Rabbi Yossi's Blog

Welcome to Rabbi Yossi's Blog; where you can expect to find thoughts on current events, Torah learning and Jewish spirituality. And of course, some good Jewish humor.

The solution for burnout

Last night at the Purim farbrengen (AKA The Purim After-Party), a discussion that I could easily relate to came up: good teachers and bad teachers. Almost everyone seemed to have had bad teachers in school; few could remember a teacher that had actually had a positive impact on them.

One person shared a story about when they were in high school and they were asking their chemistry teacher a question. The question may not have been the most serious one but the teacher chose to quash all of the students’ interest in the subject by effectively telling the student to quit asking silly questions. Instead of the teacher using the opportunity to engage in a positive and encouraging discussion about the subject, she chose instead to shut down the conversation.

I know from personal experience how challenging it can be to teach a classroom of teens. But I also know that there is so much opportunity to engage and really inspire the students too.

I’m confident that almost all teachers begin their career with an idealistic mindset; they plan to inspire their students to learn more and they intend to handle each situation with utmost patience. The question is: how does a teacher change so radically - from idealism to mishandling a teaching opportunity served up on a silver platter?

There may be a number of factors but I think that a primary cause would be burnout - every day doing the same thing with minimal visible progress; often with limited encouragement and possibly even less support.

There must be a solution and I think the answer lies in the message of Purim.

But first - one small additional thought: It’s not only teachers that suffer from burnout, we all do. We often have idealistic mindsets when embarking on a new stage in life. Whether it’s getting a job, getting married, moving to a new town - whatever; we have big idealistic plans. But then the tedium of daily life kicks in and we find ourself just doing the motions without the inspiration.

And Jewishly too - whether it’s the High Holidays or Passover or some other time of the year, we all have Jewishly inspired moments. When we think to ourselves how we’ll work a little more on strengthening our Jewish connection. We plan to participate in services more often or we plan to study Torah on a more regular basis. But then things happen... and life goes on.

Purim is the answer.

You see, when we read the megillah we hear a nice, neat story; although G-d’s name is not mentioned, alluding to the hidden nature of the miracle, it’s not hard to identify the miraculousness of the story. But think about this - if the Megillah would include all the unrelated details that had happened during that same 10 year time span, would it still be that easy to acknowledge the miracle?

We tend to have idealistic and inspired moments but then get distracted by the (often) dreariness of daily life. Purim reminds us of the importance of highlighting the reason we’re here and the importance of what we have to accomplish.

What does G-d eat for lunch?

What does G-d eat for lunch?

Before you indignantly hit reply and berate me for such an obviously sacrilegious question, consider first that the Torah itself refers to G-d’s “bread.” What does it mean when the Torah refers to the sacrifices offered in the Temple as “G-d’s Bread”? Obviously G-d doesn’t eat!

Or does He?

And if the sacrifices in the Temple are G-d’s food, what has He done for the past almost 1900+ years since the Temple was destroyed? Has He gone hungry?

Here’s the deal with sacrifices - they were about elevating all of reality. They were about highlighting how everything that we interact with in this world is part of a greater purpose. That’s why all parts of creation were involved in the process: man, animal, plant and mineral.

There was man; the individual who was offering the sacrifice and the Cohen who ministered. Then you had the item of the sacrifice - either an animal or grain; two more parts of creation. And finally, every sacrifice had to include salt, a mineral.

When we use the physical world around us for holy purposes, we are accomplishing the same thing as sacrifices once did. We are providing G-d with His metaphorical “lunch.” Just as food that we consume becomes part of our body, so too the world and all that’s in it is revealed to be one with G-d.

The amazing thing about this is that, unlike during Temple times, we can achieve this goal anywhere and anytime. We can transform our own little corner of the world into a sanctuary for G-d.

The process is the goal

dartboard.jpg As a society we’ve become obsessed with results, we measure achievement by goals attained. The process of getting there is not deemed important.

This attitude often has detrimental results. Someone who falls short of their goals feels like a failure. Some people are so compelled to reach their goals that they fall into unethical and even illegal behavior in order to achieve them.

In Judaism results are important, of course, but they’re not the only determination of success.

We see this idea in this week’s Torah portion (among the many other places that this idea is taught). Moshe is completing the construction of the Tabernacle but there is a problem: he can’t lift the walls - they’re way too heavy for one person to erect.

Moshe turns to G-d saying, you want me to build this structure, yet I can’t raise the walls. G-d replies to him, you do your part and I will do my part. You make the best effort that you can and I will support you and make you succeed.

In fact, the very notion that this physical structure can become a “home” for G-d is beyond the human capacity to attain - we can design and build a beautiful structure but we can’t control if G-d will “dwell” within it.

And that’s exactly the point; it’s not only about the goal, it’s also - and perhaps primarily - about the process. And when we do our part, when we make our best effort, G-d helps us fill in the missing parts that we cannot accomplish alone.

When it comes to Jewish practice many Jews have a goal oriented mindset, they think solely about the result. And if they can’t see themselves reaching that goal, they determine that it’s not worth making the effort at all.

Just last night I had a conversation with someone who explained to me that they don’t see themselves being able to keep Shabbat properly and therefore they don’t do anything. I encouraged them to simply light Shabbat candles at the appropriate time - even if you don’t manage to keep the entire Shabbat, it’s not a reason to miss candle lighting.

The point is simple - embrace the process, even if you can’t see yourself attaining the ultimate goal. The process itself is of infinite value and you never know what type of blessing G-d will provide - perhaps your experience will be like Moshe’s and G-d Himself will partner with you to construct a ‘home” for G-d in your own life.

Would you watch my bags?


Earlier this week I had the opportunity (thanks to a great deal from JetBlue) to fly to New York for a quick visit to pray at the Ohel (the Rebbe’s resting place). I arrived at 6:30am Tuesday morning and by 5:30pm that same day I was already heading back to Folsom.

And that’s when I was confronted by the paranoid reality in which we live.

I was checked in and through security, waiting (impatiently) at the gate to board the flight. There was some time left until the flight (surprisingly, usually I’m running on at the last minute) and I needed to excuse myself but I had a problem: My tallit and tefillin bag.

The tallit and tefillin cannot be brought into a restroom (unless wrapped in some other bag). So I turned to the guy quietly reading his book next to me and politely asked if he could keep an eye on my stuff while I excused myself for a moment.

He looked at me and responded, “Oh, no! I can’t do that. I don’t think it’s legal.” Really? Do I really look that suspicious? We’re in a secure part of the airport; if my bags contained drugs or bombs I’d hope they would've been detected. “No, can’t do it,” came the firm reply.

I was surprised but figured he must be overly paranoid, and I’ll just ask the next guy. Three different people declined. The agent at the gate informed me that she’s not allowed to watch my bags. I was stuck.

My problem was finally solved in a way that inspired me.

Earlier, while waiting on line at security (for about 30 minutes), I had met a group of non-religious Jewish girls who were on their way to Australia for a friend’s wedding. (They blended well in the crowd, but my JewDar picked them up anyway. It helped that one of them was wearing a sweatshirt with Hebrew writing on it.)

I approached them, and ask if they would mind watching my stuff for a few minutes. “Of course, just leave it here.” No hesitation whatsoever. Their response, without hesitation, inspired me - of course we could focus on our differences. Their level of religious observance is obviously different than mine. But when it came down to it, they had no problem watching my stuff for a few minutes.

Especially at a time of so much discord, it is more important than ever to focus on the things that unite us, rather than on what divides us.

You know that I will find a way to relate this to this week’s Torah portion - this week we read an additional portion (the first of four for this season), Parshat Shekalim. It discusses the obligation for all the Jewish people to donate a half shekel to the constructing of the Tabernacle.

Why half a shekel? Why not just one complete shekel?

The half shekel reminds us of our fragile existence, which in reality is incomplete without the other. Our life is truly but a fraction without the completeness provided by our connection to others and our connection to G-d.

So whether you would agree to watch my bags or not, look for ways to connect with others in your life, despite the differences that may exist.


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