Silencing the Background Noise

By Lavy Kosofsky, Longmeadow, MA
Essays 2016

MyLife Essay Contest 2016

Distraction is difficult to deal with. It can slow one down, and make even the simplest task a virtual impossibility. Understanding and integrating a well known story of the Tzemach Tzedek helps one to focus on the present moment and the task he/she is needed for. The Tzemach tzedek once told a Chassid that although he couldn’t be in in Eretz Yisroel where he wished to be, he should turn every environment he’ll be in into an ‘Israel.’ When one is aware of his ability to transform a momemt or space, he’s empowered and therefore distraction becomes easier to overcome.

The issue
It struck me one evening, suddenly and unexpectedly. It happened as I held my son cradled in the crook of my arm, rocking him to sleep. However, all the while, my attention was focused on the phone in my hand. The dissonance of the situation was blaringly obvious all of the sudden.  Here I was consumed by the little device in my hand and totally ignoring my child, my precious angel asleep in my arms. Quickly, I pocketed the phone and held my child close to my heart; and tried to transmit fatherly feelings of warmth to him.

Over the next few days, I noticed the same phenomenon repeating itself in various settings. For example, I would be praying, yet really only with my mouth, because my mind was far away, wandering through everything that happened that day. Or, I would sit down at my desk, ready to begin work, only to find my attention scattered; I could not and would not be able to focus on the task at hand. I began to realize how much of a plague distraction is and how deeply and subtly it crept into too many aspects of my life.

I know and knew then how important it is to give whatever it is we’re busy with our undivided attention, yet how was I supposed to translate that knowledge into deed? I knew that I should focus on nurturing my child, or on concentrating during prayer, but I was desperate for the catalyst that would actually get me going.

How is one meant to put aside distractions and focus on what needs to be done?

A Story
Once, a follower of the third Chabad Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, requested permission to immigrate to the land of Israel. He explained to his Rebbe that he yearned very much to immerse himself in Torah and prayer, and that this could be better achieved in the holy land. The Tzemach Tzedek responded, “We must make Israel here, make this place the land of Israel (in the original Yiddish, mach doh eretz yisrael).”

On a literal level, the chassid was expressing a desire to further his spiritual growth. He was a man who strove to ascend to higher levels of holiness, and yearned to be surrounded by the spiritual atmosphere of Israel. When one is surrounded by holiness, his spiritual stature stands to benefit.

And yet, the Tzemach Tzedek did not grant him permission. The message of the Tzemach Tzedek was: “This place is a potential Israel, it is your task to make that a reality. What is more, the Tzemach Tzedek’s advice made it clear that the Chassid belonged in his place of residence. This was where he was meant to be. Granted, the land of Israel may be holier. Yet the chassid belonged in a place that was not yet very holy.

A basic tenet of Judaism is belief in one G-d. Chassidic philosophy stresses the importance of trust in G-d. Trust implies that the one G-d is in control of the world, and is involved in the everyday minutiae of life. Trust is the process by which a great G-d becomes a personal G-d who cares for each individual. There are many who trust in one G-d on a theoretical level. This means that they trust in one G-d, yet live lives full of misery and regret. In the view of Chassidic philosophy, this is not considered trust. Trust is the belief that one’s life is deliberate. G-d did not bring this life about at random, rather, G-d has desired for this particular individual to be living this particular life. It is incumbent on man to fortify his faith with this knowledge. It is not enough to proclaim belief in one G-d. The implications are that He has placed man in these shoes, and in this life.

For what purpose is man placed in this particular life? To make this place the land of Israel. Israel represents all that is holy. Israel is the most holy of all lands, it is the gateway to the heavens. Making Israel here means to imbue this place with the loftiest level of spirituality. It is man’s task to illuminate his own setting with holiness. One does not belong in the holiest of lands. One belongs in the land in which he finds himself. This is based on perhaps the most essential point of Chassidic philosophy: You are not here randomly. You have been placed here deliberately.

With time, one’s place may change, and at that time, there is a new place to make into a land of Israel. One need not seek the land of Israel, one must seek to infuse their surroundings with the land of Israel.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the concept of creating Israel exists at every single moment. Regrets are played out in the past, and hopes are dreamed of in the future, only the present can be filled with action. The action of creating an Israel space occurs at any given moment. Even more, it occurs at every given moment. Each moment is a mini-Israel waiting to be created. There is no other place that I would rather be. This is my moment that has been given to me, it is my job to transform the moment.

On the surface, each moment in time is ordinary, there is nothing holy about it. However, each moment has potential for holiness; potential to become the land of Israel. The catalyst is the individual, the individual can elevate each moment to its fullest potential.

There is me, the individual. There is the moment, and the potential within to transform into holiness that Israel represents. And it is my task to reveal the Israel at every given moment.

This concept has helped me deal with distraction. I would get distracted because I did not place value on the task at hand. Even if the task was important, I still did not wish to be bothered. I knew it was important, but it was not inherently my task. It was random, brought about by my choices at previous junctures in life. I had been brought here as a result of my decisions, and I was forced to deal with the reality of life. Why focus on this moment if it is a randomly generated occurrence? I would have to deal with it, but my heart was not in it.

Now, I have a new perspective. I believe in one G-d. He has placed me on this earth, and given me the opportunity to create holiness around me. He has brought me to this moment. Currently, I have one task, and one task only. Nothing else exists to me, for I have this unique opportunity to imbue this specific moment in time with the holiness of Israel. I have the opportunity to imbue this specific task with the holiness of Israel.

It still happens that I get distracted. I still look at my phone when I rock my baby to sleep, I still find my mind wandering during prayer, and I still have trouble buckling down at work. However, when I do come to the realization that I have been off task, I immediately stop and think to myself: “This is my land of Israel. I am supposed to be here. Right now is the moment that has been given to me to transform. This encounter is my opportunity to infuse holiness. I can do this, G-d has brought me here to do my job.

It is still a challenge, and I sometimes fail, but my perspective has been transformed. I have the confidence to stay focused, knowing the paramount importance of this exact moment.

The Methodology
[1] There is one G-d
[2] He has placed me in this setting, at this point in time
[3] My job is to make this place the land of Israel
[4] Each moment is an opportunity to ‘create’ Israel