Ghosting God

Freeing yourself from 'the busy trap'

Commentary on Parashat Emor, Leviticus 21:1-24:23

A: Hey, girl! So great to see you at Mike’s party on New Year’s. You free this week? Want to grab drinks?
B: Yo!!!!! Sorry it took me so long to respond. I’m the worst. Yes! I’d love to! First round is on me because I’m so terrible. Tuesday???
A: Ugh, Tuesday is my friend Rachel’s birthday. I am the actual worst. What about Weds?
B: Weds works! Let’s e-mail next week about where to go. Yayyyyyyyyyy.

B: I am total garbage at scheduling and forgot we were supposed to meet up tonight. Could you do Mon? SO SORRY. I feel terrible.

Several years ago, The New Yorker ran this fictitious text exchange between two friends “trying” to make plans, getting ever more creative in their attempts and excuses to cancel each time. I imagine it is indicative of where I am in my life, and where my friends are, that I saw the piece shared over and over again. Entitled “Let’s Get Drinks,” I think the funny pop culture references and outlandish excuses mask something deeper in our culture, something researchers have come to call “The Busy Trap.”

Try this. Email, call, or text a friend. Ask: How are you? Fine is the response that you expect to get; it is the polite and easy response. But, more and more in our society, the answer that you are likely to get is: Busy. So busy. Crazy busy.

Essayist Tim Greider writes of this busy trap, and notes:

It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 GPAs make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications. I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.

But, if busyness is a status symbol in today’s culture, if busy is the answer to any question — along comes our text and tradition, countercultural once again:

Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are my fixed times, the fixed times of Adonai, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions. (Leviticus 23:1-2)

With this introduction, we encounter one of the first — and most concentrated — descriptions of the Jewish holiday calendar. Beginning with the Sabbath, the next paragraphs of the Torah take us through our major festivals: Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. It’s the greatest hits of the festival calendar — each one, our text says, a day of complete rest; you shall not work at your occupations. Busy, schmusy, God seems to say. There are relationships and obligations that transcend your everyday, that take precedence over your calendar, that are more important than whatever Google reminder just popped up.

It is worth noting that this section of Emor, this week’s Torah portion, comes — as does most of the Book of Leviticus — in the midst of just the sort of details that make our lives so busy. In an ancient Outlook task list of sorts, Emor covers the contingencies of coming into contact with a dead body, what happens if your daughter defiles herself through harlotry and (of course) how and when we offer certain sacrifices. All important scenarios to cover, to be sure, but perhaps not the most urgent, not the most significant.

Eileh mo’adai, God says. “These are My fixed times.” Only, moed means more than time. Throughout the Torah, the ohel moed, the Tent of Meeting, is the place where Moses goes to encounter God’s presence. In Modern Hebrew, a moadon (from the same root) is a gathering place, a lounge. God does not introduce the festival calendar with the language of time, but rather with the language of relationship. Set aside this space in your life, the text seems to say, to connect with what matters, with who matters. No excuses. No ignoring. No ghosting. Show up. For Me. But more importantly, perhaps, show up for you.

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