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Rocks and Pebbles


Shabbat Emor 5778 | May 5, 2018

A common refrain heard in our home goes like this. “Which are the rocks and which are the pebbles?” It’s a reminder to do important things first, to be productive and live a day for maximum effect and purpose. It’s also an annoying joke among us. We know there’s lots to do, and sometimes we just don’t feel like doing any of it.
The question of rocks and pebbles comes from Dr. Stephen Covey, the author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” He explains, when filling a jar with rocks, pebbles, and sand, put the larger rocks in first. If you fill the jar with pebbles and sand, there won’t be any room left for the rocks. If you first place the rocks inside, the pebbles will fill in the crevices and remaining spaces, followed by grains of sand filling up the container.
It’s a life lesson. How to manage time. How to achieve life balance. Spend our time on what matters most to us. All of the other seemingly urgent errands and tasks will also get done. But, doing the small stuff first fills the day or the week and crowds out time for doing what we value and care about. I also see it as a spiritual lesson.
“These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Eternal God, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.” These are, if you will, God’s rocks. The festivals and holidays with which we mark the seasons of the year and the meaning of our days. We read in Torah about many things to do and many mitzvot to enact. Here are some rocks. Amidst everything else we’re busy with, at these special times of the year we need to stop and gather, rejoice and celebrate.
All of this is about more than how we spend our time. It’s also about how we prioritize what’s on our minds. What do we believe and how we express our beliefs. Holidays are about religious ideas and spiritual memories. Passover focuses us on freedom and human dignity. Shavuot is about social responsibility and personal purpose. Sukkot measures the journey of our lives and encourages our gratitude for all that sustains us. Recognizing rocks and pebbles, setting aside days as special, trains us to decide what to pay attention to.
These days, I sense this is particularly difficult and a necessary skill to develop and apply. News and current events constantly encircle us. Family and friends, personal projects and efforts continuously engage us. Media and marketing are always there to entice us. I’d actually find some guidance useful. What should matter to me? How do I prioritize what’s on my mind? Which things are rocks and which are pebbles?
Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon, a Jewish scholar and mystic who lived in Lithuania from 1720 to 1797, known as the Vilna Gaon, offers insight. After Moses declares of God, “These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Eternal God, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions,” Moses then states, “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Shabbat Shabbaton, a sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion.”
This verse about Shabbat does not apply to the days of the week, teaches the Vilna Gaon. It refers to the festival days of the year. There are seven sacred dates in this Torah calendar. The first and last day of Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. On the first six dates, we celebrate holidays with delicious food and joyous symbols. On the seventh, Yom Kippur, Shabbat Shabbaton, we refrain from physical pleasures and turn inward to nurture ourselves spiritually.
The Vilna Gaon’s insight teaches us this pattern. Six days each week, and then Shabbat. Six festivals each year, and then Yom Kippur. Sacred time and less sacred time, a repeating pattern of meaning with which to measure what’s significant.
As we live our days collecting pebbles, doing what’s routine and always necessary, following the news and caring for the people in our lives, we need to identify the rocks, our personal sacred occasions and sacrosanct ideals. We need to pause and determine which are the most compelling of the dates, events, subjects, and ideas we encounter. We can’t equate it all. If everything is important, if everything is urgent, if everything is great, if everything is terrible, nothing at all really is.
Put what’s essential to your life’s character and quality first. Prioritize who and what are vital to your sense of meaning and fulfillment. Direct your attention to your intentions, and not on what others or the larger world impose on you.
The Hebrew word moed, My “fixed time,” as Moses describes, literally means to appoint, to assign. This is our real task. Identify the rocks. Learn from God’s rocks. Distinguish truly essential, sacred, and profound moments and thoughts. Try to place everything else around and between them in the containers that are our lives. Live the blessing of each new day for maximum effect and purpose.
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784