People tend to laugh at jokes, I’ve stopped doing so, having noticed that every joke carries a powerful message.
Take the joke of the peasant carrying sacks of flour from a mill up a hill. One sack, then another, then another. All day long, he toiled. While doing so, he asked himself: Why was man created with a head? What purpose does it serve? Arms? He knew their purpose. They were needed to lift bags of flour. Legs? That wasn’t difficult either. Clearly they were needed to transfer bags from one place to another. But a head? What function does a head serve? Suddenly his face lit up. A human being needs a head to carry his hat!
Funny? Not anymore. For today, truly, who needs a head? For mathematical calculations? The days are over when every salesman had a pencil behind his ear and a small notebook on his desk. To remember phone numbers? We have digital address books for that. Studying directions for a trip? Waze will take care of us.
I’m not being facetious. The fact is that we use our heads far less often today, and the consequences are evident. A while ago, we made a simcha in our home and invited neighbors and acquaintances to participate. Two days after the simcha, my husband met a neighbor who profusely apologized for not coming to the simcha. My husband graciously accepted the apology but said he had one small problem: “You were there!” he told the neighbor.
The man looks at him in total disbelief, so my husband reminded him of a piece of conversation that took place while he was present and, sure enough, he remembered. He had been there!
It’s not just our heads that are underused. The same is true of our hands. If a person’s phone rings, he can now just say “Answer” without having to actually press anything. The same is true of opening doors, faucets, lights etc. – everything is digital and automated.
These technological advances make life easier, but in the process we have lost the sweet taste of toil – real toil. Toil that requires inner work. The kind of toil that Rabbi Nechunia ben Hakaneh refers to in his prayer preceding entry to a study hall for a day of, yes, spiritual toil and sweat. The kind of toil that Chazal refer to in their comment on the first pasuk in Bechukosai (“If you will walk in My ways…”): “‘walking in My ways’ means, toil of Torah.”
The kind of toil that invites us to busy ourselves with growth, introspection, and change. The kind of toil that rejects spiritual stagnation. Nowadays, we often avoid a challenge – and, along with it, the satisfaction that accompanies real effort – if it seems too hard. But we must resist that urge.
Not too long ago, a friend of mine was diagnosed with inflammation of the hand, which is a common symptom of repeated computer use. Her doctor told her that the root of this problem is lack of physical labor. In the past, the body was put to use. Women worked hard to knead dough or wash and rinse laundry. People labored and their joints and muscles were active.
Today we live a luxurious life so that the slightest toil now sends us straight to the doctor. Infections, ruptured tendons, strains – we have become delicate. Our bodies have atrophied. And the same is true of the most important organ, the brain. Why should it be an exception to the rule? If we don’t use our mental capabilities, they will deteriorate.
Intellectual toil and persistence may be difficult, but the ensuing fulfillment is well worth the effort. In the long run, it proves to be more rewarding than demanding. So why deny ourselves a pleasure that will potentially enrich our lives?