Judging by Appearances

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10 Oct 2007

Holy and Secular – “Did you see how studious Yankel is?” one of the students of the yeshiva said to another. “He never goes to sleep before three o’clock in the morning, and then he gets up only two hours later to pray with the earliest minyan. He is in the Beit Midrash almost twenty hours every day. As far as I can see, there is nobody else in the yeshiva as studious as he is.”

“Well, really, there is somebody!” The students were surprised to hear a voice behind them. They turned around and saw the old “Mashgiach,” the rabbi in charge of the students. “Yankel is indeed very dedicated, but Shimeleh is more studious than he is.” But the students were very surprised to hear this. “Shimeleh? But he goes to bed every night at ten o’clock!” And the Mashgiach smiled. “Gentlemen! The most studios one is not the one who spends the most hours studying. The most studious one is he who spends the most time during every hour. It is true that Shimeleh spends less total time in the Beit Midrash, but whenever he is there he studies with total dedication. During the time he is in the Beit Midrash he manages to study for a much longer time than anybody else!”

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We tend to judge people by standard frameworks. “Moshe is a dedicated student, he stayed up all night studying for his test… Yossi is a dedicated worker, he never leaves the office before ten o’clock at night… Reuven is a Torah scholar, he studied in the yeshiva for ten years.”

However, the true test of dedication is the content and not the framework. The fact that somebody stays at work very late teaches us nothing about how efficient he is. There may be another worker who is much more effective. The student who spends many hours studying for a test is not necessarily the one who expends the greatest effort. There may well be another student who spent fewer hours but is much more serious and dedicated.

We invest much of our time deciding how to divide the hours and the days of our lives among the various tasks that we must perform. But unfortunately we spend much less time thinking how to make the best use of our time. We spend a lot of time thinking about the framework but much too little thinking about the contents. We look far too much at the kettle and far too little about what is inside it.

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Our teacher and mentor, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, is well known for his studious approach to Torah learning. In his youth, he sometimes played basketball. It is said that one time he stopped the game in the middle. When he was asked what was wrong, he said, “You are not playing in an ethical way.” And his friends were very surprised. “Unethical? In what way? We are not doing any fouls.” And he replied, “You do not invest your time properly. You never move from an offensive approach to defense. One who plays in this way is unethical.”

It is okay to rest now and then. It is even okay to play basketball. But when you play, you must do it in a serious way, just as when you take the time to rest.

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“Rabbi Yaacov says, One who is studying while moving along a pathway and stops his learning to declare about the beauty of the tree he is passing – is considered as one who is liable to be put to death” [Avot 3:9].

Studying Torah is a very important mitzva. Enjoying G-d’s creations is also an important mitzva. But when one is studying he must be serious about his task and not stop in the middle, even for other very important things.

We do not intend to equate the study of Torah to playing basketball. There is no doubt that being sloppy in Torah study is much worse than playing basketball without the proper dedication to the game. But the principle remains the same. When you do something, you should be dedicated and serious. This is true whether it is one of the holiest occupations in the world or simply playing a game.

Laziness is infectious. Somebody who plays basketball in a sloppy way will not pay proper attention to his work and will not be dedicated to his studies. We must be serious about everything that we do. This is the best way to act, and in the end it will also add many more effective hours to busy days.

Reprinted with permission from Zomet Institute (www.zomet.org.il). Translated from the Hebrew by Moshe Goldberg. To subscribe to receive the complete version of Shabbat B’Shabbato please write to dan@zomet.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.