The key to balancing two obligations is to want them both
Prepared for print by Rabbi Eran Feintuch
In today’s demanding world, you have to be an expert juggler. We have so many commitments and obligations — family, work, Torah study, tefillah. It’s not easy to keep all those balls in the air. Real-life juggling isn’t about finesse. It takes time management, planning, and, most of all, careful thought, to faithfully fulfill all our obligations.
A juggler doesn’t want to drop even one ball. They’re all equally important to him. All our obligations have to be important to us, because each one is a personal mission from Hashem. But often, without realizing it, we tend to focus our energies on those we find most fulfilling. If we catch ourselves playing favorites with our obligations, we’ve lost our sense of duty. As Hashem’s jugglers, we have to do our best to keep all the balls He gives us in the air, not just the ones we personally prefer.
But sometimes, two obligations pull us in different directions, and it’s impossible to do both in the ideal way. We need to make some tough calls. If my wife isn’t feeling well, should I stay with the kids so she can rest, even if I’ll miss tefillah b’tzibbur? Should I finish my work assignments on time, or keep up with my learning plan? Should I help my husband with an especially long list of errands, or make my weekly visit to my mother? It takes careful consideration to determine which obligation must take precedence, and whether there’s a way to avoid neglecting the other one altogether.
When we can only attend to one obligation, we can’t just choose the one we personally prefer. We have to do our best to figure out what Hashem wants from us in our current situation. But how do we know if our decision is really based on objective judgment, or on the bias of our own will?
We all know people who don’t enjoy spending time with their family, and it just so happens that they’re constantly obliged to be out of the house. Others who enjoy socializing find themselves obligated to schmooze with everyone or do trivial acts of “chesed,” till they have no time to learn. We tend to do what we want, then find the evidence we need to rationalize our decision, like an archer who draws a bull’s-eye around his arrow.
It’s nearly impossible to avoid fooling ourselves into doing what we want. If you’re excited about one activity, and the other is just an obligation, the second one is bound to fall by the wayside.
The key to balancing two obligations is to want them both. That’s the only way to avoid favoring the obligation we find more interesting. If we really want to do them both, and it pains us to give either of them up, we’ll do our utmost to fulfill both obligations. And if we really can’t do both, we’ll be able to think objectively about what Hashem wants us to do.
But how can we help it if we like one thing and not the other? How can we make ourselves enjoy something we don’t?
The solution is to find our personal connection to each of our obligations. Some of them naturally excite us more than others; that’s okay. But if we look carefully, we’ll find some aspect of each activity that piques our interest. If we identify that and give it our attention, we’ll find enjoyment and fulfillment in activities that once made us lackadaisical.
Most of us aren’t used to thinking like this. What do you enjoy about spending time with your family? It’s not a simple question. Parents of young children who regularly wake them up in the middle of the night, or of teenagers who drive them up the wall, will have to admit that time with the kids isn’t always a sweet and relaxing experience. You might have to dig a bit deeper to find what you cherish about being with your family. Perhaps it’s seeing your chinuch efforts bear fruit. Perhaps it’s that natural connection between parent and child you both sense without mentioning it out loud. Or it might be the feeling of responsibility — knowing you’re the pillar your children rely on, or the one who nurtures your children’s development.
What do you enjoy about your job? Many people claim they hate their jobs, and if they were to win the lottery, they’d quit tomorrow. That may not be true for you. But even if you’re doing it for the money, there’s almost certainly some aspect of the job that appeals to you. It’s extremely difficult for a person to devote many hours every day to an activity he totally detests.
Some people will answer that success is what excites them about work. They thrive on the satisfaction of being outstanding in their field. But success is an addiction. There’s no limit to how much you’ll invest to be successful; it will take over your life. That’s why success isn’t something you can balance with other commitments. You have to find some aspect of your job itself that stimulates you. It might be helping others, directly or indirectly. It might be finding solutions to difficult problems. It might be a positive character trait that your work develops: careful listening, understanding others, or reliability.
Finding one’s personal connection to Torah is just as important. Many thrive on covering ground; they learn in eager anticipation of the next area of Torah they can check off their list. But covering ground doesn’t connect us to the learning itself. It’s just an unbending demand, and as such it’s not something we can balance with other obligations. If your wife really needs your help, but you’re behind in your hespek, that demand will pull you away from your responsibilities at home.
Some people find their satisfaction in the unanswered questions that urge them on to greater depth. Some find theirs in achieving clarity in the grand scheme of the sugya. Others delight in building the chain from Gemara to halachah l’maaseh. There are many different aspects of learning people can connect to, yet many people learn for years without identifying their point of connection.
Finding what we enjoy about our least favorite obligations is the key to being able to balance our obligations properly. But it’s also important to find what we cherish about the ones we already enjoy. That’s because our personal connection to each area is a springboard to growth. Recognizing what we’ve been given naturally engenders greater appreciation and motivation.
Chazal say: “One who has a hundred wants two hundred.” If we find what we cherish about our family, about learning, about work, or any other area, we’ll naturally want to develop it and gain more. Once we’ve identified what we have and tasted its sweetness, we’ll find it easy to develop further. That’s the most natural way to grow, without pressure.
Finding what we cherish will also make it easier to find time for all our obligations, even when that seems impossible. If you know your personal connection to learning, even a short seder will be fulfilling and will further your growth in Torah. You’ll find you can connect to your learning and grow more from half an hour than you would from several hours of forced learning. If you know what your connection is to your family, you’ll find you can be a good parent and build deep relationships with your family without spending the whole day with them. The time we devote to these endeavors will be of top quality, so we’ll be able to make the most of them even if our time is limited.
Finding our personal connection to each of our obligations isn’t an easy project. It takes introspection and a lot of self-observation. But it’s well worth the effort. The obligations we used to dread will become rewarding. The ones we’ve always enjoyed will become more productive. We’ll grow from all our endeavors, and become better parents, spouses, professionals, and learners. Over time, we’ll find that juggling isn’t so hard after all.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 896.
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