The Limits of Multi-Tasking

VaYera, this week’s Torah portion, opens with Avraham sitting at the door to his tent. According to the Chazal Avraham was nursing himself back to health after having circumcised himself. We learn this from the juxtaposition to the end of Lech Lecha, last week’s Torah portion, where Avraham circumcised himself. So Avraham was sitting amidst his pain when he looked up and saw three travelers. Looking past his bodily needs Avraham rushed to attend to their needs. The Rabbis explain that these three men were actually angels. But why three angels?

In the words of the Midrash, “one angel does not get sent to do two jobs” (Breshit Rabbah 50:2). Each angel was sent to do one action. There were three things that needed to be done and therefore God sent three angels to do God’s bidding. While human beings are complex beings driven by complex and competing values, angels are simple creatures sent to actualize a single articulation of the Divine will.

To a generation of multi-taskers, the modern Avraham would be sitting there sending e-mail, instant messaging Sarah, talking on the cell phone, reading an article in print, when the three figures appear in the distance. Would a modern Avraham have been able to fit these wanders into his busy schedule? This adds a new dimension to the idea that none of us are angels. Even without all of our modern distractions Avraham is not able to do it all. Avraham endures the pain of not taking care of himself to focus on helping others.

To be a good person is to know how to prioritize the needs of other with our own needs. When do we put the needs of others over our own needs? When do we give too much?  If not now, when? This balancing of needs demands a maturity of being deliberate in our allocation of resources (most important of which is time). If we hope to accomplish anything of meaning in a world inundated by the sea of multimedia-distractions we need to become more angelic and single-minded. Yes we need to focus to achieve our goals, but we need to keep others people in mind when we think we are actualizing God’s will. Faith is a good thing and it might even help us to concentrate our efforts on achieving the many tasks necessary to make the world a better place. But even faith reaches a limit. We should always be fearful that living a life justified by any absolute value may obstruct our seeing the needs of others or even ourselves. I hope that this message does not cut too deep.


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