Wednesday, 15 Jan 2014

Written by Emily Jurman

For the last year or so, has been my go-to source for quick bursts of stress relief. Founded in 2006, the site is well known for producing short news pieces, videos, and most notably comical lists often accompanied by very silly photos or animated gifs. It would be easy to pass Buzzfeed off as a gimmicky bit of nonsense, except Buzzfeed’s staff includes such big names as Jonah Peretti (co-founder of the Huffington Post) and recently named editor Ben Smith (ex of Politico).

The greatest appeal to Buzzfeed, and particularly to the Buzzfeed lists is in its vast relatibility. Millenials like myself love reminiscing about our childhood through lists like ’15 Cartoons from the ’80’s You Probably Forgot Existed’, or ’31 Awesome ’90’s Toys You Never Got, But Can Totally Buy Today!’. While these particular examples may only be relevant to myself and my friends that experience of bonding over childhood memories we all shared is universal. During my pastoral care placement at Rubens House last year, I witnessed the sheer joy the residents felt during a reminiscences group – and how heated the arguments are still likely to get over who was in fact the best Bar Mitzvah caterer of ’40’s and ’50s London! 

So just last week when the stress of writing papers and drawing up lesson plans for my first-ever Adult Education course at Edgware and District Reform was getting to me, I went to Buzzfeed for a bit of a distraction. Lo and behold I found exactly the kind of material I was looking for!

30 Signs You’ve Been Working Too Hard

I scrolled through nodding along with their observations. Over the course of the day while trying to check things off my list of things to do I’d stopped paying attention to details, I’d become more and more forgetful, I’d stopped proofreading, and become very easily distracted. Much of the list seemed to apply directly to me personally and it was a good eye-opener to remind myself to take a break and get back to it later with fresher eyes and a clearer head.

How many people do you think looked at that list and thought exactly the same thing as I did? Well luckily for us, there’s a visitor counter at the bottom of the page. In less than a year, this list had attracted over 74,300 people. When I saw the number I wondered to myself what percentage of those visitors had exactly the same reaction I did; that these symptoms of overwork were familiar and beginning to get them down and affect the quality of their work?

In today’s Torah portion, we get a reminder of the very human urge to take on too much at one time. Try to picture the scene clearly in your mind. Moses’ father-in-law Jethro (Yitro, in the Hebrew) has brought Zipporah, and Moses’ children up to meet him in the wilderness after they’ve passed through the Reed Sea. Jethro sees a massive line of people waiting for a private audience with Moses. He asks Moses what’s going on, and Moses replies that the people are waiting to have their disputes heard by him so he can act as judge. Every single person in that line is waiting on Moses; from morning ‘til evening they wait so he may see them. Jethro almost becomes the voice of the modern reader, telling Moses in no uncertain terms that this system is objectionable and must be abandoned – for everyone’s wellbeing.

There is a wonderful lesson in Jethro’s words. We often look at this portion and use it as a reminder to ourselves to avoid overworking and to ask for help when we need it, and that’s a very valuable teaching to consider, but I think there’s one step further we can take it.

We’ve probably all felt the effects of working too hard. We become stressed, irritable, for many of us we may eat too much to compensate, or forgo meals altogether. Insomnia, exhaustion, high blood pressure, illness… to a greater or lesser degree our bodies and our minds are impacted by taking too much on at one time. When we finally come to recognize it and scale back on our responsibilities we can often more objectively see the effect of these strains on ourselves and we can begin to repair and restore normalcy within ourselves.

How often, though, do we think about the impact our stress has had on others? How often are we kind and compassionate to and with those in our lives who are also experiencing these feelings? Especially in a workplace environment, it may be rare for only one individual to be heaped with work while others are relatively stress-free. Students are almost always more stressed around exam time which can make schools a more challenging environment for everyone.

Jethro reminds us that taking on too much affects us all, and that the duty we have to monitor our workload is not only a duty to ourselves but to all the others in our lives. Delegation and communication, the tools Jethro tells Moses to use to lighten the load should be used by all of us to make sure life is something we’re living; not something we’re ‘dealing’ with. We should remember that stress is relatable: if we can be honest and forthright with our colleagues and families they’ll be able to empathize and help and that empathy and help will make the load easier on us in turn.

In the end perhaps we can take some solace in the fact that humanity has always been trying to figure out the work – life balance with lesser and greater success. Occasionally, even when we think we’ve got it all figured it out, it might pay to listen to the advice of an old friend who is encouraging you to take a load off. As this portion reminds us, we’re all in this together, and together we can be successful.

Student rabbi Emily Jurman

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.