No Break

Abraham was the ultimate workaholic. In his youth, he organized and gave mass lectures on monotheism all across Mesopotamia.1 He wrote 400 books on the subject.2 At the age of 75, he moved to the Promised Land and continued his life’s mission apace. He set up and managed hospitality inns all over the country,3 launched a war to free his nephew, fathered a son when he was 86, and circumcised himself at 99. Not one to shirk hard work, he defended the people of Sodom before G‑d at 99, and fathered another son at the age of 100. When he was 137, he undertook an arduous three-day journey through the mountains to bind his son Isaac, and when he returned, he found that his wife Sarah had passed away. He immediately purchased a plot for her burial and organized her funeral.

When this was all said and done, you might imagine that Abraham would have opted to rest, but that was not to be. Shortly after the mourning period for Sarah, he launched a complicated campaign to find a bride for Isaac. And here is the most amazing part: after arranging for his son to be married, Abraham remarried and had more children. Abraham was not ready to give up and retire. He had lots of hard work left in him, and rest would need to wait.

I doubt that we can match Abraham’s pace, but we can learn a lesson from it.

Hard Work

Do you work all year so you can take a vacation in the summer, or do you vacation in the summer to rejuvenate and go back to work? Do you work all day so you can rest in bed at night, or do you rest in bed at night so you can wake up and work in the morning?

Because we sink into bed at night with a true sigh of relief and wake up in the morning with a long groan of unhappiness, we erroneously think that we are happier at rest than at work. But that isn’t true. When we are fully engaged, overcoming challenges, dealing with crises and making progress, we are vibrant, alive and abuzz. When we are relaxed and at rest, we grow indolent and sluggish.

We enjoy the moment of transition from frenetic pace to rest, which is why we sigh with relief when we crawl into bed, settle into a vacation, or light Shabbat candles on Friday night. But overall, we are happiest when we are at work. It doesn’t feel that way while we are at it, but in retrospect we can admit that we are at our best when we are wholly focused and fully engaged.

This is because G‑d didn’t create man to relax, but to be purposeful. When we are pursuing a goal and accomplishing a purpose, we feel in sync with our essence. Being at rest is not natural to us. While we enjoy the break for a little while, we soon yearn for a return to work. Because at work, we are in “giving mode”: we contribute to the universe, to society and to life. When we are at rest, we are in “receiving mode”: we receive from the universe and from life. We feel more fulfilled when we’re contributing than when we’re receiving because we are, at heart, purpose-driven. It is how G‑d made us.

The River

The other day I went for a hike along the river with a geologist, who kindly explained the historical and geological features of the river. I had always known that the water flows more quickly over the boulders, but I never knew how these riffles are formed.

He explained that flood activity moves boulders from one section of the river to the next, creating a deeper pool where the rocks were removed and a shallower section where the rocks are deposited. The buildup of rocks forms a lip that the water must overcome, and the slope is often steeper in the riffle than in the pool. Thus, the water is more turbulent in the steep, shallow riffle than in the deep, flat pool.

My friend explained that if water had its way, river slopes would descend continually and gradually, forming one long pool of deep, calm waters. But since this rarely happens, nature compensates with an alternating series of pools and riffles. This is one area where I think he is mistaken. I believe that rivers, just like humans, should have riffles and pools.

G‑d created the world for humans, as indicated by the fact that humans were the last species that He created.4 Since the world was created for us, nature should, and does, reflect us.

Humans cannot maintain a continual pace of hard work. We must stop on occasion to relax and rejuvenate. But we cannot relax for long; at some point we grow restless and search for something to do. The calm pools in the river represent our periods of rest, and the riffles represent our periods of hard work. Just as we must toggle back and forth, and cannot maintain a continual presence in either sphere, so it is with nature.

When sitting near rivers, I usually seek out the riffles. That is where I can hear the rush of water and watch the river wash over and around the boulders. The riffles convey excitement and purpose, whereas the pools convey calm. We need both. Calm waters run deep, just as times of relaxation are conducive to deep thought and serious reflection. But the shallow riffle is where the river shows its awesome power, just as we display our ingenuity and resourcefulness when we encounter the challenges and difficulties in the riffles of life.

I always thought that the purpose of the riffle was to feed the pools, but my friend taught me that the opposite is true. The pools are formed to create the riffles. The rivers are just like us. We, too, don’t work in order to rest. We rest in order to work, because only at work can we discover our true selves.

Rest Is Overrated

Abraham surely rested from time to time, but he clearly required less rest than most. What we can learn from Abraham is that rest is overrated. The best condition in life is the exuberance of hard work. That is when we come alive. That is when we are most fully human. That is when we most reflect our Creator.

He made us for a purpose. Our task is to find that purpose and pursue it. If at times we must rest, it is to gather strength for more work. Our rest invigorates us for the challenges that lie ahead.

May we find the strength to complete our tasks, the creativity to overcome our challenges, and the wisdom to appreciate the vibrancy that such trials bring.