Watch for piles of synonyms! They usually herald an important cultural phenomenon that we are trying in as many ways as possible to understand.
Take the word “tired” — not just “sleepy,” but “exhausted, weary, fatigued, and drained”; even “fed up, disillusioned, and disenchanted”; the opposite of “inspired, stimulated, motivated, and enthused.” I mean the tiredness that runs us down and wears us out. It is the soul-sickness of our times.
The Maggid of Dubno (famous for his parables) addressed tiredness while explaining God’s accusation, “You, Israel, grew weary of Me” (Isaiah 43:22). He pictures a noble who regularly buys merchandise from abroad and employs an agent to deliver it. On one occasion, the agent complains about the fee. “Do you have any idea how tiring it was to carry this to you?” he explains.
“Tiring?” the noble fires back in shock. “That’s impossible. Anything I buy is so beautiful, that just having it with you long enough to deliver it has to inspire you. If you found it tiring, you must have picked up the wrong package.” The Maggid was talking about Torah. If we find it tiring, we must be holding the wrong package. Whatever we thought to be Torah must be something else.
His parable applies elsewhere, too. This week’s reading, for example, mandates tithing — not just the better-known tithes for the poor and the priests, but the lesser-known one by which the farmer sets aside produce to be consumed on a family pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Torah considers a case where the farmer thinks the journey will be too hard: it is too far, perhaps, or the farmer has such a bumper crop that the 10 percent tithe generates too much food to carry.
Citing the Maggid’s parable, the Itturei Torah asks, “How can someone find it ‘too hard’ to celebrate a magnificent harvest on a family trip to the holiest spot on earth?”
The analogy is not perfect, however, because journeys cannot be confused one with another — not the way the noble’s agent might have confused parcels. So 16th-century Moses Alsheikh adds a related observation: A journey, he says, is always to a particular place, a “makom” in Hebrew; and one of the names for God is Hamakom, “The Place.” The point of any worthwhile journey is to get to “the place” in both senses: the physical destination but also the sense that wherever we are heading, God somehow dwells there. What makes the journey “hard” is not the actual travel, so much as it is the suspicion that God is nowhere to be found even when we get there — even in Jerusalem. Why be a pilgrim to the House of God if God isn’t in the house anymore?
Now we see how the Maggid’s parable applies to our current plague of world-weariness. Life itself is a pilgrimage, after all: from place to place, from stage to stage, from birth to death. If life somehow seems “hard” — if we chronically feel “exhausted, weary, fatigued, and drained” — the problem is not the physical act of getting through the day so much as it is the sense that there is nothing godly about the day we are getting through; that we are just going through the motions; that it makes no difference what we do or if we do it.
Unless we are still poor enough to be working for bare subsistence, we human beings need purpose. If our daily routine seems hard, we may indeed be like the noble’s agent: We are carrying around the weight of the world but the world we are carrying around is the wrong package. We need to set aside the world where nothing seems to matter; and pick up a world where the beauty of a sunset, a phone call to a friend, and a helping hand to a stranger display the presence of God and purpose at the end of each day’s pilgrimage.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.