Friday, June 5, 2020 -
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It’s different from procrastination

DOES anyone else have this problem? I only get things done when I’m supposed to be doing something else.

Not always, but complication seems to be congenial. Did this start in college? I went to the library needing to read one book, but pulled the book next to it off the shelf. It seemed so much more interesting than my assignment.

When I was supposed to be studying for an exam in history, suddenly the exam a week later in English became urgent, requiring my immediate attention.

Today, I’m supposed to be writing — suddenly it seems the perfect time to sell advertising. Or, I’m supposed to be cleaning for Pesach — just the right time to rearrange the papers in my drawer. I’m supposed to be entertaining the grandkids — so I talk to one of the kids instead. I’m supposed to sit down for dinner, but the morning paper, which I’d missed, is suddenly compelling.

I’m supposed to be davenen — thoughts about the comments of the Vilna Gaon on Jewish law crowd out the prayers and occupy my mind.

I’m very focused — on the wrong thing.

I’m disciplined — in an undisciplined way.

I’m on track — the other track.

Ever since 1976, I’ve found the perfect justification (self-deception?) for this crazy rhythm, this inverted procrastination — my maddening habit of doing the right thing at the wrong time.

HERE’S what happened in 1976.

I was supposed to be doing my doctoral dissertation. It was on the thought of the ethicist and pietist, Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883). I was getting nowhere, writing stuff I knew was no good. The problem was, there were these technical terms that Rabbi Israel kept using that I couldn’t figure out. They seemed to be a code. I couldn’t crack it.

So, naturally, instead of heading for the research library at The Hebrew University, I set out for the Jerusalem Public Library. It was much, much smaller and more limited. Clearly, it couldn’t help me, but it was in a nice part of town and no doubt had some great books I could learn from. Maybe there I’d have a little luck advancing my dissertation.

I knew I was kidding myself.

Instead of looking at books in modern Jewish ethics or piety — the topics Rabbi Israel dealt with — I pulled an unrelated book off the shelf: Crescas Critique of Aristotle, by Harry A. Wolfson.

Crescas was medieval; Aristotle was ancient. Nothing relevant to the 19th-century Rabbi Israel here.

SO what! I had been fascinated by Wolfson back in Boston during course work in graduate school. Wolfson had mastered all of Western philosophy in their original languages. He studied Greek philosophy in Greek, medieval Christian philosophy in Latin, and read contemporary philosophic studies in German, French, Dutch and Italian.

And his English? It was was elegant and crystalline clear.

So why not indulge myself in that beautiful writing style of his again — even if it had nothing to do with the thinker I needed to focus on, Rabbi Israel, who lived centuries after Crescas?

Sure enough, pleasure washed over me. Wolfson was such a master of both English expression and his complex subject. Suddenly, somehow, I became a bit agitated. I am leafing through the footnotes in Wolfson’s book (hundreds of pages long, in many languages), and certain Hebrew terms stick out. They ring a bell.

Now, I’m not reading for pleasure anymore, I start paying close attention. I’m pulled in, not just leafing through. Actually, I’m glued. These are recognizable terms. I’ve seen them before. Voila! These are the very terms in Rabbi Israel’s writings whose meaning and interrelation I have not figured out, and whose decipherment is what I am supposed to be engaged in.

Long story short: I investigated the medieval philosophic authors whose terms Wolfson cited, and cracked the code of Rabbi Israel’s terms.

I was on the way to getting my dissertation done.

Rabbi Israel’s reputation for knowing everything in Jewish lore was legendary, so it was entirely plausible that he read medieval Jewish philosophy, too. Whether he read the actual authors Wolfson cited was unimportant. That he read medieval Jewish philosophy and absorbed its terminology became clear. When I understood the medieval philosophic issues, I saw how Rabbi Israel adapted them to his own purposes in the study of human psychology.

I learned all this because I was doing the wrong thing.

Looking at the wrong book.

Going to the wrong library.

Playing hooky.

Acting the first-class academic truant I was: increasing my knowledge in one field, medieval Jewish philosophy, unrelated to my field.

Or so I thought.

Ah, what joy I had in the Jerusalem Public Library that day.

EVER since 1976, this serendipitous discovery of the secret to many of Rabbi Israel’s writings has served as the marvelous justification to do the right thing at the wrong time.

You never know where curiosity will lead, and what gems in your life you’ll discover while playing hooky.

Truth be told, provided you end up getting done, on time, what you need to, diversion and escape and wide-ranging accretions of knowledge open up lenses on life — rivulets, timbres, arcs of interest — that enrich you, and sometimes even create a new you.

The challenge of Passover’s freedom, given a society that is already free, is how much time free time is best used to let the mind wander.

Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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