Be a Thermostat, Not a Thermometer: You Can't Breathe Free When Stress is Your Master
*This article appeared in Mishpacha Magazine on April 10, 2019 The Jewish People are suffering through the servitude of Egypt. After being oppressed and persecuted for an extended period of time, they finally receive a message of redemption: Moshe relays the promise that Hashem will take them out, rescue them, and take them to the Promised Land. How do they react? Lo shamu el Moshe, they don’t (or can’t) listen. Why? Mikotzer ruach umei’avodah kashah. Their backbreaking labor and physical burdens caused a shortness of breath, an exhaustion and despair that blocked them from hearing any positive message of change. The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh has an alternative way of understanding kotzer ruach. The word kotzer comes from the word katzar, meaning small, short, or narrow. They couldn’t hear Moshe, and his message of freedom and optimism didn’t penetrate, not because of literal shortness of breath and physical exhaustion, but rather because they had narrow vision and a terribly closed mind. The stress they were under shrank their brain and diminished their ability to think, to dream, to hope, and to believe. When our ruach is katzar and our spirit is limited because of the stress we are carrying, all we can see is what lies immediately before us, what is happening at that moment. This can often lead to depression, despondency, and hopelessness. And yet, despite their stress and the limited vision, Bnei Yisrael ultimately buy in, open their eyes, and embrace their own redemption. The pesukim continue with the beginning of the transition from galus to geulah, from exile to freedom. While the plagues were the catalyst that actually liberated the Jewish People, what changed in them that allowed them to see, think, and believe differently? The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 3:1) states: Ein Yisrael nigalin ela b’zechus haShabbos. One way of understanding this is that the redemption will come if Jews properly and scrupulously observe Shabbos — put another way, just one Shabbos and we’ll all be free. The Slonimer Rebbe understands this differently, however. He cites a Midrash in Shemos that describes how, long before we received the Torah and with it the code of halachah, Moshe established the observance of Shabbos as a day of rest. The Midrash describes what happened next. Pharaoh increased the workload, canceled the off day of Shabbos, and reinstated the relentless burden of labor that filled the Jews’ every waking moment: Tichbad ha’avodah al ha’anashim. The Slonimer Rebbe explains that the first step of redemption, the beginning of transformation and change for the Jewish People, was having Shabbos. This day of rest created a break in the stress, an opening in the relentless work, a space without the noise so that the people could dream, imagine, think, and envision. What is true for national exile and redemption is true of our own personal exiles and redemptions as well. The Slonimer emphasizes that “Etzem hagalus hi histalkus hadaas” — the essence of exile is the inability to think. True servitude means living with the stress that shrinks our brain and our ability to think clearly and imaginatively. One can have physical freedom and yet be spiritually and emotionally enslaved by relentless pressures, obligations and stresses. Ein Yisrael nigalin ela b’zechus haShabbos: Redemption comes from observing Shabbos — not just refraining from the 39 melachos, but basking in the spirit of Shabbos and enjoying the quiet, the break from stress, the disconnect from technology. I recently had a conversation with someone in my community I’ve known for a long time. I remember when he was spiritually on fire, excited and enthusiastic about davening and learning, and dedicated to personal growth and character improvement. He has since “cooled down” from those days of elevated spirituality. Without judgment, just with curiosity and a desire to understand, I asked him, what would it take to recover those feelings? Could he go back to that place? His answer was so straightforward yet so illuminating. He told me that the biggest obstacle to his continued spiritual growth was the incredible stress he was under. The more I’ve talked to people about this, the more I’ve learned it isn’t just him. He was on fire at a much simpler time of his life. Now he is married, and his time and decisions are not his alone. He has children, who bring their own stresses. He works hard and feels the tremendous pressure of providing for his family, paying his children’s tuitions, and the sense that he must keep up with everyone else. He and so many of us are going through the motions of observant life, but living in spiritual exile. We are technically filling the roles of husband or wife and mother or father, but without the passion, time, attention, excitement, enthusiasm and enjoyment that could and should accompany these roles. The stresses and burdens of life are causing histalkus hadaas, which consigns us to emotional exile even in otherwise successful marriages, careers, and family life. If we want to liberate ourselves from the stresses that are shrinking our brains and creating kotzer ruach in our lives, we need to “make Shabbos” more often. We must recover the capacity to disconnect from all the stress, make space for what’s truly important, and clear our heads of all the static. If we want to grow — spiritually, emotionally, and in our relationships — we need to regain our daas by finding the capacity and space to think. In 2014, a research team conducted an experiment whose results were nothing short of scary. For 15 minutes, participants in the experiment were left alone in a lab room with no phones, screens, or writing implements. All they had before them was a button that would produce an electrical shock if pressed. Even though all the participants had previously stated they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity, 67% of the men and 25% of women chose to inflict electrical shocks on themselves rather than just sit there quietly and think. In other words, a significant number of people would rather suffer physical pain than be left alone with their thoughts. This study was conducted five years ago, and things have only gotten worse. It’s not just that we don’t have time to think — it’s that we don’t like thinking. We can’t stand being by ourselves, and we have been conditioned to avoid moments of quiet and stillness. The technology of today permits us and encourages us to avoid these moments as much as we want. Learning to rediscover the desire to be lost in our thoughts and the capacity to be happy with quiet will come only from practicing real behavioral changes in our lives. If we are tired of living in our own personal galus, with chronic tension and pressure, we can bring about our own geulah by restoring our daas through learning to enjoy thinking and being still. While we may not be able to eliminate every stress or difficult in our lives, we can reduce their impact on us. For many of us, as for our ancestors in Egypt, it is hard to imagine a different or better reality. Being constantly busy, stressed, and pressured is the state we have come to know and expect. The Chalban, Rav Chaim Cohen, points out that the root of the word hergel, habit, is regel, foot. Our feet mindlessly carry us through rote behaviors and feelings. The goal of celebrating a holy regel, a Yom Tov, is to break the hergel, to get out of the cycle of rote habits and entrenched feelings and to experience a new reality where we can dream of becoming different and better. As you prepare to commemorate the holiday of geulah, start finding those moments. Go for a walk by yourself or with someone who matters to you — and leave your phones at home. When you sit down to dinner with your family, at home or in a restaurant or hotel, create a ritual of asking everyone to turn their phones off. Not just to vibrate, but off. (Or, even better, don’t even bring any devices into the room.) If the thought of actually turning your phone off makes you break out in hives or start sweating, be aware of the root of the problem. Decide that you are going to savor the elevator ride or exercise session or wait at the red light without looking at your latest message, listening to the radio, or making a call. Rediscover the ability to stop the frenzied activity, set yourself free, and just be. After all, only when we learn to just be, can we truly be present when spending time with others, and with ourselves. In life we can be a thermometer or a thermostat. A thermometer tells you the temperature, but a thermostat allows you to control it. Don’t just be a thermometer, aware of how stressed, busy, and anxious you are. Be a thermostat and adjust your emotional settings so that you can experience peace and serenity. In his essay Menuchas Hanefesh, Rav Chaim Friedlander quotes the Zohar (3:29), which says that talmidei chachamim are called “Shabbos” because they experience Shabbos all week long. The truly righteous have the capacity to experience serenity and tranquility even during the most stressful parts of the week. Our personal geulah will come from making more Shabbos — disconnecting, creating space, and finding quiet, quiet to truly be present with ourselves, with those we love and most of all, to fully experience our relationship with Hashem. When we say Hashata avdi — right now we are in servitude to the noise and static, let’s pray and believe that l’shanah habaah bnei chorin, next year we will experience both national and personal redemption.
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