Saddle the Donkey

There is never enough time. This is a truism in our lives today, and it seems that it becomes even more true with each passing year. We wake up early each morning, and don’t stop running until we collapse into bed each night. No matter who we are: adults or children, single or married, young or old, there is always more to do, and we struggle to keep up.

Our tradition also acknowledges this reality. Rabbi Tarfon taught, in the second chapter of Pirkei Avot: היום קצר והמלאכה מרובה “The day is short and the work is great…” Even 2000 years ago, before the advent of smartphones and email, before the concept of workdays and weekends, it was accepted wisdom that there was more to do in any given day than was possible.

Perhaps because this statement seemed so self-evident, commentators on Pirkei Avot have sought out a deeper meaning to his words. Often, they are interpreted to refer to life and the study of Torah. Our lives are short, and there is so much Torah to study, more than could ever be learned in a single lifetime. In spite of this, we should not despair, because there is benefit to any amount that we learn.

But it seems to me that there is no reason to remove ourselves to the abstract. Much of the advice that comes in Pirkei Avot is practical, and is meant to guide our actions in the mundane world. It teaches us how to act with our families, towards teachers and students, with regard to the government and communal leaders. And I believe, in this case it is speaking about the way that we engage with our daily responsibilities.

It is a challenge to complete all the tasks that are in front of us each and every day. Days are short, and there is so much that needs to be done. And on top of the day-to-day, there are always other requests for our time and energy. Because of all this, it is always a relief when we can unload one piece of the burden, when someone else can take on a task.

A recent study, led by Ashley Whillans at the Harvard Business School actually quantified this. It found that people are happier when they literally buy time. That is, we suffer from what the study describes as a “time famine” and we gain more satisfaction by paying to have a task done for us, than spending that same money on a material purchase. Our time is worth more to us than almost anything else.

What is true today, and what was true 2000 years ago, must also have been true during the time of Avraham Avinu, the patriarch Abraham. He was the leader of his household, a wealthy shepherd with vast flocks. He had a small family, but a large retinue of servants and shepherds and fighters under his employ. I am sure that his day to day life was no less busy than the lives we live. I’m certain that he delegated many of the mundane tasks to his servants, buying time that he could spend with his family, or following God’s commands.

But occasionally, this routine is upended. Abraham is commanded by God to drop everything, and do something completely different. His other responsibilities do not disappear, but they do fade to the background as Abraham tried to fulfill the expectations that God placed upon him. We will see one of the most famous examples of this in the Torah reading tomorrow morning, when God demands that Abraham offer Isaac up as a sacrifice on a mountain.

Abraham accepts this new mission, and sets off in the morning with his son and two servants. He wakes up early, and saddles the donkey, and they start off on their journey. Much ink has been spilled looking at that this verse. וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת־חֲמֹרוֹ – Abraham woke up early and saddled his donkey – “Why did he wake up early?” the commentators want to know.

Explanations abound: he didn’t want to have a chance to second guess this mission from God, or he didn’t want Sarah to know what he was planning on doing to their son. There are many possibilities for what motivated Abraham to wake up early, but all agree that it teaches us that the righteous person hurries to perform a mitzvah. According to the Talmud, Abraham is demonstrating that when the opportunity presents itself to do the right thing, we should never let it languish, but act right away.

At the moment, I am more interested in what Abraham did than at what time of day he did it. It appears that Abraham woke up early in order to saddle the donkey himself. Which is strange, since the very next words in the verse tell us that he took two servants with him when he left. If Abraham was travelling with servants, wouldn’t saddling the donkey fall under their responsibilities, not his?

These servants are not named, and their purpose is never explained to us. In fact, they are only ever mentioned to say that they travelled with Abraham both to and from the mountain, and that they did not climb the mountain with him and Isaac. Their responsibilities left unwritten, their purpose seems to be to tell us that Abraham was important enough that he travelled with servants, even when on a mission such as this one.

Abraham’s decision to saddle his own donkey, when there were two servants available who could have done so for him feels important to me. And sure enough, there is a Baraita – an ancient rabbinic teaching – that focuses on this anomaly.

“Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar taught: Love negates the standard conduct of prominence.” It was completely improper for a person of Abraham’s stature to saddle his own donkey, and the Torah is highlighting this fact by pointing out that he did so with servants available. Abraham violated these standards of propriety due to his overriding love of God. Love makes us do crazy things.

Abraham jumps to do more work than is necessary, work that someone else could and should have done on his behalf. His mission was so important that he wanted to do each step himself, to feel the straps of the saddle in his hands, and to know that he were responsible for whatever came next.

In a very real way, I know how he felt. As many of you know, Clara and I both love listening to records. It turns listening to music from a background activity into a conscious choice. We sit together in the living room, and choose a record to listen to, start to finish. We get up to flip the record. We focus on the music. Our record player reflects this passion, it is a 1962 console stereo that takes up an entire wall of the room.  But for a while, our records sat sadly in a milk crate next to it, where small children can get their hands on them, and break them.

So, a while ago, Clara asked me to get her a record stand for her birthday. She even picked out exactly what she wanted, it was a custom-made piece of furniture that would hold all of our records, with room for the collection to grow. I took one look at the image online, and the cost - $300 – and announced, I am not spending that much money on a record stand, I can make one for less. Clara was…skeptical, but went along.

On my next day off I sat down with a ruler, and a pad of graph paper, and started planning. I worked out the dimensions that it needed to be, and the pieces of wood that I would need to build it. The following week, I drove out to Home Depot, and bought everything that I would need. $150, half the cost of buying it from someone else. I went home and started working.

Three weeks later, I realized I was missing some vital tools. Back to Home Depot, and another $100. I returned home, and the work continued. Two weeks after that, I saw that I was short some materials, and that I would need some wood-stain and paint to finish it off. Home Depot again, and another $50 purchase. Several more weeks of work followed, until the project was finally completed.

When all was said and done, I had a custom-made piece of furniture, functionally identical to the one that I could have bought online for $300. Instead, I spent $300 at Home Depot, across 3 separate trips, and spent at least 12 hours working in the basement. Objectively, that was crazy. A complete waste of my time.

But that piece of furniture in my living room means so much more to me than anything that I could have bought online. Not because of the way that it fits into the space, or the way that it matches the other furniture. In fact, I am probably more aware of the flaws in this stand than I would have been if I had bought an identical one from someone else. I can notice every mistake, every step that didn’t go exactly the way that I had hoped. In spite of all of this, the fact that I put my energy and my time into making it makes it more mine – Clara’s – than anything that someone else made could ever be. There is a part of me in that record stand, and it has shaped how I view myself as well.

This idea is related to the philosophy of א. ד. Gordon, an early Zionist thinker, and pioneer of Labor Zionism. He wrote passionately about the work that he and others were doing on the kibbutzim:

You work here [on the farm] simply without philosophizing; sometimes the work is hard and crowded with pettiness. But at times you feel a surge of cosmic exaltation, like the clear light of the heavens... . And you, too, seem to be taking root in the soil which you are digging, to be nourished by the rays of the sun, to share life with the tiniest blade of grass, with each flower; living in nature's depths, you seem then to rise and grow into the vast expanse of the universe.

Gordon chose to do work that others could have done on his behalf. He chose to take on tasks that others probably could do better than he could – he was a middle-aged academic, surrounded by young pioneers. But he found transcendent meaning in working the land. He would not have been surprised to see Abraham wake up early to saddle a donkey; he understood the power of doing things himself.

There are always limits. We can never do everything for ourselves, nor should we. Modern society has been built on the economic power of the division of labor. No one person has the skills to build and create and maintain all of the different aspects of life, but more importantly, there are not enough hours in the day to live a life like that. There is too much to be done. Most of the time, we do the tasks that we do best, and leave other tasks to the people who are more skilled at them. And even then, even with a perfectly efficient division, we will still often feel like we are struggling to keep up, running as fast as we can to stay in the same place.

Every day, we are faced with choices. We can choose to do things for ourselves, or let someone else do the work. I can pack a lunch, or buy lunch. I can wash my car, or drive down to the carwash. I can build a record stand, or buy one online. Usually, we will choose to delegate the work, buying time, like the participants in the study I mentioned earlier. And as the study concludes, we will be happier because of the time that we gained.  

We buy all this time by delegating tasks. And it is through that process that we manage to fit 30 hours of responsibilities into a 24-hour day. But if we view our time as something that can be “bought” then it also becomes something that we can spend. And this is something that we should think seriously about. We need to deliberately choose how to spend our time, what we want to do ourselves, and what to pass off.

We must be like Abraham, ready to recognize when something special comes our way. We need to be open to do things ourselves, even when they could easily and efficiently be done by someone else. This could be helping a child with homework, even though a tutor could be hired. Or baking challah for Shabbat, even though Fairway’s challah is perfectly acceptable. Or building a record stand. Or saddling a donkey.

Because when we choose to saddle the donkey we are telling ourselves that this task, this project is personally important. It is worth more than the time that we spend on it. It is an important part of how we see ourselves.

As we make decisions about where we want to focus our energy, we must be guided by the example of Abraham. He chose to saddle the donkey himself out of love, and out of a sense of responsibility. The end result will reflect that investment and that love. From the outside it might not look any different, but our relationship to the project will be different. It will be yours in a way that cannot be achieved any other way.

Saddle the donkey. You will be glad that you did.