| Off the Couch |

Balancing Act

"At least I’m not being pressured into learning 24/7 to the point where I’ll end up in an asylum”

Rabbi Silver, whom I’d been in contact with over the last few years, had asked me to come to his yeshivah to be mechazek his talmidim before the Succos break. These weren’t bochurim who would dash out of the beis medrash come bein hazmanim, throw off their hats, and run for the beaches or end up in Cyprus or Eilat. But they also weren’t going to make sure they got four hours of learning in every day of Chol Hamoed.

I’m a medical professional, but I still wanted to share with them the very real power of learning and importance of having a set time – even just 20 minutes – for some type of seder, especially when on vacation mode. As I was thinking about it, I myself started feeling a little guilty – was I really learning as diligently as I could, even during this busy season?

I also wanted to talk about the importance of tefillah, especially in these days of rachamim and closeness. I knew I could do better in that area also, even though I’m pretty careful about minyan and generally daven vasikin. But am I really utilizing my direct line to Hashem?

I knew these boys and their limits. They didn’t strike me as the type that would push themselves to learn 18 hours a day and survive on three hours of sleep during bein hazemanim, but I also knew that sticking to a basic schedule would make them feel good about themselves and even propel them forward in their ruchniyus, so that they shouldn’t roll out of the upcoming yeshivah break feeling like they’d sunk. But just in case any of them became over-inspired and went to the other extreme, I also decided to talk about burnout, as we can all use reminders about staying balanced.

“Who knows a Motti Levi?” I began, having chosen the most popular name in the country besides Yossi Cohen.

“Anyway, Motti was a bochur with unparalleled potential, a kid with great middos, a true masmid, and everyone’s number-one pick for a chavrusa. Motti was smart and motivated and he could memorize the daf up and down before you’d even gotten through Rashi.

“Motti was the chazzan at Kabbalas Shabbos, the best basketball player in the dorm, and always made the best cholent when there was an in-Shabbos. Motti wasn’t just the pride of his hometown back in the States, he was also the pride of his yeshivah, and rumor had it that he’d been unofficially chosen as a shidduch for the mashgiach’s youngest daughter.

“Everyone loved Motti the way he was, but the expectations he’d developed regarding himself were sky high,” I continued, looking to see if I still had their attention. “First he began learning before Shacharis every morning, and then he started davening at the vasikin minyan to be closer with the mashgiach. It worked for a while, but before you knew it, things were beginning to fray at the edges and Motti wasn’t as sharp during morning seder due to lack of sleep.  Not just that, but he lost his patented smile and cheery disposition. Some people told him to relax, that it was okay to just to be himself and that American bochurim didn’t daven vasikin or try to finish Shas before they got married. It was after Purim and they advised him to relax during his Pesach break, but for Motti, the pressure was on.

“He spent his bein hazmanim trying to memorize entire sedarim of Mishnah, and that Iyar, he came back different.”

By now, most of the bochurim were paying full attention, even though I was the last speaker of the day and certainly less polished and inspirational than the previous two. Maybe they really did know this Motti?

“They called it ‘jet lag’ when Motti started off the zeman sleeping through Shacharis, but jet lag doesn’t last more than a week even when it’s at its worst,” I described. “Given his reputation, his chavrusa tried to stick it out even when Motti slept through most of morning seder, but truth be told, no one was surprised when he didn’t return for Elul zeman.”

I told them how Motti had essentially cut off ties with anyone from yeshivah and no one really knew what happened, as he’d disappeared. There was even a rumor that Motti had been seen at the local aquarium, but no one made much of it until one of the older bochurim saw him there while on a date. Apparently, Motti was an employee in the aquatic mammals department and was in charge of feeding the baby dolphins.

Motti’s mashgiach heard the bochurim talking and decided to take the matter into his own hands. He went down to the aquarium himself and, lo and behold, he found a very different version of Motti standing over the giant tank and feeding the baby dolphins handfuls of minnows.

“Motti!” he yelled, “What happened? Your peyos? Your yarmulke? Oy, Motti, we pushed you too hard! You burned out! I’m so sorry, Motti,” the mashgiach cried. “Come back to yeshivah, Motti. You don’t need to be the next Rav Elyashiv, you just need to be Motti!”

Motti refused to make eye contact at first and jerked away suddenly when the mashgiach put his hand on Motti’s shoulder. Both of them were surprised by his visceral reaction. Motti stared at the mashgiach with tears in his eyes and yelled at him, “You made me work too hard!  You took all the fun out of it!  You squashed my neshamah! Why couldn’t I just enjoy bein hazmanim like a regular bochur? Why did I have to feel forced to memorize Mishnayos instead of hiking with my friends?!”

The mashgiach’s eyes teared up as he begged his talmid for forgiveness – for what, he wasn’t exactly sure, but he felt responsible if Motti thought he had to put so much pressure on himself to the extent that he simply couldn’t maintain the momentum.

“I’m fine here, Rebbi. At least I’m not being pressured into learning 24/7 to the point where I’ll end up in an asylum,” Motti said resignedly. The mashgiach wanted to take his talmid and embrace him, make all the pain and self-inflicted pressure disappear, so that the old Motti could reemerge.

But Motti turned away, picked a handful of minnows out of the bucket by his feet and threw them into the tank, as one of the young dolphins swam up to eat its breakfast. “You may not approve of it, Rebbi, but we can all agree that right now I’m serving a youthful porpoise.”

I couldn’t hide the grin on my face as half the room erupted in laughter. The rest of the room had either missed the pun or was busy asking the person sitting next to them what happened.

I guess that little joke diffused the drama of the story a bit, but the message wasn’t lost on Rabbi Silver, who came to the front to take the microphone, which I graciously handed him.

“I think what Dr. Freedman wants to point out is how important it is to properly balance the need to stay strong in our Yiddishkeit while simultaneously not forgetting to relax after an intense zeman. Stick to your structure – the zemanei tefillah, the kvi’us in learning, but stay balanced. We want to see you all back for winter zeman.”


Identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of patients, their families, and all other parties.

Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist and business consultant based in Israel. When he’s not busy with his patients, Dr. Freedman, whose new book Off the Couch has just been released in collaboration with Menucha Publishers, can be found learning Torah in the Old City or hiking the hills around Jerusalem. Dr. Freedman can be reached most easily through his website www.drjacoblfreedman.com


Dear Readers,

I’ll be taking a short break, but will iy”H be back in the winter. Meanwhile, may you have a calm, healthy and peaceful new year.

--Yaakov Freedman, MD


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 830)


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