Burnout is defined as, ‘Physical, emotional or mental exhaustion, accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance and negative attitudes towards oneself and others.’ Who here has ever experienced burnout?
In the past 24 hours, the following news items have been published; an article in the Economic Times describing parental burnout, a widely-published study showing that the profession with the highest rate of burnout is… teachers! And (and this is for you Shoshi) the super-popular K-Pop band, BTS, is taking a break because of… you guessed it, burnout. (If you don’t know what K-pop is, ask Shoshi.)
The APA, the American Psychological Association, is reporting all-time highs of burnout across all professions. And while it may be on the rise, burnout is nothing new. It’s part of the human condition; the feeling of being alive and energized goes hand-in-hand with the inevitable feeling of being turned off and deflated. Burnout is something we may never solve, but it’s something we can learn to live with. It’s something we can learn to minimize, and not only minimize but to utilize – in living an even more energetic and turned-on kind of life.
Today, I’d like to share with you a story within a story within a story within a story. Like the Russian Babushka, only that the deeper you go, the larger the story gets.
Story #1 – Moshe’s Burnout:
The Jewish People complain, which is nothing new. They’re unhappy with the mann falling from the sky. The mann that tastes, according to our tradition, like anything you want. The mann that allows them to not work because food rains down on them every day. Moshe can’t take it. It’s not the first time the Jewish People complain, but this time it gets to him, and he lets G-d know. In the words of Moshe: “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant… that You have laid the burden of all these people upon me? Did I produce all these people… that You should say to me, ‘Carry them … as a caregiver carries an infant,’ … I cannot carry all these people by myself… it’s too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!”
It does not get more burned out than that.
However, a few verses later, we find a completely transformed Moshe. His own brother and sister question his choices. They criticize him. The Moshe we heard from a moment before, would certainly lose it at this point. This is an ‘Et tu, Brute’ moment like no other! His own brother and sister have turned on him as well!! And yet – Moshe is as calm as a Buddhist monk. He doesn’t flinch. Not only is he calm, he has the wherewithal to pray on behalf of his sister, begging G-d to forgive and heal her for her sins – which she committed against him!!
What happened? How did Moshe transform from throwing in the towel, being sick and tired of dealing with the pettiness of the Jewish People and all the personal accusations it came with, to someone who can so graciously deal with such a personal attack?
To answer that questions, we move on to story #2 – Eldad and Meidad Share a Prophecy:
When Moshe tries to resign, G-d instructs him to gather 70 elders. Many commentators explain that these 70 elders were appointed to help Moshe. Moshe was saying the job is too tough, so G-d says, no problem, I’ll find you an assistant rabbi. 70 assistant rabbis to be exact.
The problem with this approach is that we don’t find these elders doing anything. He appoints them and then they exit stage left.
I believe the real solution lies with two enigmatic people, a little glossed over detail in the narrative that goes like this: These70 people were instructed to join Moshe, but two people held out, their names were Eldad and Meidad. 68 people are gathering around Moshe in front of all of the Jewish, and Eldad and Meidad choose not to. And then, suddenly, Eldad and Meidad, who are still in their own tents, start to experience prophecy. Moshe is informed that these two are not joining the rest of the elders and the story continues. Why is this little sidebar important?
The answer is story #3 – Eldad and Meidad’s lineage.
Who are these two people, Eldad and Meidad? (Are you all still with me?)
Yonasan ben Uziel, one of the oldest commentaries on the Chumash, tells us that Eldad and Meidad were half-brothers to Moshe. Listen to this wild story, and hold on tight: Before Moshe is conceived, Pharaoh decrees that all boys born to the Jews should be thrown into the river. The Gemara tells us that Amram, Moshe’s father, who was also the leader of the Jewish People, divorces his wife, Yocheved. “Why would anyone bring children into a world where they would be killed?” reasoned Amram. And so, he thought it would be better not be married at all. Being that Amram was the leader of the Jewish People, the rest of the Jewish People followed suit. Every Jew divorced their spouse.
Everyone, except for Yocheved, his own wife. That’s right. Yocheved thought her husband’s idea was a really bad one. And so, she went ahead and married someone else, and Yocheved and this man had two sons, Eldad and Meidad.
Imagine this – the entirety of the Jewish People are getting divorced, and this woman says no, it’s wrong, and she goes ahead and finds a new spouse and brings two boys into the world. This defiant, brave, individualistic, woman, is the mother of Eldad and Meidad. There is no doubt as to where their independence, their ability to decide what is right and wrong for them, where all that comes from; how 68 other people dutifully follow Moshe’s instructions, but these two individuals decline.
I imagine as Moshe heard that these two were not following others, he remembered the story that his mother told him, how she stood apart and was true to her beliefs. I imagine that caused Moshe to do the same. To ask himself, who am I? What are my talents, my skills? Am I true to my beliefs? To what I’m here for?
Both the mystics and psychologists, though they use different language, understand that burnout can be caused when we’re not listening to ourselves, when we’re living on autopilot, or even worse, when we’re living someone else’s life, someone else’s dreams or expectations. No matter how successful we may be, if we’re not living our life, a life that is true to ourselves, it doesn’t feel good. It actually feels physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting.
It takes courage and independence to listen to oneself. Sometimes listening to oneself takes us on a wild journey, far, far away from where we are right now. And sometimes, as in the case of Moshe, it opens our eyes to what we’re already doing, letting us know that we’ve chosen the right path, and it pushes us to continue on that path but for the right reason, because it’s our calling, it’s who we are.
What snaps Moshe out of his burnout is listening to himself, by being himself, like his half-brothers and like his mother before him.
One story to go: Where does Yocheved attain this strength of character? This ability to defy the leader of the Jewish People because she knows what’s right. How does she have so much self-confidence and awareness?
Story # 4 is the story of Yocheved’s Lineage. Yocheved is the granddaughter of Yaakov and the daughter of Levi. What do we know about Levi?
There is only one Biblical story about this man. His sister Dinah is violated, and Levi risks his life for her sake. He puts it all on the line for the sake of someone else. It’s no coincidence that his descendants are chosen to be the priests in the Bais Hamikdash; their great-grandfather lived his life for others and this becomes a trait in the family; a life lived in the service of others.
And here we find the great paradox. How does one learn about themselves? I googled it. Here’s one of many similar-sounding lists that popped up: 1) List your strengths. 2) Identify your core values. 3) Identify your beliefs? 4) Meditate. 5) Practice mindfulness and awareness. 6)Accept who you are…
You know what Judaism says about this approach? It’s all wrong. Or more accurately, it’s not the full picture. You know how you really learn who you are? Instead of focusing so much on yourself, serve others. Give to others. Live with and for others. In that space between you and others, that’s where you learn who you are. Let me tell you, I thought I knew who I was before I got married. Ha! Then I thought I knew who I was until I had children. Double ha.
Yocheved had the confidence to be her own person because she came from a family that served others. And that’s the great paradox of self-discovery: You don’t learn who you are by turning inward, you learn who you are by focusing on others.
A story within a story with a story. Moshe was burned out. Big time. But he was reminded of his mother. He was reminded of the importance of self-awareness and self-discovery. Burnout, if we want to take advantage of it, asks us if our life is aligned with our dreams, with who we are. And perhaps even more importantly, like his grandfather before him, Moshe was reminded to stop thinking about himself and instead to focus on others.
Many people will tell you that the response to burnout is self-care. That’s partially true. An even better antidote to burnout is the exact opposite. To stop obsessing about oneself and to give and give to others.
Shoshi, you too are a story within a story within a story. Your grandparents on your father’s side were pillars of their community in Randallstown. I just met your mother’s parents, and they seem to be the loveliest people. Your parents are both givers, an educator, a nurse; it’s a life of service. And you, like your parents and grandparents, are remarkably independent, you think for yourself, you do what you believe in, and you’re a giver, you’re a phenomenal friend and sensitive to every person and even animal around you. Those are not just antidotes to burnout, they are the ingredients of an exceptional, meaningful, and joy-filled life.
I’ll conclude with a final story. Someone once wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe: “I would like the Rebbe’s help,” he wrote. “I wake up each day sad and anxious. I can’t concentrate. I find it hard to pray.
I feel that life has lost its joy. I need help.”
The Rebbe wrote a profound reply without using a single word. Somehow, he knew that this was not a case of clinical depression, but someone who was down. The Rebbe didn’t write anything. He circled the first word of every sentence in red and sent the letter back. Every sentence began with the letter I. You know why you’re feeling this way? I, I, I, I. That was the Rebbe’s response.
Shoshi, never forget where you come from, never lose sight of who you are. And remember, the key to self-discovery and a key to happiness is to focus less on ‘I’ and more on everyone else.