Yitro: Jewish life hacks to suffer less
Yesterday morning, I ate a frog.
I started my day in my office a little earlier than usual, sat down: and ate the frog.
For me, eating the frog meant sitting down with a pile of receipts, and filling out expense reports. Eating the frog further required me to scan many of those receipts and then write nice things about the things we do here at Hevreh so I could submit them as part of a grant report for funding we receive.
Eating the frog, as you may have inferred— is thankfully not a weird new breakfast topping for my granola and yogurt, but rather, a productivity technique that riffs on a famous line from the infamous Mark Twain who said: If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.”
This sage advice about eating frogs sparked my curiosity earlier this week, as I listened to an episode of a podcast hosted by self-help guru Glennon Doyle, called “We Can Do Hard Things”. The episode was called “Life Hacks: Strategies to Suffer Less”.
If you’ve spent anytime on the internet anytime in the last three years, perhaps you’ve also noticed the uptick in this idea of “life hacks”--- websites and videos with all sorts of unexpected tips, like: remove sticky price labels by heating them with a hair dryer; erase permanent marker by spraying it with hairspray; shake garlic cloves in a glass jar to remove the peels.
But this episode wasn’t about nifty little productivity tips— or finding inventive ways to solve household problems. Rather, as one of the hosts described, “ life hacks are things also to help lessen suffering. … It’s the idea of try easier.”
The idea of trying easier, rather than trying harder piqued my interest and so I listened on— thinking about this idea of life hacks to decrease suffering, rather than increase productivity. Life is hard enough— why choose to suffer, if there are things you can do that offer ease?
The first of their suggestions, which was to eat the frog first may seem at first like a productivity tip. The idea being that whatever task you dread, whatever thing it is, that you put off and put off and put off is having an unintended consequence. Which is to say that it's not just about procrastination and getting things done, but that the longer you put off something you dread doing, the longer you sit in that space of dread. The longer you suffer.
My other favorite "life hack” from this episode is something that I actually think I have been trying to learn how to do and now I have a name for it. Glennon Doyle talks about the idea that knowledge obligates us. In the episode she says it's a good life hack to not ask to “know things that you don't want to be responsible for.” In other words, if you don’t want to wind up with the burden of information that was never meant for your ears to begin with, don’t ask.
Sage advice if you ask me but as I listened to the episode, I couldn't help but wonder if we couldn't go deeper. And so, as is my custom I turn to Torah. Ultimately one way that I understand what our tradition has to offer us is actually a whole lot of life hacks to decrease suffering.
Al shlosha devarim ha’olam omed: al ha’Torah, al ha’Avodah, v’al g’milut chasadim. Our world stands on Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Chasadim. Which is to say that we are meant to move through our lives by learning more, by being of service to others, and to God, and by engaging in acts of love and kindness.
Or, Ahavta l’rei-acha kamocha. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
Sounds like great ways to decrease suffering to me.
And then, there’s this week's Torah portion. Parashat Yitro comes in and has much wisdom to offer us – a story that itself we might see as a ‘life hack for decreasing suffering’.
In this week’s parashah, we receive the 10 Commandments. It is the beginning of our story as defined and held by a set of laws and expectations. Standing at the foot of Sinai, with the suffering of servitude still fresh in our hearts, we receive these 10 commandments from God, and with them, the beginning of a way out of our suffering. But even before we receive the 10 Commandments there’s a more subtle interaction that takes place at the beginning of the Torah portion which is rich with possibility.
Yitro, who is Moses his father-in-law, is arriving in the wilderness at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where Moses is encamped with the Israelites. Yitro brings with him his daughter, Moses’ wife Tzipora, and their two children, Eliezer and Gershon. Torah also notes that Yitro is, in fact, not only not an Israelite, but he is a Midianite, or a pagan priest.
His arrival is warmly greeted and he's invited to eat with Moses and Aaron and all of the elders before God.The next day, Yitro is watching as his son-in-law is ministering and counseling all of the Israelite people who are coming to him for judgment amidst various conflicts. There is no question that Moses is suffering under this burden. Moses turns to Yitro and says “you know you're right. When they have a problem, they come to me and I judge between him and his neighbor, and I make them understand the statutes of God and God's laws”. The heaviness of his work is written on his face and famously Yitro looks at his son-in-law, and says “you’ve got to stop. You're not doing it right, you're going to wear yourself out and these people as well. This task is too heavy for one person. You can't do it alone–Moses you need to try easier, you need a’ life hack for suffering less’.”
Yitro encourages Moses to create a system of shared leadership: to appoint judges who can take on this important aspect of communal leadership. The path to less suffering is one of delegation, one of sharing the burden of purpose with others.
The entire encounter between Moses and his father-in-law is in itself a beautiful story: one human being, looking at another, and noticing the burden and the suffering that they are experiencing, offers concrete solutions to help ease that burden.
At this precarious moment in our world, I am thinking about how we can expand our capacity to face suffering head on. There is suffering in our world for which there is no life hack; no tips or tricks to improve the human experience. What I’m thinking about right now is how we can deepen our own well of strength: to share it with those who suffer in desperate ways.
There’s a story told in the Talmud about two rabbis: Rabbi Johanan and Rabbi Hanina. Rabbi Johanan fell ill and R. Hanina went in to visit him. He said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? Rabbi Johanan replied: Neither they nor their reward. Rabbi Hanina said to his friend: “Give me your hand.” He gave him his hand and Rabbi Hanina helped him to stand up. The rabbis would later ask of this story, Why couldn’t R. Johanan raise himself?—They replied: The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.
There are things we can do to ease the daily suffering of everyday life, and then there is suffering at a scale so enormous, that it is easy to feel numb and unable to respond. We need only look at the news to remind ourselves of the suffering in our world: those injured, displaced, grieving, and impoverished by war, and by catastrophe. We know that those who suffer the effects of violent conflict and of natural disaster are indeed prisoners to their suffering; unable to free themselves from jail.
Perhaps the shared message— from the mundane but delightful suggestions that we eat the frog first thing in the morning, to the instructions we receive in Torah, is that lessening human suffering is a mitzvah: an obligation we have to ourselves and to others.
When we pay attention to the needs of our own body, mind and spirit— taking steps to alleviate our own suffering on any scale, we open the door to the possibility that we might have the capacity to aid others: to lessen their suffering as well.
Tonight, may our prayers be a balm to our own souls: souls in need of refreshment and respite, so that we may return to the holy and hard work of reaching out a hand to others, and help to raise them back up to life, to wholeness and peace.