The Struggle

Ever heard the quote “The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog”? It may not be the nicest thing to say, but the thought is all too common. Let’s face it, not all people are pleasant. Some people leave us wondering if we should continue making time for them or focus on things we enjoy.

The Torah tells us to be holy, as G‑d is holy.1 Our sages explained that to be holy means to be separated.2 But separate from what? Does the Torah want us to become recluses, separated from all annoying acquaintances and time-consuming distractions, or does the Torah want us to distance ourselves from our own feelings of annoyance that are rooted in selfishness?

The answer can be found in the way the Torah introduces this injunction. G‑d instructs Moses to convey this directive to all the children of Israel—and our sages infer that it was to be delivered in the presence of the entire nation, men, women and children.3

It would be ironic if Moses were told to gather the nation just to tell them to disperse and separate themselves from each other. The gathering implies that G‑d wants his children to integrate and interact with each other and with the world. Still, He doesn’t want us to become too invested in the whims of society, too caught up in meaningless folly. We must be holy, as G‑d is holy—He is intimately involved in the workings of the world, but at the same time remains above it. And so must we be in the world, but not of the world.4

Finding Time

Reb Abba Ginzburg, a wealthy chassid from Minsk, complained to his Rebbe, Reb Shmuel, the fourth Rebbe of Lubavitch, that his vast business concerns left him with little time or headspace to pray properly and study Torah.

The Rebbe replied, ”Abba, you are a smart man. Is this the proper way to thank G‑d for giving you the trials of the wealthy, who worry about growing richer, instead of the trials of the poor, who worry about putting bread on the table?”

Reb Abba left Rebbe’s room a broken man. Here he was, the wealthy owner of banks, real estate, factories and forests, and what did it all amount to if he couldn’t even appreciate the gift? He realized at once that if he could be so ungrateful, he was far from wealthy. In character, he was terribly poor. He, a man of flesh and blood, who was here today and would be gone tomorrow, couldn’t find time to thank the Creator and study His Torah!

Several days later, Reb Abba shared with the Rebbe that he had decided to dissolve his business, hire a teacher and devote himself to Torah study. To atone for his past ingratitude, he would leave half his wealth to charity in his will.

The Rebbe agreed with only part of his plan. Hiring a teacher and studying Torah every day was a great idea. Giving half his wealth to charity was also a good idea. But the Rebbe disagreed with the other two parts of the plan. “Don’t wait till after you die to give your money to charity,” the Rebbe advised. “Enjoy your mitzvah while you are still alive. And don’t throw away your business.”

Reb Abba argued that if he should resume his business, he would revert to his old ways. He wouldn’t find time to pray properly and would be too distracted to study Torah. The Rebbe replied, “There will be plenty of time. The time you spend with your business partners in idle chatter unrelated to actual business can be devoted to Torah and prayer.”

Reb Abba returned to Minsk and began to follow the Rebbe’s advice. He cut back on the idle chatter and long business lunches and found plenty of time for Torah. Several months later, Reb Abba brought half his wealth to the Rebbe, who distributed it to charity on his behalf.5

Separate, Not Separated

There is no need to separate ourselves from this world to be close to G‑d. You find that you are too engrossed in gossip or deceit? Don’t throw away your business or reject your friends. Just control your impulses. You find that you have no energy or time to attend minyan (prayer services) in the morning? Cut out the late-night television and get to bed early. You find that you are too distracted to study Torah? Utilize the time that you otherwise waste.

These days, you can download the entire Torah to a smartphone. When you’re on line at the supermarket, in the waiting room before an appointment or in transit on the plane, you can pull out the phone and study Torah. You can listen to Torah lectures while driving. Finding time is no longer a challenge. Today, it is just an excuse.

You can be in the world and not of the world—close to people and G‑d at the same time. If you feel that people are pulling you away from G‑d, look inside. Are you blaming these friendships for your own resistance to Torah learning? What could you do to bring more Torah into your relationships? Our solutions are rarely other-based. They are almost always self-based.

The only things that separate us from G‑d are our choices. We can choose to distance ourselves from G‑d, but the Torah instructs us to choose differently. G‑d focuses on our needs. It is only fitting and proper that we do the same in return.