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Press the Pause Button

15/03/18 14:56:52


Do you find yourself rushing from task to task, event to event, appointment to meeting? Stressed-out, worn-out, burnt-out seems to be the mantra of our manic lives. Apparently 52% of people say stress keeps them up at night.

Not only is ongoing stress bad for our health, it also affects our relationships, our capacity to be effective and of course our well-being. Even when we are aware that we are running too fast or simply running on empty we find it hard to stop. We tell ourselves that we just don’t have time to get it all done and who has time to take a break?

Well God had time to take a break when He looked at the product of six days of exertion. Let’s rest, He said, and let’s call it Shabbat. He taught Moshe the same principle: while transmitting the Torah to him God inserted pauses which we call Parasha-breaks. Asks Rashi on the first verse of this week’s Torah reading (Vayikra-Leviticus 1:1): “What was the purposes of these breaks? To give Moses a breathing space to reflect between each Parasha and between each matter. How much more so for an ordinary person who learns from another.”

In an age of information overload the need to stop and ponder is even more critical. Learning and wisdom lies in our ability to listen and think, to understand the nature and consequences of what we are receiving. Philo suggested that what makes an animal kosher and a human cogent is their capacity to ruminate, to chew the cud, to think things through.

When I was younger, I would pack a huge amount of ideas into a sermon or shiur and often deliver them at break-neck speed. Over the years and on the advice of older heads, I have learnt how to slow down, to speak more simply and precisely and stick to just a few thoughts. I have also learnt about the potency of the pregnant pause. A pause that allows others to both reflect on what’s just been said and also to anticipate what’s yet to come. I have found the pause is just as important for me as it is for the listeners. It gets  me to slow down and deepen what I am trying to transmit, what I am trying to birth.

Pausing is not only essential for good learning or education, it’s a useful life tool. It can shape fine decision-making as it can refine our actions. Ernest Yebo puts is you should “consult…understand the consequences, know the benefit and take a second look at it again for it takes a little mistake to cause a big ‘had I only known’ and a deep regret.”

When we have a halt in the midst of our busy-ness, we clear our minds and act more carefully and mindfully. We surface and see the faces of others and smell the roses. Too often I leave that break far too late and speak impulsively or send off that mail too rashly. I have found taking a short walk or a power-pause (or nap) refreshes and clarifies. It’s been said “When you are in doubt, pause…when angry, pause… when tired, pause…when stressed, pause and when you pause, pray”. I welcome the opportunity to pray which the Halacha nudges me towards. The Mincha prayer which comes in the middle of the day was perceptively introduced by the rabbis for just that purpose. It makes you interrupt whatever you are doing and re-focus. The very word Mincha – מנחה – has as its root the concept of נח – repose or rest. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav used to urge his followers to make Shabbat moments every day: Take a half hour or better an hour, to be alone, dead to the world and alive only to yourself.

The fabled existential psychologist (of the late 20th Century) Rollo May extended the importance of a temporary interruption: ‘’Human freedom” he said “involves our capacity to pause between the stimulus and response and, in that pause, to choose the one response towards which we throw our weight. The capacity to create ourselves, based upon this freedom, is inseparable from self-awareness”.

In a time when presidents send out imprudent tweets, when leaders idly make nuclear threats (witness Putin this past week and Kim Jong-Un this past year), when the great USA is incapable of a cease-fire on gun-control and Syria is simply unwilling to make any cease-fire, the potency of the pause is as poignant as it is urgent.

It's time to press the Pause Button. As writer Lori Deschene suggest: “Practise the pause. Pause before judging. Pause before assuming. Pause before accusing. Pause whenever you are about to react harshly”.

A pause in time can save a lot of pain and regret. So  let’s practise the great Shabbat survival technique or simply hum the words of Simon and Garfunkel:
“Slow down you move too fast. You’ve got to make the morning last”


Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Ralph

Fri, 15 November 2019 17 Cheshvan 5780