middot adaptability mesorah honing in

honing in

Written by  rabbi benjamin ehrenfeld

art-smellrosesRabbi Yaakov said, one who is walking along the road and is studying [Torah], and then interrupts his studies and says, 'How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!', the Scripture considers it as if he is liable for his life. -- M. Avot 3:9

This is a somewhat unusual mishna. After all, aren’t we supposed to say berachot over various features of nature? Were not both the Torah and nature given to us? The classical interpretation of this mishna is that we are being told that the most awesome work of God is the Torah itself. Unlike a regular tree of the field, the Torah is an eytz chayyim—a tree of life. It can be argued that this mishna is yet another expression of the sages’ view that Torah learning is the supreme act of Jewish devotion to God. However, I would further argue that there is another lesson being taught to us here as well.


There are proper times and places for things. Our world where one can have e-mail, facebook, a phone conversation, and texting all happening simultaneously would like us to think otherwise. Nevertheless, I think most people still know of moments in which everything else needs to be pushed aside for the sake of the task at hand. There were three things this hypothetical person was trying to do in our mishna: walk, learn Torah, and appreciate nature…one simply cannot really do all of these things well. I can’t even tap my head and rub my belly at the same time!

Awareness of the time and place in which one finds oneself is a vital component of a well balanced life. For some, concentration is hard because of distractions. For others, concentration is hard because we don’t feel we have the permission to engage in it. We think that if we are not multi-tasking the world will come crashing down. But it’s really the opposite. If we overload our minds and bodies with endless layered tasks, we may find ourselves at the end of the day not having done anything really well or too exhausted to even do anything again.

As we hone in on concentration this week, pick one thing that you often do as an afterthought (or as one of your many tasks in a normally multi-tasked conglomerate) and give that thing your full attention this time around. After all, if it’s worth doing it may be worth your full attention!

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