Focusing Despite Distractions

Rabbi Beth Janus

Rabbi Beth Janus

Parshat Tetsavveh

Texts. Emails. Phone Calls. WhatsApp. Facebook. X. Our lives are becoming more distractible each year.

We sit down to do a task and then are pulled in another direction by sounds coming from our phones, notifications on the computer or thoughts spinning in our heads. Our attention spans are considerably shorter than 10 or 20 years ago. Torah seems to have known that it was part of human nature to have our thoughts ping-ponging inside our heads and to be constantly headed in multiple directions.

Tetsavveh counters these tendencies in many ways throughout the Torah portion. It gifts us with various rituals and symbols to ground us in what is at our core. It helps us figure out what the intention we want for our day is and how we make sure that we do not get lost in the tasks, details and minutiae of living. It answers the question of how we can avoid spending our hours bouncing from one distraction to the next.

The parsha commands the Israelites to bring oil for the ner tamid, the eternal light, that was to be lit from evening to morning, for all time. The practice of the ner tamid started when we were wandering in the desert and worshipping in the Tabernacle, our temporary sanctuary.

Today, every sanctuary has a ner tamid hanging above the ark. When we enter our prayer space, we see the light and are reminded of something eternal, whether it is God or oneness. There are different associations with the ner tamid, but its purpose is to ground each of us in an immortal truth.

Next, Aaron and his sons, the priests, are to make their sacred clothing, which they wear as they are performing their priestly obligations. There are paragraphs filled with the details of what the priests should wear.

Each thread and fabric and decoration is outlined and is symbolic of the role of the priest. Part of this priestly outfit consists of two lapis lazuli, blue stones, which have the names of the twelve tribes carved on them. Those tribes make up the entire Jewish people whom Aaron and his sons serve.

Every time they do their work, they are wearing the Jewish people’s names on their bodies. They, like us, would be prone to get lost in the tasks of their work. They felt inspired at times and weighted down at others. These stones help remind them that every part of their work is to be done for the people.

As we spend our time at work or otherwise, what helps remind us for whom are we living? Why are we ultimately here? Can we tell from the way that we spend our time that we value the people we want to value? And if not, then what can we do to bring our focus back to our fundamental purpose?

Aaron and all subsequent high priests are to wear a frontlet on their foreheads which has “Holy to Adonai” inscribed. This will be read by everyone who comes face to face with the High Priest. It reminds the people of the essential holiness of humanity and the connection between ourselves and the Divine. Its stated purpose in this Torah portion is to take away sin.

God understands that we are not going to be perfect. God has created us in this imperfect way and allows us the room to always come back to holiness. This truth on Aaron’s forehead brings us back to intimacy with the Holy One as we move throughout our lives.

There are many more instructions which are all ultimately reminders of the importance of our lives. The parsha ends with God telling us that God will meet us at the Tent of Meeting.
The implication is that if we can keep the ikar, the most important life values in front of us in the midst of all of life’s distractions, then holiness will be there to meet us. Our lives will be spiritual. They will be meaningful. They will be filled with sacredness and sanctity.

Rabbi Beth Janus is the co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. She works at Lafayette Redeemer and educates and conducts life cycle ceremonies in the Philadelphia community. The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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