In Praise of Idleness
Thoughts on BeShalah 2019
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Parashat BeShalah begins our national story of movement. It tells about Am Yisrael’s first steps of freedom after their stagnancy in Egypt for more than two centuries. And then, just as the muscles of the nation’s men and women had begun to loosen in the desert, God instructed them to return to that uncomfortable feeling of idleness:
“See, for God has given you the Shabbat…Sit each of you where he is, let no one go out from his place on the seventh day.” (Shemot 16:29)
Although He would later (at Ma’amad Har Sinai) provide a clear rationale for this day of rest – to recall His creation of the world and His hand in leading us out of Egypt – God’s message at this point was quite simple: just stop moving. But absent the theological component of Shabbat, what did a day of inactivity mean to Am Yisrael at that point?
In The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer wrote about how many of the very people who work to speed up the world are also the most sensitive to the virtue of slowing down. He was impressed by the way that workers at Google’s headquarters spend a fifth of their “working hours” on trampolines and in treehouses – “free of work.” He marveled at the fact that many in Silicon Valley observe an “Internet Sabbath” every week, during which they turn off most of their devices on the weekend. And Iyer was fascinated by the mandatory meditation room in every building on the General Mills campus in Minneapolis.
But if our growth is driven by movement, as we know, then what is the role of idleness? What’s the point of slowing down the minds of the world’s greatest innovators?
Idleness provides the grounding and structure within which our movement can prosper. “Movement makes richest sense when set with a frame of stillness,” Iyer wrote. It provides the space for us to focus on positioning our activities in the appropriate direction.
Consider, for example, Yaakov’s reaction when he awoke from his fateful dream at Bet El:
Yaakov woke up from his sleep and said: “Surely God is present in this place and I did not know!” (Bereshit 28:16)
Yaakov was shocked that he had overlooked that place of great sanctity. How had that happened? The moments leading up to that dream provide a hint:
And Yaakov departed Be’er Sheva and went toward Haran. He encountered the place and slept there because the sun had set; he took from the stones of the place and arranged around his head, and he lay down in that place. (28:10-11)
Notice the excessive activity! The Torah was perhaps teaching that Yaakov’s incessant movement at that time had overwhelmed him to the extent of distraction. By stopping all activity and submitting to the idleness sleep, however, his focus was restored.
Researchers at the University of Southern California found that a particular style of neural processing is suppressed when we pay direct attention to things, emerging only when the brain switches to “default mode.” In other words, some our most unique thoughts and ideas are discovered in a state of “daydreaming.” An “unplugged” mind flourishes in ways that the connected one cannot. Idleness benefits our mental endeavors as much as it does our physical.
Shortly after Am Yisrael began their journey in the wilderness, God called their attention to the importance of periodic inactivity. By conspicuously leaving out the theological significance of Shabbat as He instructed them to cease all activity on that day, God was teaching them – and us – about the intrinsic values and virtues of idleness.