace of change brought on by technological, cultural, and social transformations. Some turn to drugs and other forms of avoidance, some put on a happy face to mask the issues, while others simply withdraw and postpone living a full life. Many people feel like they are “prisoners” in their own lives.
Viktor Frankl, the world-renowned psychiatrist, existential philosopher, and author of the classic bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning, described it brilliantly. People today, he said, are living in an existential vacuum. Vacuums need content – and the content must be purpose.
In The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters Emily Esfahani Smith reviewed hundreds of empirical papers from the growing body of research on meaningfulness and found that the defining features of a meaningful life are connecting and contributing to something beyond the self. Meaningful activities generate positive emotions and deepen social connections, both of which increase our satisfaction with life. Research shows that focusing on happiness in life is actually self-defeating. Helen Keller put it well: “Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”
The most motivating choices are ones that align with our “why” and our purpose. Christine L. Carter Ph.D., a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Work and Home explains:
“Compelling research indicates that the pursuit of happiness – when our definition of happiness is synonymous with pleasure and easy gratification – won’t ultimately bring us deeper feelings of fulfilment; it won’t allow us to live in our sweet spot. Although we claim that the “pursuit of happiness” is our inalienable right and the primary driver of the human race, we humans do better pursuing fulfillment and meaning – creating lives that generate the feeling that we matter.”
In her research, Iris Mauss, a social psychologist at U.C. Berkeley who studies the possible negative consequences of seeking happiness, found that people who place a great value on being happy actually have more mental health problems, including, sadly enough, depression. The more value you place on your own happiness, the more likely you are to feel lonely. “Wanting to be happy can make you less happy. If you explicitly and purposely focus on happiness, that appears to have a self-defeating quality. Don’t spend your valuable time seeking your own happiness. You will end up feeling more shallow than you can ever imagine. Pursuing meaning, however, makes you feel good about yourself, because you are pursuing something bigger than yourself. Something that makes you come alive.”
The holiday of Shavuot recalls the single most important moment in of all of human history. At Sinai we were given a call to make our lives filled with meaning. We were given the commandment that our lives must have purpose – and the pursuit of that purpose would ensure far greater joy than the pursuit of happiness.
Sinai reinforced the message of the sneh, the burning bush. In making our lives meaningful we have found the divine response to the dreaded disease of burnout.
Rediscovering the Revelation by Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky
A thousand years after Sinai, the Jews reaffirmed their commitment to Torah. Why two acceptances?
Revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai is the cornerstone of faith upon which all of Judaism rests. As Maimonides (Foundations of the Torah 8:1) points out, revelation is not simply a proof of faith but the perception of the Divine in the most direct way possible. While other miracles served to prove Divine existence, revelation was the experience of the Divine itself. For one brief moment, the curtains of concealment were parted, letting in the rays of the Divine in all its brightness.
Yet, strangely enough, our Sages tell us that the experience of revelation at Sinai was somehow not the ultimate in acceptance of God’s dominion. The Talmud (Shabbat 82) tells us that at Sinai “the mountain was poised over the Jews like a barrel.” The Jews were forced into accepting the Torah.
It was not until the miracle of Purim, a thousand years later, that the Jews willingly reaffirmed their commitment to Torah. It seems strange that the Jews had to be forced to accept the Torah after they beheld and experienced the Divine in all its glory; it seems even stranger that the literal description of these events in the Torah does not mention this tradition. The passages describing the giving of the Torah make no mention of force, while prior to the original Purim, the Jews were, indeed, threatened with extinction, until they repented and returned to G-d.
Searching to Fill the Void
In two ways does one become cognizant of the sun. One can behold the sun in its dazzling glory, or one can be locked into a pitch-dark room wherein every minute of waiting for a crack of light makes one even more aware of the joy of basking in the sun. Similarly, a father-son relationship peaks with a warm embrace at the height of a moment of joy. Yet it can be outranked by the feelings of yearning and pining that accompany a prolonged absence from home. Many a son who has not responded to a warm embrace has found the pangs of absence unbearably strong.
This phenomenon is explained in the discussion by the Maharal on the importance of the Four Questions in the Haggadah, and why someone who conducts his Passover Seder in a monologue fashion, not following a question-and-answer format, does not fulfill his obligation to tell the story of the Exodus on Passover. He explains that when one merely hears a statement, one does not incorporate into it one’s personality. It is just tagged onto one’s awareness. This is not the case when one receives an answer to a question. For, by having posed the question, one opens a void, and the answer fills it, forming a unified entity with the person rather than adding on a superfluity.
The Vilna Gaon’s commentary on the “Song of Songs” makes a similar observation. The pleasure a person derives from food is in direct proportion to his hunger. A sated person can be presented with the tastiest of dishes, and he will reject it in disinterest; should he force the food in, it will not easily find its way down.
The Sefas Emes (in the Torah Portion of Vayetzei) also refers to this principle in explaining why our forefather Jacob did not receive his dream and prophecy until after he had left the yeshiva of Shem and Ever. When a man is in an atmosphere of holiness, his thirst for spirituality is not comparable to the thirst that wells up within a person stumbling through the desert. The Sefas Emes bases this on a Midrash: ” My soul thirsts for you. Where? In a barren and arid land.”
Compulsion Through Clarity
Similarly, this is the difference between Shavuot and Purim – between the festival of receiving the Torah at Sinai and the holiday of its reaffirmation in Shushan.
In the first instance, the Jewish nation was compelled to accept the Torah, but not simply by a physical force. The impact of the enormity of revelation was so immense that it was likened to the mountain poised over their heads. The brilliant light of revelation left no room for doubt, and under that circumstance it was impossible not to accept the Torah.
At Purim, however, it was not the threat to life in itself that inspired the Jewish people’ s repentance and its return to pristine purity. Rather, the hiddenness of G-d – the feeling of abandonment – bestirred powerful yearnings for a Sinai-like encounter with the Divine.
Our Sages (Megillah 15b) tell us that when Queen Esther was to confront King Achashverosh, she cried, ” My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?” To this day, the designated Psalm of Purim (according to the Vilna Gaon) is the one in which this outcry appears; and, as our Sages explain, the Psalm refers to the darkest hour of the night. Thus, while Shavuot marks the cognizance of God through revelation, Purim celebrates the cognizance of God that follows a desperate search in the darkness.
Gift and Acquisition
Torah itself consists of these two parts. One – the Written Law – which is “God’s Torah,” so to speak, was given to us as a revelation. Yet, as it reads, it would remain closed to us. We must refer to the second part of the Torah – the Oral Law – also given at Sinai, to understand the written word. This encompasses the Divine interpretations and expositions, which are accessible to human comprehension; and it includes the rules of exegesis by which God instructs man in how to delve more deeply into the law and teaches him how to apply it to evolving circumstances.
Our Sages (Sanhedrin 24a) describe the long and tortuous system of analysing every word and nuance of the Torah recorded in the Babylonian Talmud as “You restored me in the darkness,” because struggling through passages of Talmud is like “grappling in the dark.” The Oral Torah, therefore, has special properties: it introduces queries and leads the student to conclusive answers, which become integrated into his personality. The results are deeply satisfying – not unlike the end result of the Passover Seder, as described by the Maharal.
Thus, it has been pointed out, the Mishnah opens with a question: “When does one begin reciting the Shema?” And it ends with the word “shalom” (harmony). Understanding the Oral Law is not a matter of absorbing a statement. It is an answer derived from a query, and that is why the Oral Law (and not the Written Law) has been described as the human portion of the Torah.
The same principle can be applied to explain the Maharal’s statement that while the Torah was given on Shavuot, “clinging to the Torah” (deveikus beTorah) was the result of Purim. True enough, Torah can be presented to people – and it was, on Shavuot – but it can only become integrated within one’s personality if one searches first.
Search is deeper than revelation, and its findings more permanent. What need, then, is there for revelation? To be sure, we must refer to the Kuzari’s answer, who teaches that not everyone at every time can achieve a higher level of contact with God through personal search, nor will God reveal Himself to every generation. Thus, God’s original revelation at Sinai gives all subsequent generations – especially those unable to reach spiritual heights on their own – a tradition to fall back on.
There is yet another profound thought involved, one that concerns our discussion. The Jerusalem Talmud (Peah 1:1) explains the verse, “It is not an empty thing from you,” to mean that if a person finds any part of the Torah “empty” – without meaning – it is “from you.” That is, Torah cannot be faulted as being meaningless. Rather, the vacuous feeling in the student is an indication that somewhere within him he is lacking receptivity to that part of Torah. When a work of art is meaningless to a blind man, or a concert uninspiring to a deaf person, the fault is in the viewer not the composition.
The revelation at Sinai created an indelible impression on the Jewish personality, giving us, as a people, a point of reference for all future searches for truth. Thus, all the individual souls of the Jewish people had to be at Sinai – even a proselyte had to be there (Shevuos 39a). Had we not the memory of Sinai deep within us to drive us in our exhaustive search for meaning and understanding in Torah, we could not persevere in mastering Torah; and we would not succeed. We would be “empty” from ourselves.
It is for this same reason that (as the Talmud tells us) a person learns the entire Torah when in his mother’s womb, even though he is destined to forget it prior to birth; for if he had not first learned the Torah, he would not be able to relate to it later.
Return to Torah
Studying Torah, then, is always a return of sorts. This is expressed in our daily prayers: “Return us … to your Torah.”
Indeed, parts of the Oral tradition – such as Onkelos’ Aramaic translation of the Torah – were forgotten and later rediscovered (Megillah 3a). Human endeavour alone would have proven insufficient for composing the translations, had it not been for the spark of Sinai buried deep within the soul. This creative endeavour was not one of initial discovery; it was a return.
There are other instances of creative recall. The Talmud (Menachos) relates that when Moses saw Rabbi Akiva teaching his disciples, he became envious of Rabbi Akiva’ s vast knowledge. The Or HaChayim explains that, to be sure, Moses knew all of the Oral Law that Rabbi Akiva had mastered; but Rabbi Akiva’s level of attainment was such that he was able to discern how the Oral Law is derived from the Written Law.
It has been said that in his last years the Vilna Gaon studied the Written Law. His encyclopaedic grasp of the Oral Law was such that he was able to deduce which of the myriad teachings of the Oral Law are implicit in the Written Law. In a similar vein, the Gaon is reported to have said, “There are three levels of understanding: simple explanation (p’shat), depth (amikus), and again simple explanation (p’shat). There is, however, an infinite difference between simple explanation before depth and simple explanation after depth. The revelation one discovers after a “search” is worlds apart from the revelation one starts with.
An emissary sent to strengthen Judaism in an outlying community later reported to his rabbi that an estranged Jew had asked him to explain his mission. He responded in a parable: “In the days of yore, scribes would go from town to town filling in ‘letters’ that had been rubbed out from Jewish souls.”
After the emissary told the rabbi this parable, the rabbi shook his head, “Heaven forbid that a letter of a Jewish soul becomes erased! It is rather like an engraving that becomes filled with dust: blow the dust away and the original letter appears.”
We must think of our service as circular, not linear. We do, indeed, start with revelation. But that which is not earned has no permanence. We must toil on our own until we rediscover the revelation imbued within each of us. For when we do arrive at our goal, it is not a new enlightenment that awaits us; rather, we unearth that which has driven us so relentlessly – the eternal flame of Sinai.
Excerpted from “Time Pieces: Reflections on the Jewish Year”