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Sunday, 6 December 2015

Staying focused

Daf Yomi Sotah 39

The great Chasidic master, Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, once went over to a congregant after he finished his silent Shemoneh Esrei, and gave him a big “Shalom Aleichem!”
“But Rebbe,” said the confused man, “I haven’t been gone.  I have been here in Peshischa for the last six months, coming to shul every day!”
“That may be true physically,” replied the rabbi, “but during your davening just now, you managed to spend most of the time at the market in Pinsk.  You might only be packing your bags and setting off on your trip to Pinsk next week, but in your mind you’ve already been doing business there for the last half hour!”

Rava bar Rav Huna taught: Once the Torah scroll is open, it is forbidden to converse, even in a matter of halacha.  For the verse in Nechemia states, “As it was opened, all the people stood,” and standing means silence, as the verse in Iyov states, “And I waited, for they were not speaking, for they stood and did not respond.”
Rabbi Zaira says we learn the law from the verse, “And the ears of all the people were to the Torah scroll.”

The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) rules that not only may one not converse while the Torah is being read, but even between aliyot it is forbidden to talk!  And not only may one not have an idle conversation with one’s friend, one may not even discuss halacha! 

Why?  What could be wrong with learning Torah while the Torah is present?  You would think it would be encouraged!

In the bracha before the Shemoneh Esrei at Maariv, we beseech G-d to “remove the Satan from before us and from behind us.”  What are we asking of Heaven?  Sometimes, Satan is right in front of your eyes and it is plain to see his agenda.  When you know what he wants, it can be easier to avoid becoming ensnared.  But other times, he comes up from behind and pushes you in a certain direction, making it seem as if you are spiritually motivated.  That’s the dangerous move that we are asking Hashem to spare us from.

When the Torah is out being read, you have one mission only: pay attention to the Torah that is being declared at that moment.  Anything else is a distraction.  Thinking about other parts of Torah may feel okay, but really it’s the work of Satan – your yetzer hara – pushing from behind.  He doesn’t want you to focus on what you should be focusing on and so he’ll try anything to get you off track – even if it means other Torah study!

There’s a popular saying that says “Today everyone has ADHD.”  Obviously, it’s not medically true; ADHD is a real neuro-psychological condition.  But the meaning of the adage is that in the twenty-first century we are so bombarded with a constant stream of information that many of us are finding it increasingly difficult to focus on what we are doing at any one given time.  Our mind begins to wander to the latest Twitter, Facebook, and RSS feeds, instead of focusing on what we are doing. (Anybody still with me? Or is what your friend’s cat ate for breakfast on Facebook more interesting?)

And so if it was difficult back in the day to maintain focus and concentration on the Torah reading or on davening, it has surely become one of the greatest challenges of our generation!  It used to be that you would be davening and suddenly realized that your mind had wandered off to other matters.  And so you pulled yourself back and started to refocus on the words you were saying. 

Nowadays, it’s quite the opposite: you’re thinking about everything but your davening.  And then you turn the page and your yetzer tov (good inclination) says, ‘Great, here’s my opportunity to get him refocused!’  But then you start trying to push that thought out of your mind, asking yourself, ‘What was I thinking about again?’  We have become so unfocused that we’re no longer doing battle with our yetzer hara; now the yetzer tov is the enemy! 

The key is to realize that even Torah can be a distraction from Torah.  When you have one mission, you don’t go wandering off onto other missions until you’ve completed the current one.  May you merit staying focused on the mission at hand and accomplishing one task after another throughout your life!