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Vayikra: The Power of the Pause

One of the things that my close friends often affectionately tease me about is my inability to stay in one place for long. In the past seven years, I’ve moved six times. In graduate school, I was most often found in my car, driving between three different states with a handful of clothes hanging in my backseat (and don’t get me started on the contents of my trunk). I found myself constantly thinking about the future, focused on the next chapter, the next milestone, the next hurdle. As a driven and passionate dreamer, I have always found it hard to focus on the here and now without moving toward the next thing, whatever that might be. Nowadays, I spend a lot of time sitting quite still, trying to stay in the moment with my patients and colleagues (and friends), talking about the benefits of mindfulness and guiding others to pause and reflect. But there was a time when my tendency to keep moving in my personal life seeped into my professional life as well.

Early on in my training as a psychologist, one of my supervisors noted that I launched into “teacher mode” in my sessions, often explaining things to my patients without pausing to check if they understood what I was saying and what our discussion meant to them. I had to learn the art of sitting back, and of sitting in silence and stillness, of pausing and waiting, waiting and pausing, and filling the space only when it was helpful and effective, not just because I was antsy for things to move and progress. Learning to pause, to check in, and to sit still in the space between explanation and exploration was one of the most transformative things I took from my therapy training and utilize across my life each day.

As we begin Sefer Vayikra, Hashem transitions from discussing the building of the Mishkan to instructing Moshe about the core of the Avodah that would take place within it, namely the Korbanos. Parshas Vayikra, where the details of the Korbanos are delineated, starts with God calling to Moshe and beginning to tell him about these Mitzvos. The pasuk (1:1) says, “Vayikra el Moshe, vayidaber Hashem eilav,” and Hashem called to Moshe, and spoke to him. Rashi wonders at the redundancy of this pasuk, commenting on the addition of the phrase “Vayikra el Moshe,” God called to Moshe, preceding the phrase, “Vayidaber Hashem eilav,” and Hashem spoke to [Moshe]. If the pasuk wanted to tell us that Hashem was talking to Moshe, the latter half of the Pasuk would more than suffice!

Rashi explains that the lashon of Kriyah, calling, is a term of endearment, and symbolizes the unique manner in which Moshe is addressed as a prophet, unlike the way Hashem speaks to other prophets. Before Hashem would speak to Moshe, he would first call to him. Rashi elaborates according to the Sifra that though one might think that the pauses or breaks in the text were also preceded by a special Kriyah, this is not the case. This is why the Pasuk first says “Vayikra,” and then “Vayidaber,” to clarify that Hashem only called to Moshe before speaking with him, not before any of the pauses or breaks in the Parshios of the Torah. The Sifra then elucidates that the purpose of the Hafsakos or breaks in the Parshios was “litein revach li’Moshe li’hisbonein bein parsha li’parsha u’bein inyan li’inyan,” to provide Moshe with a chance to pause and reflect in between topics and conversations with Hashem.

Rav Wolbe notes that the fact that Chazal would propose that there might be a separate Kriyah before the breaks in the Torah implies that the breaks themselves are not simply empty spaces, but rather separate, integral parts of the Torah itself. Just as Hashem might call to Mosher before speaking with him about something of import to the Mitzvos and Hashem’s ratzon, so, too, one might think that Hashem would call to Moshe before the pauses, because the pauses are also part of the process of Moshe understanding Hashem’s ratzon. As cited by Rashi, the Sifra concludes, “Kal vi’chomer ha’hedyot halomed min ha’hedyot,” how much more so should the average person who is learning from an average person [pause to reflect between topics and ideas]. If Moshe had to take time to pause and integrate before moving on to the next Inyan in the Torah with Hashem as his teacher and guide, how much more so do we, as simple Jews doing our best, have to take advantage of every opportunity to stop, reflect, and internalize our learning and experiences before moving forward.

This commentary by the Sifra, as outlined by Rashi and highlighted by Rav Wolbe, contains within it a fundamental and crucial lesson for spiritual and emotional growth. Whether in our Torah learning or in the lifelong journey of understanding ourselves and our experiences, the breaks or pauses we take throughout the process are perhaps as important as the learning itself. R’ Wolbe notes that this is why there is a concept of Bein HaZmanim in Yeshivos, a set aside time to take a break from active learning, to pause, reflect, review, and integrate what one has learned before moving on to new topics and ideas.

The same is true in the emotional and psychological realm. Being able to pause and reflect might arguably be the foundation of any effective therapeutic intervention, the best mechanism of change across the spectrum of human experiences. Learning theorists taught us that it is when we stop learning and review what we have learned that we best integrate it. Even if we feel more productive when we are learning, doing, and taking in information, we actually cannot internalize or apply what we learn or maintain what we create if we do not stop to reflect and check in along the way.

This principle rings true across the spectrum of learning that a life well-lived affords us. When we are literally learning something new, whether in our schooling or professional lives, we must take time to actually take in the new information in order to effectively put it into practice. When a chapter of our lives draws to a close, or when we walk away from an experience, interaction, or moment of inspiration, it is imperative that we stop and think about what we just went through. We must ask ourselves, “What just happened here? What did I learn from this? What do I want to take with me before I launch into the next chapter of my life, head toward the next milestone, forge the next relationship or conquer the next challenge I might be facing?”

Pausing to reflect helps us to gain the maximum benefits from the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful of life. Though in the wake of challenging and upsetting periods in our lives, we may feel the urge to run to the next thing and leave our pain behind, it is often crucial that we pause and sit, and allow what comes up in that stillness to teach us, and sometimes, to heal us. And, on the flip side, when we are moving through good things in life, propelled by the momentum of creativity, drive, and motivation, we may not want to pause – we may not want anything to slow us down in the pursuit of the next great thing we hope to accomplish. Yet the power of the pause is unparalleled.

This week, take time to sit in the space between what just was and what is coming next. Reflect, introspect, and give yourself the gift of slowing down and taking in what you are experiencing in order to best learn from and integrate each moment into the larger story of your life.

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