This submission is with thanks to a reader in London.
There I was, a 22 year old “bochur” sitting in a coffee shop off Ben Yehudah going through the infamous task of job applications (I was bunking evening shiur at the time). As a newly engaged man and the impossibility of a shanah bet evident, I knew I had to embrace the challenges of a “frummer” in ‘chutz l’aaretz’ and choose for myself a career path. However, I was not going to pursue any old corporate job (not that they would have taken me anyway), rather my religious idealistic self dictated that if I am going to have to live the ‘bedieved’ life as working man, the work has to be meaningful and world changing: teacher training application complete.
Two years later, I am standing in front of 30 rowdy and confused teenagers every hour trying to convince them of the beauty and relevance of our Torah in between trying to enthuse them with the concept of Korbanot (Temple offerings), setting detentions left right and centre and sitting for hours on a Sunday mechanically (and pointlessly) marking what seems like an infinite amount of “work”. After a long day, on many of occasions I have reflected and realised that I have robotically manoeuvred through the day: whether it be though my lack of kavannah in tefillah, my lack of consideration as to the best way to get students to access the often boring material, or my simple failure in considering what my role in this world is and what it is that God wants from me. Life has a tendency to become habitual and we are all prone to it.
This seemingly deficient, robotic like characteristic in all us is beautifully exposed by Daniel Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking. Fast and Slow’. In a nutshell, he explains that the workings of the human mind can be broken down into two processes:
- System 1: Automatic and quick thoughts which require little/ no effort to activate.
- System 2: Thoughts which require attention, mental activities which require effort and more in-depth processing.
Therefore, I would describe System 1 as the brain process which allows us to respond habitually and robotically to the world, whereas System 2 is the brain process which facilitates our ability to make conscious decisions. I would argue that these two conflicting brain processes characterise our challenge as a Jew trying to bring meaning and Godliness to our worlds. Of course, as Daniel explains, System 1 is a necessary and integral function of our being: we would die of fatigue if every minute decision required in-depth processing. However, I believe that the underlying theme in our fantastic and sometimes crazy religion is that we need to be conscious individuals making purposeful and free decisions rather than being mindless puppets on the stage of life. Rather than just eating out of hunger, we reflect on the origins of the food and say a bracha; rather than taking our body for granted, we say ‘asher yatsah’ and consider the miracle of the human anatomy; rather than just accepting truths and reality as a given, we are trained to question through engaging in Talmudic dispute. Therefore, the ingredient to a meaningful life is the ability to actively engage in life and make conscious decisions as we manoeuvre through our world.
For certain, whether you are a teacher, accountant or in full-time learning, life is meaningful when you actively choose to infuse it with consciousness. You can let System 1 take over and habitually respond to life, or you can consciously choose to engage in life though System 2. This concept can be summed up by a cheeky little idea I heard about maror (bitter herbs).
We know that the main reason given for the eating the maror on seder night is to remind us of the bitter times the Jews experienced in Egypt. On a ‘deeper’ level, when eating something bitter like maror, our face muscles naturally pull of a face of disgust, similar to that of eating a lemon (an activity I got my students to attempt to demonstrate this idea). Slavery can be defined as the lack of choice and when eating something bitter, we are habitually responding to its taste rather than actually choosing to do so (System 1) – we are, in essence, a slave and subservient to the maror. Conversely, when in a state of freedom, we are actively choosing how to respond to life and engaged in a ‘System 2’ approach.
B’hatzlachah and Pesach Samaech!
The Working Jew.