For the week ending 1 January 2011 / 24 Tevet 5771

Torah on Tension

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Morgan

Dear Rabbi,

I get stressed-out over all the things I have to do. It gets so overwhelming that I just get confused and lock-up. I was wondering whether there might be any particular Jewish way of dealing with and managing this type of stress. Thanks for any help and insight you may be able to offer me on this situation.

Dear Morgan,

Your feelings of stress are absolutely understandable – we live in a very stressful society that places great demands and expectations on people. On the one hand, this breeds achievement; on the other hand, this pressure to produce, if not channeled properly, leads to tension, depression and burn-out.

What’s the Torah’s wisdom on this?

1. Don’t take on too much

The Talmud Sages taught: “Tafasta meruba, lo tafasta ” which literally means, “If you take hold of too much you hold nothing”. In our terminology this translates into, “Don’t take on too much”. You have to be realistic about your abilities and only take on what you can carry out. Don’t let others’ demands on you (or demands on yourself) cause you to spread yourself so thin that you crack; otherwise you’ll be left with nothing.

2. Write a list

Furthermore, our sources teach, “K’neh lecha chaver ” which literally means “acquire for yourself a friend”. But the commentaries note that the teaching may also be read to mean, “A quill is for you a friend”, referring to the fact that writing things down organizes and clarifies one’s thoughts. Whatever you have decided to take upon yourself, write down in a prioritized and organized list. This is extremely helpful since it takes the pressure off having to remember everything you have to do, and enables you to view your otherwise seemingly unbearable burden as separate, manageable tasks. What’s more, crossing off entries in the list gives you a sense of accomplishment that encourages you to keep going.

3. Share the burden

King Solomon, in his great wisdom, wrote, “Tov ha’shnayim min ha’echad” which means, “Two are better than one”. This includes the idea that, whenever possible, delegate responsibilities to others. You don’t always have to take everything upon yourself, and you should feel comfortable in sharing joint burdens with others. Often, over-achievers, who are natural leaders, fall prey to the notion that the more they do, the more their leadership will be recognized; but the ability to delegate responsibility and rally others behind a cause exhibits no less leadership.

4. Take breaks

We find that when Jacob sent animals as a gift to appease Eisav, Jacob instructed his servants, “revach tasimu bein eder l’eder” — which means “make space/breaks between the herds”. By breaking up the work of sending the herds (which themselves were beasts of burden) rather than sending them all at once, Jacob hinted at the importance of taking breaks between tasks, which was simultaneously intended to enable Eisav to “digest” the massive amount of gifts that were being sent to him. Both ideas are relevant here. Taking breaks enables you to complete your tasks, without being overwhelmed by all that entails.

5. Stop thinking/talking and do

Earlier in the Torah narrative, when Jacob arrived at the well where he met Rachel, we find him discussing with the local shepherds how and when the task of removing the huge stone should be performed in order to fulfill the task of watering the herds. When Rachel arrived, the verse states, “vayigash Yaakov” – “Jacob approached” to remove the stone. If it were up to the shepherds, they would have kept discussing the task till evening. Jacob, on the other hand, realized that the only way to realize is to do. We often procrastinate, responsibilities accumulate and stress is compounded because we don’t know how or when to start. The answer is, “vayigash ” – stop vacillating and just start!

6. Everything is from G-d

Last but not least is the teaching, “Hakol bidei Shamaim” which means everything is in the hands of Heaven. You have to do as much as you can within reason to accomplish your goals. But ultimately, the degree of success depends on what result G-d wants. He’s the boss. The acceptance of this idea greatly defuses stress because while you certainly have to try your best, ultimately the outcome is not up to you and you (and others) have to accept the result as G-d’s Will. This is echoed in the teaching of our spiritual leader and ruler King David, “hashlech al Hashem yehavcha v’Hu yikalkelecha” – “place your burden on G-d and He will support you”.

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