Now, there are other ways we can be distracted from our spiritual goals, too. We can be suddenly captivated by the world and drawn to its gleam and hum. After all, the world does indeed do just that; and our inner work sometimes dims and muffles it.
But Ibn Pakudah depicts the struggle in a unique way. He speaks of us as sometimes being “distracted” by the world, and of “forgetting our destiny” as a consequence. That’s to say that the world does indeed gleam and hum — which is a gift from G-d outright like everything else, our inner work included, and that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with glorying in it, as long we do it in a Torah-condoned way. Nonetheless there’s no denying the fact that we can be “distracted” and thrown off-course by earthly delights, and “forget our destiny” or life-mission in the process. So we clearly need advice. So we’re presented here with certain instances in which the world oversteps its bounds while we’re striving spiritually, and are offered ways to keep things in perspective.
Two primary ways we Jews worship G-d and express our inner being is by praying and studying Torah. When we pray, we stand before G-d and speak; whereas when we study Torah, we sit before G-d and listen. We can recite prescribed, tried and true prayers, or private, tentative and unsure prayers; and we can study the G-d-given Torah-texts we’ve been granted, or the Torah-text that is the G-d-given present moment. In any event, we’re often distracted when we engage in them all.
After all, we’re “off” then, and not doing anything “constructive” when we pray and study Torah, and our work is often engaging and part of the gleam and hum of life we spoke of. So our yetzer harah tries to “confuse and bother us with earthly matters like business, sales, profits and losses”, as Ibn Pakudah puts it. Which is to say, it tries to throw us off course by reminding us of the details about the here-and-now that we often find tantalizing.
The yetzer harah says things like, “Enjoy the … free time because you won’t have it again, you’re so busy”. What you could be doing now instead of communing with G-d is thinking about how well you’re doing in your career or how you could do even better, which is always so enticing. Or it will persuade you to think about all sorts of provocative enigmas, thoughts, and news.
In fact those thoughts don’t only occur when you set out to pray or study; sometimes they come in the very midst of things. There are even times when they become the center of your attention, and when you seem to be doing one thing (praying, studying) but are actually wholly concerned with something else, thus “imploring G-d with your limbs while avoiding Him in your heart” as Ibn Pakudah puts it. And that would be utterly self-defeating if we’re out to grow in our beings.
“How could I possibly act that way to G-d when I’d never do that to someone I know?” you’d do well to ask yourself then. After all, would you be so cold as to listen to your friend speak from the heart, and concentrate on your lunch in your mind? That’s what we do for all intents and purposes when we settle for the world’s niceties the times we could be communing with G-d Himself.
This series is dedicated to the memory of Yitzchak Hehrsh ben Daniel z”l, and Sara Rivka bas Yaakov Dovid, z”l.