Parsha Insights: Bookmaking and Burnout

The rabbi takes two issues in the parsha and deftly shows their connection to our lives today.

Contact Editor
Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple,

 Raymond Apple
Raymond Apple

Inline images 1
The Bible says, “Of the making of many books there is no end” (Kohelet 12:12). These days the traditional print book is constantly challenged by electronic alternatives, but nonetheless there is an amazing output of the types of books we are used to. It is still uncertain, though, as to what makes a book different from a tract, a leaflet, a pamphlet.

The ancient rabbis defined a book in the light of a strange feature of this week’s Torah reading.

There is a little section comprising two verses made up of 85 letters and enclosed between the ancient equivalent of brackets. The verses are Num. 10:35-36. The sages said (Shab. 116a) that this section, and any piece of writing with 85 letters, is to be seen as a book to the extent that if, God forbid, there is a fire on Shabbat, a “book” of 85 letters can be saved from destruction.

In gematria, the letters of 85 – peh and heh – make up the word peh, a mouth. A book has a mouth; it has something to say; it is a self-contained utterance.

Obviously books differ in length and there are short books and long books. The distinction between a booklet and a book may be a modern problem which our ancient forebears would hardly have understood; for them a piece of writing was a book, period.

Now if we look at the content of this 85-letter section in the sidra there is something about its substance which explains why it is a “book”. Point 1: it has a beginning. Point 2: it is a self-contained connected story. Point 3: it has an ending. Point 4: it has a lesson to teach – there is a God, and whatever happens in history is directed by Him.

Rabbinic Burnout

Inline images 2

Every professional, and certainly every rabbi, will feel for Moses when the great leader complains to God in this week’s reading that he is too tired and burnt-out to continue with his task (Num. 11:14-17). God’s answer to Moses is to select and train a group of assistants so that the work can be shared.

In an ideal situation any professional practice, including a rabbinic incumbency, can be improved if there is a team of trusted colleagues to share the responsibility. It doesn't always work; it isn't always practicable; it is sometimes simply unaffordable. But whether or not a team can be assembled, the leader has to learn how to plan his day and not get too bogged down in any one aspect of the task. If the leader finds he has no time to plan, to think, to relax – even to pray – he is not doing himself any favour.

It is interesting to reflect that in other faiths, clergy sometimes drop out because they have lost their faith. In Judaism, very few rabbis find they no longer believe, and in orthodoxy very few dropout because they can no longer keep the mitzvot – but what does produce a constant problem is fatigue and burn-out.

The wise congregation will notice if their rabbi is showing signs of tiredness and they can tactfully give him the time and wherewithal to take a period of leave.

Unfortunately some congregations are too selfish and insensitive to help their rabbi, and in the end it is they who suffer.