Parashat Shemot- Our Fear of Contemplation
Pharaoh responded to Moshe’s initial demand that he release Beneh Yisrael with outright rejection, and he proceeded to announce that the slaves’ workload would be intensified. Whereas until then the slaves were given straw with which to produce bricks, from that point onward they were responsible for finding their own straw, making their work several times more difficult and pressured.
Pharaoh explained the reason for his new edict by accusing Beneh Yisrael of being lazy: "You are lazy – lazy! – and therefore you are saying, ‘Let us go sacrifice to G-d!’" (5:17). He felt that it was because the people had too much free time on their hands that they began thinking of lofty, spiritual concepts, and aspiring to leave Egypt and serve the Creator. The appropriate response, then, in Pharaoh’s mind, was to intensify the workload so that Beneh Yisrael would not have the opportunity to think about sublime matters, and they would thus stop wishing to leave Egypt.
The Mesilat Yesharim (Rav Moshe Haim Luzzato, 1707-1746) points to Pharaoh’s argument as an example of one of the dangerous tactics of the Yeser Ha’ra (evil inclination) in its unrelenting effort to prevent us from being the kind of people we should be. Namely, the Yeser Ha’ra finds ways to keep our minds occupied so that we do not have the opportunity to think, to contemplate, to reflect, to consider whether we are living life the way we are supposed to. The Mesilat Yesharim writes that if a person takes some time to think about his conduct, and his relationship to Hashem, then it is certain that he will be motivated and driven to improve. But we don’t take time to reflect, he explains, because the Yeser Ha’ra, like Pharaoh, ensures to keep us busy, to fill our time so that we never take stock of ourselves and our conduct.
At no time in human history has the Yeser Ha’ra been so successful in this effort than in our day and age. Today, whenever a person finds himself alone with nothing to do, such as when riding a train or in a waiting room, he instinctively pulls out his phone and looks for something to read or somebody to correspond with. We are all legitimately busy, and – hopefully – we are busy with important and worthwhile activities, but the small pockets of time that are tailor-made for reflection are lost because of our mobile devices. Instead of using these times for contemplation, we waste them.
The likely reason for this is that we are, very simply, scared of contemplation. We instinctively know that if we took some time to think seriously about our lives, to take stock of our behavior, to reflect on how we should be living differently and how we can improve, then we would recognize the need for change. It is far more convenient to ignore all this than to go through the uncomfortable and difficult process of self-improvement. And so we do to ourselves what Pharaoh did to our ancestors – we keep ourselves busy to protect ourselves from contemplation.
We need to overcome this tendency. Every businessman knows the importance of taking inventory, of determining which supplies need to be replenished. Our most important "business" is our share in the world to come, and we need to regularly take inventory to determine where we need to "replenish," to increase and improve our observance. Rather than always looking to fill up our free time, and conveniently ignoring our spiritual inventory, let us instead take advantage of our free moments to seriously reflect on ourselves and our direction in life, and think about the changes that we should be making.