Ki Tetzei: Paying Attention

You shall not see your brother’s ox or sheep going astray and ignore them; rather, you should restore them to your brother…

And so you shall do with every lost thing of your brother – you may not remain oblivious –Deut. 22:1-3

When Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch was a young man, he lived in the same house as his father, Rabbi Schneur Zalman. Rabbi DovBer and his family lived in the ground floor apartment, and Rabbi Schneur Zalman lived on the second floor.

One night, while Rabbi DovBer was deeply engrossed in his studies, his youngest child fell out of his cradle. Rabbi DovBer heard nothing. But Rabbi Schneur Zalman, who was also immersed in study in his room on the second floor, heard the infant’s cries. The Rebbe came downstairs, lifted the infant from the floor, soothed his tears, replaced him in the cradle, and rocked him to sleep. Rabbi DovBer remained oblivious throughout it all.

Later, Rabbi Schneur Zalman admonished his son: “No matter how lofty your involvements, you must never fail to hear the cry of a child.”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Cry of a Child”
from the “Once Upon a Chasid” series
Commentary on Torah Portion Ki Tetzei

Where do our priorities lie? What is really important to us? I know it’s certainly possible to be so focused on a task or some study, that you don’t hear the cry of a child or otherwise notice something important, (my brother-in-law once burned his toast to the point of filling the kitchen with smoke because he was engrossed in a newspaper article) but on the other hand, it’s very possible for us to mess up what we think is more important. Some “religious people” tend to think their “religious practice” is more important than the “mundane” responsibilities that surround us. How often do we let opportunities to spend time with our families, help a neighbor fix their fence, or smile at a stranger pass us by because we think we’ve got more important things to do “for God?”

What about this?

Many routine actions that we do every day can be elevated by focusing on more elevated thoughts.

For example, when you go shopping for your family, focus on the fact that you are doing an act of kindness. Or, when you say good morning to someone, focus on the fact that you are giving him a blessing. If someone asks you to pass the salt, realize you are doing an act of kindness.

Focusing in this way will increase your level of joy, and increase your desire to do more good deeds.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Elevate you Mundane Actions, Daily Lift #562”

Rabbi Pliskin teaches us that every thing we do, every action we take, no matter how mundane or ordinary, contains the seeds of holiness just by focusing on how those actions serve others and please God. That means mowing the lawn, taking out the garbage, washing the dishes, and helping to feed a baby are all acts of kindness that are elevated to works of holiness.

Rabbi Tauber takes it one step further by saying that performing a kindness, one that’s as simple as comforting a crying child, is actually more important than studying Torah.

Imagine that.

I’m not saying that we should stop reading our Bibles, cease pondering scholarly commentaries, and abandon our prayers and corporate worship. I am saying that we should stop thinking of those activities as the only way we serve God. We should stop believing that there’s any separation between what we do that is holy and what we do that is common.

“The thing that I really respect about how Jews live is that God is in everything. If you’re really Orthodox, God is not removed from anything. From the bathroom to the bracha [blessing] you make afterwards, you bless Him and you thank Him. Every time you say ‘Baruch ata Hashem,’ you are showing that you believe that He is the King of the Universe!”

-Ari Werth
Quoting Anglican priest Andrew White
from the article “Struggle for the Scrolls”

We tend to think all of our “work” is what we were really put here for, particularly if we’re “religious.” We pay a great deal of attention to creating congregations, attracting people to help the membership grow, networking with other religious people who think like we do, trying to paste and tape together varied and scattered faith groups to form some sort of unity. But in the end, what if our true purpose in life is to comfort a frightened child who fell out of his crib, help him feel secure again, and then watch him fall asleep in your arms?

Whenever you are feeling particularly “religious,” “holy,” or “righteous,” stop whatever you’re doing. Look, listen, pay attention. Are you being oblivious to what God really wants you to do? Are you failing to help your brother find something he lost? What are you missing?

Good Shabbos.

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