(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including…mi'ut s'chorah, minimizing gainful work…
(Exodus 6:9) …v'lo sham'u el moshe mikotzer ru'ach umei'avodah kasha. (When Moses brought his message of impending redemption, the Israelites)…did not hear Moses due to crushed spirits and hard labor.
Six values in a row will include the word mi'ut, meaning, "minimizing." It is worth a moment to speak of asceticism and its place in our lives.
We live in a consumer society. While many people have become expert in exercising self-control over larger or smaller parts of their lives, our restraint is reactive rather than proactive. A dieter responds to excess weight; a person quits smoking in spite of a nicotine dependency; a family reduces expenses because the household budget must be reduced. While the conspicuous consumption of American society may be good reason to examine our self-indulgence, these six values reflect a stream of thought inherent in Judaism that is more Eastern than Western in orientation: acquisitiveness is the enemy of inquisitiveness. An emphasis on things and pleasure interferes with matters of the spirit and enlightenment.
That message is unpopular among the economically comfortable American population. And it is not my goal to upend the benefits of relative affluence by suggesting that your gym membership or subscription to HBO stands between you Torah. (I have both.) But mi'ut is not a limited tactic; it is a way of thinking and a way of living. In kabbalistic terms, I might compare it to tzimtzum, conscious self-contraction, the way in which God made room in this world for something other than God's own Self. The process is global, not local.
With that long introduction (which you can expect to read appended to the next five postings as well!), I turn to the matter at hand.
Bob Leventhal is not a name you likely know. These days, he is a consultant for the Alban Institute, a Protestant think tank that is concerned with how churches and pastors can better function. Bob is their first Jewish consultant, and he focuses on synagogues and rabbis. But before he became an acknowledged expert in synagogue leadership and function, he had another life.
Bob's father founded O-Cedar, and you probably have their products among your cleaning supplies. The company is well-run and makes a lot of money. It's pretty reasonable to assume that Bob was well off even before he "retired." And what he retired to do, in the prime of his life, was teach seventh grade religious school at his Conservative synagogue. Though he had been active in Jewish life from childhood, he responded to a calling to use his considerable talents for the advancement of Torah and the institutions that support those efforts. O-Cedar was a good place to work, but Bob would have been just another admirable (and ultimately nameless) corporate officer had he not decided to minimize what we consider gainful work. No one survives on the salary of a teacher of seventh- grade religious school, unfortunately.
This week's Torah portion paints that same transition in broader and less nuanced strokes. The Book of Exodus opens with the names of the sons of Jacob who came to Egypt. Except for two midwives and Moses, the Israelites then become nameless entities; they are described by function – slave, child, mother, father, nursemaid. They are defined by their roles; their tasks consume their identity. One slave is interchangeable with another. In fact, one nursemaid is interchangeable with another – Pharaoh's daughter doesn't even question who the woman is that the child brought to tend to the baby.
But the baby is given a name – Moses – and he grows into someone who literally can hear God speak. He can experience unmitigated revelation. So called, so inspired, he relinquishes his prosperity as a prince in Egypt and later his security as a shepherd in Midian. He becomes the conduit of God's word, and he expects to be able to rally the people to his cause. But they cannot hear his message mikotzer ru'ach umei'avodah kasha. The hard work with which their lives had been defined had overtaken their spirits. All that was left of the twelve tribes were nameless slaves, drones, whose only function was to work. Without work, their lives had no recognizable purpose.
We live thousands of years later and by no means consider ourselves slaves. Yet some manner of the same affliction is our lot. Almost all of us define our lives by our work. Our daily schedules, our social lives, our life styles, are all dictated by our jobs. One of the first questions we ask a new acquaintance is "what do you do?"
And what of Torah study?
I have a colleague who sets aside time for study each morning. When people would call him, his secretary used to tell them, "The rabbi is studying." Most would indignantly insist that he be interrupted for their pressing phone call. He instructed his secretary to tell people, "The rabbi is in a meeting." To a person, they sweetly ask that he return the call when he is finished.
Bob Leventhal isn't Moses – though he has led many a synagogue out of slavishly following old ways and through the wilderness to a promised land of stable management. But he chose to minimize his gainful work to increase his acquisition of Torah, and it has enriched him and those around him.
Just after the Torah reports that the Israelites did not hear Moses's encouragement, something remarkable happens. The Israelites are acknowledged by name. Entire families emerge and the tribes are again defined by ancestors and descendants alike. With just a few words of Torah from one leader, the crushing grip of hard work is reduced. There is room for the individual to begin to flourish again. The process of liberation begins because stammering Moses hesitantly spoke words of Torah to unwilling students and minimized the grip of consuming work.
How can you experience mi'ut s'chorah? A baby step: devote a few minutes each day at work to "being in a meeting" by studying a verse from Torah or reflecting on a Talmudic teaching. A larger step: be home in time for Shabbat, every week, no exceptions. A giant step: consider how your skills and talents can be put to work for the principles you believe in and then find the work that places values above rainmaking.