Thursday, February 24, 2011

PROCRASTINATION: PARASHAT VA-YAKHEL 5771/2011


WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT VA-YAKHEL:  2011/5771

PROCRASTINATION



And the Princes [ha-nesi’im] brought the onyx stones, and the stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate. (Ex. 35:27)

The Hebrew word nesi’im is written defectively.  The letter yud, which is a characteristic of the Hebrew masculine plural, is omitted.  For Rashi, the omission is significant.  It is not merely a scribal peculiarity. Rather, it hints at an act of omission on the part of the Princes, indicating an aspect of spiritual dereliction by the tribal leaders.   What was that dereliction?  What was the wrongdoing of which they were guilty?  Why was it serious enough to be hinted at in the Torah? Citing Rabbi Natan, Rashi makes the following suggestion:

 What insight led the Princes to initiate the voluntary contributions for the construction of the altar?   In the case of  [contributions required for] the sanctuary they were not the first to make voluntary contributions!   Surely their reasoning at that time must have been: “ let the community masses [first] contribute whatever they contribute and we shall then make up for any shortfall in their contributions.”  But, when the members of the community had reached their goal in entirety, the Princes must have thought: “ What is there left for us to do?”  [Accordingly], “they brought the onyx stones and the stones to be set for the ephod and for the breastplate].”   This is why they made the first contributions for the construction of the altar.   It was because they had been initially neglectful [hitatzlu]  [in the sanctuary project] that a letter was omitted from their names, and the word ha nesi’im was written defectively, without the customary letter yud. 

In answering his question about the missing yud, Rashi essentially makes the following points:

1.    The princely gift of precious stones for the ephod and breastplate is reported after the entire campaign for the sanctuary materials was concluded.
2.    The Princes should not have waited so long to make their contribution.
3.    Their tardiness is memorialized in the defectively written word, indicating that slothfulness was a character defect.
4.    The Princes learned their lesson.  In the construction of the altar they were the first to come forward, refusing to stand back and wait for others to expend the initial effort.


However, Rashi’s solution to the puzzle of the missing yud raises bigger questions than it answers. What was wrong with the Princes’ motivation?  Their attitude was openhearted and open-ended commitment.  They were prepared to make up the shortfall in contributions, no matter how large. “Let the masses contribute whatever they contribute and we shall cover whatever is still required”. By no stretch of the imagination does this reasoning reflect a slothful attitude.  The nature of the Princes’ contribution confirms their sincere commitment and generosity.  The precious stones they provided were not only expensive, but also the most crucial component of the breastplate, transforming an article of clothing into an instrument for divine oracles.  The importance of their gift is a reflection of anything but a character defect.  Why should they be punished for doing something so good?  Was this a rabbinic example of the truth of the popular adage that no good deed goes unpunished?

According to the author of Menachem Zion, Rashi’s citation of Rabbi Natan’s dictum was to communicate an entirely different but extremely important teaching:  “Ein machmitzim et ha-mitzvot, ela im ba le-yadekha, aseh otah miyad” [Do not put off the performance of mitzvot.  On the contrary, should the opportunity to perform a mitzvah present itself to you, you should do it at once.”] (Mekhilta Bo: 12). Immediate, spontaneous performance of a mitzvah is preferable to a more carefully considered and thus more perfect performance that is delayed.

The sages illustrate the virtue of non-procrastination in a remarkable talmudic passage.  The final chapter of tractate Sanhedrin contains a list of kings and commoners who were considered to be unworthy of immortal life.  Who were the authors of this list of rogues?  They were the distinguished members of the epoch-making Great Assembly of the Sages, which Ezra the Scribe established. It remained in session for about a century, establishing the fundamental structures and spiritual ideals of what was to become rabbinic Judaism. The majority of its members voted to include King Solomon in their list of the spiritually ostracized, presumably because of he excesses of which he was guilty. He had, after all, contravened the biblical law of kings by taking so many wives, and amassing so many horses The ghost of King David appeared to plead for his disgraced son, but the sages were unmoved by this terrifying intrusion from beyond the grave. Fire from heaven entered the assembly hall, its flames licking the very benches on which the sages were sitting. But they chose to pay no heed even to this display of divine vexation at their decision. Ultimately, the echo of the divine voice [bat kol] resounded through the assembly hall reciting from the 22nd chapter of the Book of Proverbs: “Have you beheld a man who goes about his business without procrastinating [mahir bimelakhto]? He shall stand firmly in the presence of kings. He shall not be forever fixed in the presence of rogues.” Let him who hastened to build My House before he built his own house forever stand in the presence of [worthy] kings. (B.T. Sanhedrin 104b).

This aggadic passage is an astonishing instance of the rabbinic imagination.  Arguably the most important convocation of rabbis in the history of the Jewish tradition is portrayed as impertinently ignoring several awesome supernatural signs of God’s displeasure at their inclusion of Solomon in the ranks of the truly despicable. They are not moved by the ghostly appearance of King David or by the heavenly fire sent to frighten them into compliance. Only one argument moves them to exonerate the wayward king—his alacrity in building the holy Temple, his refusal to satisfy his personal ambitions by procrastinating in building the House of God. In virtue of his being a “man who goes about his business without procrastinating [mahir bimelakhto],” Solomon is saved from the horrible fate he might otherwise have suffered. 

The sages’ teaching about the importance of not procrastinating applies to many areas of our lives. Procrastination is often a negative consequence of perfectionism. Students frequently miss deadlines for submitting term papers because they obsess about getting every detail, sometimes even every phrase, perfect. Their obsession about producing the perfect paper leads to endless rewriting and frustration—and, ultimately, failure to submit their work on time. 

We rationalize our not setting aside regular times for Torah study on the basis of not having enough discretionary time. We persuade ourselves that short study sessions cannot produce real learning. Our study will be more perfect at some future time when, for example, we no longer have to work full-time.  But this rarely happens. Our procrastinating has doomed our hopes of ever learning.

For the same reason, we put off participating in a regular daily minyan. The davening is too fast. Our private communion with God is more perfect anyway. And our other commitments are too time consuming to allow us the luxury of going to shul, finding parking, and so forth. So, we put it off to a later, less busy and stressful time in our lives.

 We know that regular exercise is vital for maintaining good health, and that health maintenance is a divine imperative (ve-nishmartem me’od), but busyness and stress are our excuses for procrastination. There is scarcely any area of our private lives to which the pitfalls of procrastination do not apply. Our sages urge punctuality rather than perfection, performance rather than procrastination.

The message of non-procrastination is particularly urgent on the collective level. The Arab world is in flames. Iran is in the ascendant. The peace with Egypt is precarious. The mesmerizing Islamist cleric, Yusuf al Qaradawi, back in Egypt after 30 years of exile, has addressed ten million Egyptians, both declaring his tolerant pluralism and simultaneously justifying suicide bombings within Israel and calling for open borders with Gaza. The contradiction is not lost on Israelis, who foresee increased terror from Hamas-especially following the escape from an Egyptian prison of its senior military commander, Ayman Nofal, who has declared: “Now we are preparing for the next battle.” Jordan, too, is vulnerable, and its peace with Israel at risk. There has been only one Security Council condemnation of one Arab tyrant, and silence on all the others who kill innocents in the streets. Yet in the midst of the inferno, the UN finds time to label Jewish housing in Jerusalem a threat to peace-with the USA joining the chorus of the blamers.

 If ever there were a time for Jewish activism, it is now. We each   have to remind our representatives in Washington of our concern for the safety of Israel. We have to give material support to AIPAC and NORPAC. Any Jew who procrastinates now is complicit in potential tragedy. “Ein machmitzim et ha-mitzvot, ela im ba le-yadekha, aseh otah miyad” [Do not put off the performance of mitzvot.  On the contrary, should the opportunity to perform a mitzvah present itself to you, you should do it at once.”]




1 comment:

  1. Dear Rabbi Weiss,
    Thank you very much for this very apt d'var Torah.
    The mussar lesson of "Punctuality Rather than Perfection" is something most all of us need to hear.
    Your words elevated our Shabbos table!
    sincere Best Wishes,
    -- steve fink

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