Pause to reflect, spiritually focus

Today we live in a frenetic world that harbors no distance or separation between our range of emotions.
January 19, 2017

Today we live in a frenetic world that harbors no distance or separation between our range of emotions. With the complete infiltration of technology and media in this information age, our life experiences are “always on.”

We only need to flick our thumbs through our timeline on Facebook on our smartphones to see the frenzied, teetering nature of our entire world. Sometimes it’s funny. We flick our thumb and see a friend’s weekend post of her family at a local farmers market petting chickens. And then we flick again and see another friend taking a selfie with his omelet breakfast. If those chicks only knew …

But sometimes it’s not funny; it’s utterly tragic and bitter. With a flick we see 3-year-olds holding a sign saying “First Day of Preschool” with happy and bewildered faces — and then we flick our thumbs again and see the photos of children bloodied and bruised because of terrorism. 

Flick: flowers in a garden. Flick: melting ice caps.

Flick: kid’s first baseball game. Flick: another kid killed by a stray bullet.

Flick: getting promoted. Flick: losing a business. 

Flick: fact. Flick: fiction.

Flick: goodness. Flick: terror. 

Flick, flick, flick.

It is, by definition, what Nietzsche called madness.

This is the moment we find ourselves in now more than any other generation in the history of Jews. In our freedom we’ve achieved amazing success and access to almost anything in the world, and we can see it anytime and anywhere. And yet, why have I heard from so many saying that life feels too dizzying and out of control?  Why do I speak to so many who live in a beautiful home and have a successful career but feel so empty and bored with life? It appears that freedom is no freedom at all.  

I find that this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, hints at this very real life challenge. In it, the major turn of events that leads to the degradation of spirit begins when a “new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). Much more than a political shift is the internal spiritual drama hinted at here that can be applied to each one of us. As the Chasidic master, Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky (the Slonimer Rebbe, 1911-2000), teaches, “This is the first verse of galut, exile … which is spiritually always considered a separation from God … not to know Joseph means not to know what is sacred. And Pharaoh is a symbol of a world without sanctity.” 

In other words, there is a Pharaoh in every one of us who commands us to forget what is important by drowning in the noise of the world. In the chaos of the ever-present now, every idea — no matter how crazy — becomes white noise to our moral eardrums. It leads us to flitter about without purpose and direction. It enslaves us to the bitter cycle of action and reaction with no time to think and no time to reflect. 

The antidote to such a poisonous condition also is found in Shemot. Moses, now a fugitive of Pharaoh after killing an Egyptian who had been beating a Hebrew slave, takes flight to Midian. There he makes a life and gets married. There he finds quiet. There he can pause. There he finally takes notice of the burning bush, which, according to rabbis, was there all along waiting to be discovered. In the time of reflection, he finds God and the spiritual geulah, or redemption, that each of us looks for.

The American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson echoed this when he famously wrote, “In each pause I hear the call.” It’s when we quiet our minds that we hear what is truly important. Only when we take the time to pause and reflect do we find the path to defeat the internal Pharaoh with the power of the Divine. 

In this ever-connected world, when we are always on, we need to take the time to quiet ourselves, to pause, and then we can reflect and truly free ourselves to become better, stronger and more purposeful.

RABBI NOAH ZVI FARKAS is a clergy member at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, founder of Netiya, and the author of “The Social Action Manual: Six Steps to Repairing the World” (Behrman House).

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