THE LIMITS OF CONSCIENTIOUSNESS
In order to better understand and research different personality types, psychologists generally refer to what is known as “The Big Five” personality traits. The five traits include conscientiousness (organized, controlled, goal-oriented), agreeableness (cooperative, kind, friendly), neuroticism (sad, moody, anxious), openness (imaginative, creative) and extraversion (sociable, excitable, expressive). Sometimes referred to by the acronym of CANOE (or OCEAN), these five are argued to subsume all other subcategories of personality.
Out of the five, one that is consistently held in the spotlight for being important for success in various aspects of life, like school, work, and relationships, is conscientiousness. People that are high in conscientiousness are organized and orderly. They create successful routines and thrive in structured environments. Sometimes, though, when they are deprived of consistent schedules and predictability, they can struggle. In one study, people high in conscientiousness reported increased mental health struggles following unemployment. The lack of routine was hard on their psychological well-being.
In all likelihood, conscientious members of Bnei Yisrael would have struggled in the wilderness. In Parshat Behaalotcha we read about how Bnei Yisrael would encamp and journey based on the word of God, as reflected in the movement of the clouds. However, there was no advanced warning or predictability to the pattern, as “[s]ometimes the cloud would be upon the Tabernacle for a number of days… and sometimes the cloud would remain from evening until morning… or for a day and a night… or for two days, or a month, or a year” (Bemidbar 9:20-22). Everything depended on God’s command. Ramban (Bemidbar 9:19) elaborates on how physically and psychologically challenging this process must have been, as at times they just finished a long journey and just as they finished unpacking, they would have to pack up again and travel. What purpose did this system serve?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains the importance, writing that “such was the training school of our wanderings through the wilderness in which we should have learned for all time to follow God’s guidance with devotion and trust, no matter how incomprehensible it may seem to us.” To follow God’s commands is easy when they are logical. The challenge is to serve God with a full heart when life doesn’t make sense and is unpredictable.
Similarly, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (Michtav Me’Eliyahu 4:230) writes that it is easy to live a life infused with Torah values when life is peaceful. However, if we can only follow our routine of prayer, learning, and acts of kindness when there is structure and stability, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Life is rarely predictable, and our responsibilities vary. Without fail, our surroundings will alternate and fluctuate. The erratic encampments in the wilderness served to train and model a life where we do God’s Will, despite the lack of external consistency.
While conscientiousness is generally worthwhile, the experience in the desert serves as a critical counterpoint. Striving for routine may be praiseworthy, but it is important to be adaptable and flexible when necessitated by God’s Will.