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Count the Omer. 49 transformative steps

Counting the Omer with

Day 20 — Limiting Mundane Activities

Miyut Derech Eretz  •  מיעוט דרך ארץ

By Rabbi Pamela Wax, Westchester, NY

Micha Berger's Grandchildren
Micha and Siggy Berger's beautiful grandchildren, Boaz, Malka, Evi, Benny and Akiva, New York, NY

On first glance, it seems obvious that this middah is concerned with the amount of time we spend on frivolous activities such as watching mindless television or playing computer games. I imagine that all of us struggle with the proper balance between our productivity and our leisure. I, for one, had to remove the computer game “Words with Friends” from my devices once I realized I had a full-blown addiction.

However, a better translation of this middah would be “limiting worldly concerns.” With this translation, the standard for what is holy and what is “mundane” is much stricter. Anything that is not “Torah” would be considered “worldly.” With that as the criterion, where we would place activities such as reading novels, listening to classical music, participating in political and civic activities, or going to work? For those of us Jews with a broader sense of what is “spiritual” in our lives, not all worldly concerns are mundane, even if we wouldn’t necessarily call them “Torah.”

Or would we?

The medieval commentator Rashi explained derekh eretz as "involvement in social, communal and civic affairs that can become an almost full-time preoccupation, allowing little time for growth in Torah” (commentary on Pirke Avot 6:6).  As someone who is passionate about politics and social action, this teaching is quite a personal challenge right now. If I didn’t have to make a living, I would spend a lot more time demonstrating in the streets, letter-writing and phone calling my legislators in D.C., and lobbying my state legislators in Albany. And, for me, that IS Torah; it is applied Torah. What this teaching about limiting worldly concerns does help me discern, however, is how much time I actually spend/waste obsessing about the news, following the latest scandal out of Washington or Albany, and worrying about the state of the world rather than ACTING on it.

So while I do not want this teaching to belittle my social activism or my belief in its holiness, it is for me a lesson in my reactivity to the news and how I can and should curtail my MSNBC and Facebook feed time in order to focus in the real to-do’s and the doable “asks” that today’s political climate is demanding from me. Each of us will have to find for ourselves that balance between the spiritual and the mundane, the holy and the worldly. This can be a profound place for discernment, as it will help us clarify our priorities and how we define them.

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