Acting on Impulse

June 23, 2009

8 min read


Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43 )

It's important to learn how to keep our cool even when things get hot. Acting rashly or impulsively without thinking things through can lead us to make mistakes we'll later regret. In this week's Torah portion, Jacob chastises two of his sons for acting rashly and putting the family into unnecessary danger, teaching us the value of trying our best to think things through and act sensibly in every situation.


In our story, a group of kids find out what can happen when you act impulsively.


What started out as a fun day of hiking was turning into a grueling ordeal, and as the sun sunk lower in the western sky, Mike and his friends didn't know what they were going to do.

It had been a beautiful autumn Sunday morning when the guys set out along the Crystal Mountain hiking trail. The foliage was at its peak, painting the forest's usually pale green leaves bright shades of orange, red, yellow and even purple against the background of the clear blue mountain sky. Mike gazed in wonder at the natural beauty or as he liked to call it, 'God's paintbrush,' while he and his friends followed along the clearly marked hiking trails.

Suddenly, Jay, one of the boys at the front of the line, started climbing over the railing and off of the trail. "C'mon guys, let's go check out that valley. I'll bet the view is awesome!"

The other kids began to follow.

"Hey, wait a minute!" Mike called out, concerned. "How are we going to find our way back onto the trail?"

"What's the big deal?" Jay laughed. "We'll just cut across the valley and meet up with the trail on the other side."

Mike didn't think it was a smart idea, after all it was a huge, dense forest and none of them had even brought along a compass. But nobody else seemed bothered, and swept up by the heat of the moment, one guy after the other hopped the fence and bolted after Jay. Not wanting to be left alone, Mike went along with them. Maybe it really would be okay like Jay said.

Well, Jay had turned out to be only half right. The valley was beautiful. However his plan to reconnect with the trail had proved to be way too optimistic and now after what seemed like hours of aimless wandering through the woods, the boys were sore, lost and tired - and getting scared. As the hour grew later and the weather chillier, the boys began to face the very unpleasant prospect of having to spend the night lost in the woods without any shelter. Boy did they wish they had stayed on the trail!

Finally, they came to a clearing and saw a small shack with a wooden sign carved with the words "Ranger Station" nailed onto it. Mike breathed a sigh of relief. At least if they stayed there, they would eventually get found by a ranger, and if worse came to worse, the unlocked shack would provide enough shelter to get them through the night. Mike put down his heavy pack, grateful that they were finally almost 'out of the woods.'

"Come on, let's get moving!" Jay called out.


"It's getting late and we have to keep going!" said Jay, insistently.

Was he out of his mind? "Jay, we finally found some 'civilization,' and you want us to just jump right back into the middle of the forest? That's crazy!" Mike said.

But Jay, who was clearly in a state of panic, wouldn't hear of it. "We can't just stay here! One way or another, I'm sure we'll find the right trail. Let's go!"

One way or another? That doesn't make sense, Mike thought to himself.

The other guys stirred, not knowing what to do. A couple of them, who looked as scared as Jay, began to strap on their packs and get ready to move on. Mike knew he had to speak up fast to save his friends from making yet another impulsive and dangerous decision.

"Now wait a minute, guys. Let's calm down and use our heads. It's almost dark, and we have no idea where to go. Here at least we have shelter and water, and we're in a place where people who can help us are sure to come by. I admit the situation's kind of intense, but panicking and doing something foolish isn't the answer."

There was silence as the boy's sensible words hit home. Jay, seeming calmer, spoke up. "Listen, Mike is right. Let's sit tight. By acting impulsively I already got us lost in the woods once, and once is enough."

The guys began to settle in, nervous but hopeful. After about an hour they heard a car engine in the distance, and then they saw a pair of headlights cut through the darkness. It was the Ranger patrol!

The ATV pulled up, and five very grateful boys jumped in. "You guys don't know how lucky you are!" said the husky Ranger. "I don't think you realize it, but you are very close to the edge of a cliff with a hundred foot sheer drop. Plenty of falling rocks around here, too. You should never have left the trail, but at least you had the sense to stay where you were safe. I don't even want to think about what would have happened if you guys had been wandering around this area in the dark."

The kids gulped. It didn't take a lot of imagination to figure out what the man meant. As they rode back, they were grateful they had listened to Mike in the end, and you can bet they would all think a little more carefully about the choices they make - before they make them, from now on.


Ages 3-5

Q. How did most of the boys feel when Jay first had the idea to go off of the trail?
A. They were excited about the idea, and didn't bother thinking about how hard it might be to find the trail again.

Q. How did they feel in the end?
A. They were happy they acted calmly and stayed put at the ranger station, even though their first impulse was to keep on wandering in the woods.

Ages 6-9

Q. Were the kids right or wrong to have followed Jay's idea to go off the trail? Why?
A. It's easy to understand why they went - it seemed like an exciting thing to do. But even when we're excited, or angry, or scared, we should stop and think if what we are about to do makes sense. In this case it didn't make sense to leave the marked trail, as the guys soon found out.

Q. How can we know if a decision we are about to make is rash and impulsive or not?
A. A sign of an impulsive decision is that we feel an inner pressure to act quickly, and not think things through. It's likely then that our feelings are trying to 'pull a fast one' on us, and get us to act in a way we'll regret. We should always try to pause, at least for a moment, to think, in between feeling something and acting upon that feeling.

Ages 10 and Up

Q. Is there a place for spontaneity, or should we always think out and plan what we are going to do before we do it?
A. Thinking before acting is a spiritual discipline. There were great Jewish sages who would literally not move a finger unless they had a well thought out reason to do so. Yet for most of us 'mortals', there is a certain excitement that comes from being spontaneous. A good way to handle this dichotomy is to establish clear borders in our mind of what we are and are not willing to do, and then allow ourselves to be spontaneous within the 'willing to do' category. For example, in our story, instead of jumping off the trail altogether, the guys could have spontaneously decided to take a trail they hadn't planned to take.

Q. Should a person follow his heart or his mind?
A. Ideally we should train our heart and mind to work together. Each has a different function. The heart with its emotions is a great fiery powerhouse that can drive us to go beyond ourselves and accomplish things we never thought we could. The mind, cool and detached, is like a navigator, which can let us look at things objectively and tell us in which direction will we really be happiest if we go. By hooking up the two, with the mind leading the heart, we will not only 'get somewhere,' but be happy once we get there.


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