Ask a busy person


I’m certain that you have heard this saying before: “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.” It is attributed to all sorts of wise people from Benjamin Franklin to Lucille Ball. Whatever its original source, I’m convinced that there is a great measure of truth to it.

Busy people are generally responsible and reliable people. It makes good sense to entrust tasks to such individuals.

But I think it goes deeper than that. I think that busy people are always looking for new challenges, interesting options, and opportunities to use their intelligence and creativity, and that is what makes them so valuable.

There are all sorts of reasons why some individuals are not busy. Some simply lack opportunity. Others have been found to be incompetent and, therefore, are not busy.

But such individuals are not “opposites” of the busy person. The busy person’s “opposite” is the individual who shirks new tasks, who actively avoids new assignments, who is reluctant to risk novelty and uncertainty.

Where in the Torah can we find mention of archetypes, or models, of the busy person and of the one who is determined not to be busy? I like to suggest that we find such archetypes in the persons of this week’s Torah portion, Toldot.

“Jacob was cooking a lentil stew when Esau came in from the field, exhausted. Esau said to Jacob, “Pour some of this red stuff down my throat because I’m exhausted!” … Jacob said, ‘Sell me your birthright.’ Esau replied, “I am going to die, so why do I need this birthright?” … He sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob gave bread and lentil stew to Esau, who ate and drank, and got up and left. Esau despised the birthright” (Genesis 25:29-34).

At this point, you might find yourself asking about the connection between Jacob and Esau in this narrative and the dichotomy I’ve drawn between the busy man and the man who shirks busyness.

To address your very legitimate question, allow me to introduce you to a very interesting Torah scholar and his unique take on the personalities of Jacob and Esau.

I refer to a man whom I had heard about many years ago from my childhood tutor, Rabbi Jacob Abramczyk. In his youth, Rabbi Abramczyk was a student at the Yeshiva of Novardok in pre-Holocaust Lithuania. He survived the Holocaust, but most of his fellow students did not. He often spoke to me of one of those fellow students, a man named Rabbi Yitzchak Valdshain.

I recently came across a book entitled Torat Yitzchak, which contains a biography of Rabbi Valdshain, along with a few of the Torah essays which he had published in his lifetime. One of those essays is devoted to this week’s parsha. It is entitled, “The Devout Person Seeks Obligations.” That title intrigued me, and his opening paragraphs intrigued me all the more.

He distinguishes between two types of religious personalities. One he calls the “Eagle.” Just as the Eagle flies ever upward toward the sun, so does the Eagle-personality seek every opportunity to get closer to the Almighty’s service. He seeks to learn about religious obligations of which he was previously ignorant, and he seeks to become involved in new religious roles.

The other religious personality type he terms the “Bat,” the person who not only does not fly toward the sun but flies in the opposite direction, away from the sun’s rays, toward the darkness in which he is most comfortable. This person is satisfied with the religious obligations that are familiar to him and wants to remain oblivious to the other duties that might be out there. He is comfortable in his current role and does not wish to even hear of new possibilities, of new religious roles.

Rabbi Valdshain reminds us of a passage in the Talmud that illustrates these two opposite tendencies. “The later generations are different from the earlier ones. The earlier ones would bring their newly harvested crops through the wide front doors of their homes and courtyards, so that they could proudly perform the obligation to tithe their crops. Later generations brought their crops through rooftops, alleyways, and side entrances in order to exempt those crops from tithes” (Berachot 35b).

The earlier generations were “Eagles,” flying upward toward the sun and performing the good deeds far beyond the minimal standards. Later generations deteriorated to the level of “Bats,” doing what they could to evade, albeit within the letter of the law, unwanted obligations.

Taking the metaphor a bit further, one can say that the Eagle, because he is open to the sun’s radiance, is open to personal growth. The Bat, however, hides from the sun and so denies himself personal growth opportunities.

For Rabbi Valdshain, this is the key difference between Jacob and Esau. Jacob actively seeks to “purchase” the role of the firstborn. He greatly desires the role of sacrificial service, the challenges of leadership, the expansion of his spirituality, and the opportunities for reaching out to others.

Esau, on the other hand, eschews new responsibilities and new obligations. He is satisfied with lentil stew, with the “red stuff,” with his basic physical needs. Sacrificial service, the pressures of leadership, challenging spiritual opportunities—these are all mere burdens to him. They are to be “despised.”

And so, “he ate and drank, and got up and left.”

These two personality types, the “Eagle” and the “Bat,” reside side by side within each of us. Rabbi Valdshain, may his memory be blessed, urges us to be aware of these tendencies within us all. He implores us to suppress our inner “Bat” and permit our inner “Eagle” to soar.