Socrates famously taught, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” To which rabbi and family systems therapist Edwin Friedman adds: “The over-examined life is not so great either.” Surely it is valuable—even critical—to consider our choices and learn from our mistakes. But as Rabbi Friedman recognizes, too much time spent in reflection can be counter-productive, particularly for those of us for whom excessive pondering tends to lead to inaction and despair. Sometimes the best thing to do is stop deliberating and just act.
Consider the events in this week’s double Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekude, which concludes the book of Exodus. It comes in the wake of our people’s most traumatic and monumental failure, the making of the Golden Calf. The aftermath of that tragedy finds the Israelites in a deep funk. God and Moses need to get the people back on track.
So what do they do? Send them off to contemplate their errors and reflect on their motivations? No. As the parshah opens, God and Moses just tell the Israelites to get down to the work of building the mishkan, the portable sanctuary whose plans have been laid out over the past few weeks. They essentially treat the golden calf episode as an interruption. The “cure” is to resume their sacred labors:
“Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: ‘These are the things that the Eternal has commanded you to do. . . Take from among you gifts to the Eternal and let all among you who are skilled come and make all that the Eternal has commanded. . .’”
And the people respond. The men collect gold and jewels and tanned skins, while the women spin fine fabrics. Everyone contributes, until there is more than enough material to complete the project. Given a second chance, the Israelites seize the opportunity to achieve their calling.
As Rabbi Spike Anderson notes in the book, Text Messages: “[After the sin of the Golden Calf] the Israelites were lost. And so, God gave our ancestors a task. Its purpose was to redeem their sense of self-worth and confidence. It would help them understand who they really were and what God wanted from each and every one of them. By working together, each one bringing the best of who he or she was to the effort, they were able to build the mishkan, and G came to dwell among them.”
When asked about the secret of civilization, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, did not say self-awareness or reflectiveness (though surely both are valuable). He responded, “Love and work.” Healing happens through meaningful labor. When the self-examination comes to an end, no doubt still unfinished, we have to just do something. Loving action has great power.