How often do you feel that there is too much to do but not enough time to get everything done? Feeling time pressure can induce anxiety and stress, and often leads to making poor, impulsive, decisions, especially related to gratifying immediate impulses. For instance, when we don’t have the time or energy to think through our food choices, we will likely choose the chocolate cake instead of the apple.
However, in an interestingly designed study, Kim, Wadhwa, and Chattopadhyay (2018) distinguished the negative aspects of time pressure and the positives of having a busy mindset. Through their research, they argue that perceiving oneself as busy (busy mindset)—absent the overwhelming feeling that there isn’t enough time to get everything done (time pressure)—can actually have positive benefits. People who are busy tend to feel productive, which boosts their sense of self-importance. Consequently, this feeling encourages them to make better self-control decisions. They will choose the apple instead of the chocolate cake.
Like his father’s message from Avot 2:1, Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, offers advice for making right choices and avoiding sin. While there are several ways to understand the first two clauses of his Mishna (Avot 2:2), the main thrust of his message seems to be that sinning is related to the way one spends one’s time: “desirable is the study of the Torah when combined with worldly occupation (derech eretz), for toil in them both makes sin forgotten; And any Torah which is not combined with work (melacha), in the end comes to be neglected and leads to sin.”
According to the commentaries, both Torah study and work each have two underlying factors that contribute to avoiding sin by allowing us to evade the battlefield where we meet the evil inclination to begin with. Work provides us with the financial support that prevents the desire to steal. Torah study teaches us, reminds us, and inspires us to follow the laws (Meiri). In addition, toiling in Torah exhausts the mind and working fatigues the body. When combined, there is no time or energy left for the evil inclination to take hold (Bartenura). In the words of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (quoted by Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski), “The reason one should not sin is not because it is forbidden, but because one should not have time for sin. When you are not engaged in working for a livelihood you should be studying Torah. You will simply not have the time to sin.” We should be so engaged in meaningful and valuable pursuits that we don’t have time to sin. This busy mindset should boost our sense of self-worth and inspire us to make the right choices.
Other commentaries argue that “derech eretz” in the first clause does not refer to an occupation (as that is already referenced in the second clause through the term melacha), but rather refers to proper character and ethical behavior. While some question this position, arguing that “toiling” makes more sense in the context of work than character formation, Rabbi Yosef Yaavetz defends this approach, contending that refining one’s personality requires much toil and hardship: one avoids sin through the combination of learning Torah and diligent self-improvement.
In an even more expansive definition of derech eretz, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes;
Therefore, this term – derech eretz – includes the means by which humans make a livelihood, one’s national citizenship, the courtesy, sensitivity, rectitude, customs and manners of the milieu in which one lives and all of the forms – cultural, personal, general and national – of society generally.
Consequently, active engagement in all these aspects of life will help us stay on the right path and avoid iniquitous behavior.
And if our schedule was not already packed with toiling in Torah, an occupation, and character refinement, Rabban Gamliel closes his Mishna by promoting communal work: “And all who labor with the community, should labor with them for the sake of Heaven, for the merit of their forefathers sustains them, and their righteousness endures forever; And as for you, I credit you with a rich reward, as if you had achieved it.” While much analysis is necessary to unpack the nuances of this cryptic formulation, Rabban Gamliel’s central message encourages individuals to work on behalf of the community (albeit with the proper motivation). Rambam understands the assurance of reward “as if you had achieved it” to indicate that even though people who engage in community work are often so busy that they do not have time to perform other particular mitzvot, God grants them the reward of those unperformed mitzvot. Rabbi Moshe Almosnino explains this idea differently: someone who dedicates himself to the community—and consequently sacrifices his time to learn, work, or perform other mitzvot—will be rewarded with all the intellectual and character benefits (such as the aforementioned forgetting of sin) that he would have attained through learning, working, and doing the other mitzvot.
From this perspective, all aspects of Rabban Gamliel’s message converge to promote a busy mindset. Without feeling overwhelmed by time pressure, we should fill our days with learning, working, self-improvement, and communal work. This will not only help prevent sin, but with the right intention, will infuse our lives with a deep sense of purpose and meaning, motivating us to better serve God and be of service to others.