I recall early Friday afternoons as a kid, when I would finally go home after spending all week at a boarding yeshivah.

The drive was about two hours, and I distinctly remember my father coming each week to pick us up. Regardless how early he came, there was always an intense feeling that Shabbat was imminent and we must rush home to make it in time. “We have to leave now, or we’ll get stuck in traffic! Shabbat is coming; let’s go!”

And so it was each week. My siblings and I would hustle into the car before the menace of California traffic slowed down our Friday afternoon like a tortoise trudging along the highway.

As an adult, I later wondered to myself, “There really was plenty of time, so why did we rush out like a house on fire?”

But upon further reflection, I realized that with his Friday afternoon hustling, my father taught me a critical lesson.

“Today’s the Day”

The Torah portion of Ki Tavo depicts Moses’ last day on earth. Understandably, it was a busy day, and Moses had much to say in his parting message to the people he had shepherded for so many years. Among other things, he said:

You have seen all that G‑d did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt . . . Yet until this day, G‑d has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear.1

What happened “on this day” exactly that earned the people a “heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear?”

Rashi tells us a fascinating story: On that day, Moses gave the Torah scroll to the members of the Tribe of Levi. This set off a firestorm among the people, as they came running to Moses, crying, “Hey, we also stood at Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah! Why are you giving the Torah exclusively to the Levites? If things go unchecked, they may someday claim the Torah as their own!”2

Moses’s reaction is quite puzzling. Rashi tells us that, “Moses rejoiced over this matter” going so far as to exclaim that it was only on this day that the people became “the nation of G‑d.”3

Now, considering this was Moses’s final day on earth, couldn’t they give their beloved and devoted leader a break? Could they really not stop complaining on the last day of life?

And why did it make Moses so happy? Why did he celebrate this (possibly unfounded) anxiety?

Healthy Anxiety

Moses was excited to see how much the people cared about being “in.” That was final proof that these people were for real and that the Jewish nation was well established.

Throughout their time in the desert, you would have to be blind not to notice that the tribe of Levi received preferential treatment. While the entire nation was promised a portion in the future land, the Leviim were not. “G‑d is their inheritance,”4 the Torah states. As servants in the Temple and a tribe dedicated to Torah study, the Levites stood visibly apart.

This status gave rise to a somewhat anxious feeling among the people. They worried, “Maybe the Torah isn’t really for us ordinary folk. Perhaps the holy Levites are the trueflag bearers of our nation, and we’re just followers lucky to experience a thing or two once in a while.”

So when on his final day on earth, Moses specifically gave the Torah scroll to the Levites, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. “The Torah doesn’t only belong to the Levites!” they protested. “Their affinity with G‑d is the property of every Jew!”5

When Moses heard this, he was thrilled. It proved to him just how much the average Jew wants to be close to G‑d.

Take It Personally

Like the kids who nags their parents, “Did the package come yet?” or “Are we there yet?” we, too, should care about our Judaism—so much so that we sometimes even get a wee bit antsy about it.

Of course no one’s advocating introducing more anxiety into your life, nor should religion ever become a source of psychological or emotional anguish. That’s not the point here.

But not all stress is inherently bad. There’s an entire discipline of stress called “eustress” that’s quite good for you—it’s the “stress” that pushes you just out of your comfort zone to do something more satisfying, meaningful, and/or accomplishing.

Think about traveling: it’s pretty stressful, especially when you’re exploring a faraway place with a different language and customs. But at the same time, you’re immersing yourself in a new and interesting place, with novel foods to enjoy, new places to see, and a whole culture to experience.

So while it may be stressful, traveling is an eye-opening experience that’s generally viewed positively.

The same can be said for the “anxiety” discussed here. The point is to care about your religion in a deeply personal way. When Shabbat is around the bend, it should be on your mind, coloring your entire Friday, and not just sprung upon you when the clock hits candle-lighting time.

When you wake up in the morning, “I must pray” should be on your mind. It’s not just something you’re eventually going to do over the course of the day, rather it’s something that sits front and center in your life until you carry it through.

When making travel plans, where you’ll get kosher food, where you’ll find a minyan, how much time you’ll have to set aside each day to learn some Torah—these are all matters that should naturally be part of the equation. “Where am I going to find anything kosher to eat?” shouldn’t occur to you for the first time when you’re already knee-deep in the sub-Saharan plains.