Friday, July 27, 2018

Parashat VaEthanan: Experience

A Message for Parashat VaEthanan 2018
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Parashat VaEthanan continues Moshe’s final address to Am Yisrael. It opens with him recounting his recent plea to God to cross over into the Land of Israel. Without any explanation, however, Moshe then segued into his recollection of Ma’amad Har Sinai, which took place during their first year in the wilderness. What was the connection between these two disparate events, separated by nearly forty years of travel in the midbar?

Consider, for a moment, the various activities that you are involved with over the course of your life. They can be separated into two categories. Finding a job, making money and getting married are examples of activities with a clear “finish line.” Linguists refer to these sorts of ambitions as “telic,” derived from the Greek word telos, which means “end.” We engage in these activities with the stated goal of arriving at a terminal state when they are completed. “Atelic” activities, however, do not aim at any point of achievement. Listening to music, spending time with friends or family and taking a walk with no particular destination are all atelic. You can stop doing these things whenever you wish, but they will never be “done.” Baring no “finish line,” atelic activities enjoy an endless lifespan.

Kieran Setiya, a professor of philosophy at MIT, suggested that our general displeasure with life and feelings of emptiness arise from our singular focus on telic ambitions. The goals that we set ensnare us in these unpleasant states of being. The unattainable goals cause frustration and the attainable ones engender boredom. He wrote:
The way out is to find sufficient value in atelic activities, activities that have no point of conclusion or limit, ones whose fulfillment lies in the moment of action itself. To draw meaning from such activities is to live in the present…[1]
Setiya explained that while we tend to see most of our lifelong activities as telic, a shifted mindset can be the easy solution for appreciating their atelic dimension. Consider, for example, when parents cook dinner for their children, help them finish their homework and put them to bed. They understandably see these activities through the single lens of “getting it done.” In reality, however, mothers and fathers are constantly involved in the atelic development of “parenting.” Setiya explained: “Unlike dinner and homework, parenting is complete at every instant; it is a process, not a project.”[2] He argued that we will discover an emotional stability and meaning to life when we couple our focus on necessary goals with an interest in “limitless” activities.

In a letter sent to a student at summer camp, R. Yisshak Hutner z”l defined the telic and atelic dimensions of studying Torah. He referred to the biblical references of Torah as a “sha’ashu’a” – a “plaything,”[3] explaining that whereas most activities in life are driven by a specific goal, playing has no goal beyond itself. The purpose of playing is the playing itself. R. Hutner explained that although our talmud Torah must set goals of knowledge and practice, its study must nonetheless entail the joy of playing, as well, by appreciating its learning experience for the experience itself. Studying Torah, then, is both “work” – with regards to its practical implications, and “play” – with regards to its experience.[4] Prof. Yaakov Elman summarized R. Hutner’s insight: “The joy of intellectual discovery is the very essence of talmud Torah; without it, one has not fulfilled the mitzvah of talmud Torah.”[5]

As Moshe began recalling the event of Ma’amad Har Sinai, he warned:
Only be you on the watch and watch yourself closely, lest you forget the things that your own eyes have seen and lest they swerve from your heart – all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your sons and to your son’s sons: the day that you stood before Hashem your God at Horev… (Devarim 4:9-10)
Moshe did not simply caution them from forgetting the words and messages of the Torah. Instead, he conspicuously demanded that they eternalize the experience of its reception. Standing before the nation several days before his death, Moshe first voiced his frustration at failing at his goal of entering into Israel. He then taught them the lesson of his disappointment from that failure – a proper perspective on life. Never denying the necessity of setting goals and accomplishing them – as he repeated the missvot received at Sinai, Moshe cautioned the people to appreciate the atelic dimensions of life, as well.  By demanding that Am Yisrael eternally remember the experience of matan Torah, Moshe was guiding them – and us – to appreciate the “limitless” dimensions of life.

[1] Kieran Setiya, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (Princeton, NJ, 2017), pg. 144
[2] Ibid., pg. 141.
[3] See, Tehillim 119:92 and Mishlei 8:30-1.
[4] R. Yisshak Hutner, Pahad Yisshak: Igerot UKetavim (Brooklyn, NY, 1991), no. 2.
[5] Yaakov Elman, “Pahad Yitzak: A Joyful Song of Affirmation,” Hakirah 20 (Winter 2015), Pg. 49.