Thoughts on the Week 15 September 2016


This brief comment is in memory of my late mother (Brainah Leah bat Moshe Aharon) and for all those who read Tehillim for the sake of others. [Note: Quoted verses are taken from the Mechon Mamre website at]

Chapter 8:

The 8th Chapter of Psalms is attributed to King David. The opening instruction for the conductor is to use the Gittit instrument.

There are 2 main messages within this Psalm; the first is that when we contemplate the magnificent world of creation and the majesty of G-d’s handiwork, it should help us feel awe and love of the Divine along with a realisation of our own relative insignificance.

מָהאֱנוֹשׁ כִּיתִזְכְּרֶנּוּ; וּבֶןאָדָם, כִּי תִפְקְדֶנּוּ.

What is man, that You remember him? The son of man, that You count him? (Psalms 8:5)

The second is that all our skills and characteristics are a gift from the Almighty and therefore we should use them in serving G-d and humanity.

תַּמְשִׁילֵהוּ, בְּמַעֲשֵׂי יָדֶיךָ; כֹּל, שַׁתָּה תַחַתרַגְלָיו.

You made him to have dominion over Your handiwork; You put all things under his feet! (Psalms 8:7)

Some verses appear in other parts of our prayer liturgy. For example; verse 10 appears at the end of Uva LeTsion in Shaharit. (We find this quite frequently throughout the siddur, a single verse taken from a Psalm tagged onto a prayer.)

ה אֲדֹנֵינוּ מָהאַדִּיר שִׁמְךָ, בְּכָלהָאָרֶץ.

O LORD, our G-d, how glorious is Your name in all the earth! (Psalms 8:10)


The Problem of Abundance

Toward the end of the book Scarcity, the New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Life, authors Sundhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, offer a strategy to overcome life’s difficulties. They focus on scarcity of time, money, food and occasionally loneliness (a kind of scarcity of social interaction).

The cyclical nature of Indian sugarcane farming is an example. Farmers work all year to produce a crop that when harvested and sold leads to a windfall payment that must last a full year.

As one can imagine, the initial post-harvest months are comfortable but by the end of the year before the next harvest season, many farmers run out of funds. In countries that offer social payments a similar thing occurs, money or food coupons received at the beginning of the month often runs out before the next expected inflow.

One way to resolve this is to even-out the cycle creating ‘longer periods of moderation rather than spurts of abundance followed by heightened periods of scarcity.’ In the case of the farmers, researchers persuaded them to set aside and spread out part of their annual payment for later in the year.

Another serious issue people face is the ‘Vigilance vs. Neglect paradox’. Often while focused on life’s immediate demands, we neglect future decisions that are equally if not more important but less pressing – saving for retirement, making a will or even getting a medical check-up.

By contrast, some behaviour must be avoided because it defeats our best intentions. A dieter who struggles all week counting calories but binges on the weekend, is an example of the struggle for vigilance.

The authors discovered that converting vigilant behaviour into one-time actions improved results immensely. Filling the larder with healthy snacks prevents binging on unhealthy calories, setting-up an automatic savings plan at work allows money to accumulate for retirement; these are one-time decisions that free us from being constantly vigilant.

Rosh Hashana is just more than 2 weeks away. Perhaps some of these insightful strategies can be applied to this introspective time of year. Like the Indian Farmer, we focus our attention on Teshuvah for about 10 days and then neglect it for the remainder of the year.

By the end of Kippur, we have an unobstructed view of the kind of lives we’d like to live. But, we run out of inspiration long before the next Rosh Hashana cycle begins. We also struggle with the problem of neglecting our spiritual search and on occasion failing to remain vigilant with one form of behaviour or another.

There are many things we’d like to do better in our lives but for various reasons are unable. It may be due to poor planning, neglect, a lack of vigilance or incorrect prioritising.

Just as the authors of Scarcity discovered that a windfall of abundance needed to be spread more evenly throughout the year and that one-time actions can replace the need for perennial vigilance, we may want to ask ourselves if we are living the kind of life we aspire to.

Are we binging once-a-year on religious attendance and neglecting our souls the rest of the time in favour of material comforts? What one new action can we take that might improve our vigilance and reduce the need for constant struggle?