Sunday, January 21, 2018

Winter Break: Blank Spaces

Blank Spaces
A Message for Winter Break 2018
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Watch a short recap of the devar Torah here:

The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours. 
(Amos Tversky)[1]

Your brain is most intelligent when you don’t instruct it on what to do – something people who take showers discover on occasion. 
(Nassim Nicholas Taleb)[2]

Sefer Bemidbar, the book of ‘In the Wilderness,’ records the story of Am Yisrael’s forty-year journey from Egypt to Israel. The book’s name is derived from its opening verse, which mentions the location of the initial dialogue, stating:

And God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in Ohel Mo’ed… (Bemidbar 1:1)

Though the “wilderness of Sinai” functioned as the necessary trail to the ultimate destination of the Land of Israel, its role in the national-historical growth of Am Yisrael is far more significant.

Several decades ago, anthropologist Arnold van Gennep introduced the idea of liminal space. Liminal is the Latin word for “threshold,” and the concept refers to the transitional period between the old and the new.[3] R. Jonathan Sacks suggested that that is what the wilderness signified for Am Yisrael. The wilderness was the “liminal space between slavery and freedom, past and future, exile and return, Egypt and the Promised Land.” He suggested that the desert exists as “the space that makes transition and transformation possible.”[4] Erica Brown similarly noted that the lengthy and arduous travel in the midbar forced people to move only with that which they could carry. Stripped of all but the essentials forced the nation to “challenge every preconceived assumption about their relationships with God, with Moses, with self, and with other.”[5]

My uncle related to me that one summer that he spent learning at Yeshivat Mir in Jerusalem in the early 1970’s, the question of safety came up as the young men’s vacation time (bein ha-zemanim) approached. The administration considered suspending the break time, and continuing the students in active study at the yeshivah throughout bein ha-zemanim. The rosh ha-yeshivah, R. Hayim Shmuelevitz z”l weighed in on the matter in a public address that he delivered in the bet midrash. He set forth his position in one brief sentence: “Just as the laws of a sefer Torah require that there be a blank space to separate each of the five books of the Torah, so too must our Torah study leave space in between each of the zemanim.” His message was clear: healthy growth is best attained when the activity is separated by appropriate breaks.

The famous violinist and conductor Isaac Stern once said that “music” is what goes on in between the notes. Erling Kagge wrote: “Your brain is eager to tune in when the music is in borderland where it can fluctuate.” He described his amazement at the reflections and thoughts that suddenly arise in those moments.[6] Estelle Frankel similarly explained that the silent spaces in between notes create the rhythm and musical composition of a piece. They also provide the musician with room to pour his or her emotions into the music. Frankel reflected upon her appreciation of “negative space” in her career as a storyteller. She noted that her silent pauses provide her listeners with the chance to absorb and reflect upon what has been said and to locate themselves within the story.[7]

David Leonhardt recalled a conversation that he had with George Shultz, the former secretary of state during the 1980’s. Shultz told him that he would carve out one hour each week for quiet reflection. He would sit down in his office with a pad of paper and a pen. He would close the door and instruct his secretary to interrupt him only if his wife or the president called. Shultz felt that his hour of solitude was the only way that he could find time to think about the strategic aspects of the job. The moment-to-moment tactical issues would otherwise distract his focus from the larger questions of national interest.[8]

Indeed, researchers have found that procrastination is often conductive to originality. By delaying progress, we enable ourselves to spend more time considering different ways to accomplish, and avoid becoming stuck on one particular strategy. Adam Grant noted that long before the modern obsession with efficiency, ancient civilizations recognized the benefits of procrastination. In ancient Egypt, for example, there were two different verbs for procrastination: one denoted laziness and the other meant waiting for the right time. Grant astutely observed: “Procrastination may be the enemy of productivity, but it can be a resource for creativity.”[9]

Psychoanalyst Anthony Storr found that nearly all types of creative people seek states of solitude. He noticed that appropriate avoidances of social encounters can oftentimes engender originality.[10] Researchers similarly found that teenagers who struggle with being alone tend to have lessened creative abilities. Their creative habits seemingly blossom best in the comfort of solitude.[11] As Michael Harris noted: “The cliché of the painter locked away in a studio, the writer in his cabin, the scientist in her late-night laboratory is no accident.”[12]

Thomas Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late sets forth a similar map for success in today’s fast-paced world. Friedman wrote that he would regularly meet friends or interview officials, analysts or diplomats over breakfast in downtown Washington, D.C. Once in a while, owing to a variety of excuses, his guest would arrive late for the meeting. They would enter flustered, apologizing as they sat down: “The subway was delayed…” “My alarm failed…” or “My kid was sick…” It was on one of those occasions that Friedman realized that he didn’t care at all about his guest’s tardiness, and so he replied: “No, no, please – don’t apologize. In fact, you know what, thank you for being late!” He recognized that the lateness had helped him mint time for himself. Friedman discovered that during that time he could “just sit.” He would eavesdrop on the conversations around him, “people-watch” the lobby, and most importantly connect several ideas that he had struggled with for days.[13]

The tattered group of individuals that was miraculously saved from Egypt was in no immediate position to enter their own land and set up an independent system of governance. They lacked the experience, mental strength, and national cohesion so necessary for that task. Their growth therefore began with a transitional stage – a liminal space, in the wilderness.

Searching for successful growth in any realm of our lives, the transitional stage of the midbar must serve as our model. It should remind us of the necessity of occasional vacation days and the importance of a weekly “Shultz hour” of silent reflection.  In our world of constant connection and regular availability, our growth starves for the solitude of those “blank spaces.”

[1] Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 230.
[3] Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (Chicago, IL, 1960).
[4] R. Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, Numbers (New Milford, CT, 2017), pg. 43.
[6] Erling Kagge, Silence: In the Age of Noise (New York, NY, 2017), pg.109.
[8] David Leonhardt, “You’re Too Busy. You Need a ‘Shultz Hour.” The New York Times, Apr. 18, 2017. 
[9] Adam Grant, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (New York, NY, 2016), pg. 94-6.
[10] Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self (New York, NY, 2005), pg. 34.
[11] Christopher R. Long and James R. Averill, “Solitude: An Exploration of the Benefits of Being Alone,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 33, no. I (2003), pg. 21-44.
[12] Michael Harris, Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 34-5.