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The Battle for Attention

By: Rav Yonny Sack

When Moshe went down to Egypt for the first time in last week’s parasha to tell the message of redemption, the “nation believed” - “VeYaamen Haam” [1] and they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves. The salvation had finally arrived. Moshe and Aharon then went to speak to Pharaoh for the first time to tell him “So said Hashem, the God of Israel, Send out my People…”. It is time to let the Jewish people go, but Pharaoh defiantly refuses and in fact decides to increase burden of slave labor. This is most strange. If you were a tyrant dictator, and your slaves were starting to dream of redemption, surely a wise move would be to make things a little easier, introduce some new incentives, some bonuses to get the slaves to want to stick around a little longer? Even if you wanted to take the harsher approach, surely the motive behind it would be to crush the rebellion by exerting your authority – to give the clear message of ‘just remember who is boss around here’. Pharaoh does take the harsher approach but it has little to do with exerting authority:

 You shall not continue to give straw to the people to make the bricks as yesterday… let them go and gather straw for themselves… for they are becoming lax; therefore they cry out saying, ‘Let us go and bring offerings to our God.’ Let the work weigh heavier upon the men and let them engage in it and then they won’t turn to such words of falsehood [2].

It is clear that Pharaoh’s device here to increase the work was not aimed at exerting his authority but rather because he believed it would reduce the possibility for the people to “turn” their hearts and minds to the dream of redemption. Indeed it works. In the beginning of this week’s parasha, Moshe goes back to the people for the second time, now with the promise of the various stages of the redemption - ending the servitude, the exodus from the land, splitting the sea, entering into the special covenant of Torah at Mount Sinai, and even entering into the Land of Israel [3] and the response to his lengthy inspiring prophecy is: “VeLo ShamU El Moshe MiKotzer Ruach UMiAvoda Kasha” – “But they did not hear Moshe, due to their narrowed spirit and the difficult work”. Pharoah’s device had succeeded perfectly. He had increased the labor, and thus closed the heart and mind off from any yearnings of redemption. 

The Mesilat Yesharim explains that this device is employed by our own inner Pharaoh, our Yetzer HaRa on a daily basis, getting us to be so busy that we don’t have time to think and contemplate any spiritual aspirations, we lose the headspace [4] that we so desperately need to think about the important life growth decisions to the unimportant, urgent stresses of daily life. 

This idea is one of the most powerfully relevant and critical idea that our generation needs to internalize. One of our greatest battles is that which is fought over our attention [5]. Our precious daily energy is given over to that which we focus our attention on, and we are living in a time where the attention stealing devices are innumerable and overwhelming in their influence. The smartphones are certainly the greatest culprit. With all of their incredible helpful uses, they are stealing our time and energy by stealing our attention. There is always some snap chat, WhatsApp, Instagram, email, SMS to read and look at, some Facebook update to curiously view. As far as actually thinking about one’s life, one’s path, engaging in some productive self analysis - who has the time? There is always something more attention-grabbing and certainly less confronting that is accessible at the touch of a finger. Cars are now equipped with video screens, so that, G’ forbid, no one will have to actually look out the window and see the beautiful world out there while in the passenger seat. In fact, wherever you go, you can be assured that there will be a screen waiting for you while you wait to ensure you are kept busy, just in case you forgot to charge your phone. And if it is not the screens then it is the work, the endless time one can spend on the latest urgent project and proposal, or university or school assignment. Pharaoh has decreed – keep them busy – ever so busy any way you can so that there is always something that pulls on us and squashes us into a personal Mitzrayim. And then Moshe comes along with his words of redemption. This is our inner voice of truth, our higher consciousness, our soul which tries to give the message of spiritual redemption, of freedom and it falls on deaf ears. ‘Sorry Moshe, no time right now for any talk of redemption - I have to go and find some bricks to build Pharoah’s palace of exile.” And so it goes, that so many people are running, running, running - without opening their eyes, mind and heart to see where they are actually going.  

What is the antidote? I believe it is to be found in Shabbos. Not just in the celebration and keeping of Shabbos, but in the internalization of the Shabbos message in every aspect of our daily life. Shabbos is centered on the foundation of an energy called Menucha. Menucha, based on the root “Nach” which means to place something, to be at rest, is the tranquility of being present, connected and stationed in a given situation. Being and not needing to run and do all the time. Shabbos is the day when we partake of the timelessness of Hashem [6]; we are landed in the ultimate Presence, invested in the day to such an extent that no meeting, email, screen or distraction of any kind could draw us out of that potent mindful experience. The soul trait that carries the Shabbos energy is called “Menuchat HaNefesh”, translated as tranquility of the soul. It is the ability to access and experience expanded consciousness even amidst a world that so easily works to constrict us. It opens the gates to self-awareness contemplation, introspection, genuine connectivity and presence and it is therefore a taste of inner redemption despite the waves that may be crashing around you or the ropes of stress that might be trying to tug at you at any given moment. 

It is this Shabbos energy that allows one to ‘be’ and take a rest from the constant ‘doing’ all the time, and if we accessed this power each week in its full potency, and then brought that taste of Menucha into our daily lives, we would all be a lot more grounded, centered, and ready to accept and respond to the message of our own inner “Moshe”. 

Have a beautiful and meaningful Menucha filled Shabbos,


[1] Shmot 4:31

[2] Shmot 5:7-9

[3] These are hinted at through the 4/5 languages of redemption that G-d tells Moshe to tell the people: Hotzeiti, Hitzalti, Gaalti, Lakachti and the final Heveiti. Rabbeinu Bachayei and others explain these are 4 stages of redemption as mentioned above.

[4] The name of a popular app for meditation. Ironically, an app on a phone which is perhaps the greatest attention stealing device, is geared to help people regain their long lost attention.

[5] Rav Doniel Katz speaks about this so profoundly in his Elevation teachings. 

[6] R Aryeh Kaplan in his “Sabbath, day of Eternity”


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