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Deep Work

Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 )

by Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Schiffman

In his best-selling book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Dr. Cal Newport makes a strong case for the essentiality of securing time and energy to focus without distraction on cognitively demanding tasks.  He goes so far to call this ability a super-power, as it will make us more productive and impactful in life and at work, as well as provide a sense of meaning and satisfaction.  Yet, because of the incessant pull to be distracted, most of us don’t prioritize deep work, and instead fill our schedules and routines with busywork that keeps our attention floating on the surface.

In this week’s Torah portion, the king is commanded that he should have a copy of the Torah with him and that he should read from it every day in order that he would learn to revere God and observe all the laws of the Torah (Devarim 17:18-19).

In a powerful speech delivered in 1971 to the students of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Jerusalem before their summer break, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz uses this verse as a springboard to discuss the importance of deep work and not getting distracted. He quotes Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, who writes in Mesillat Yesharim (chapter 25), that the fact that the king had to carry this Torah with him and read it with him every day “teaches that reverence is only learned by uninterrupted study.”  Distraction is the enemy of both growth in character as well as success in learning.

Rabbi Shmuelevitz laments the plateauing of achievement in the yeshiva and attributes it to the prevalence of distraction which obstructs the possibility of true greatness. If that was true in the Mir in 1971, all the more 50 years later, with all of the technological advancements that constantly vie for our already depleted attention.

The dangers of distraction is evident in another aspect of this week’s portion. Before troops were led into battle, the officials announced (Devarim 20:5), “Who is the man that has built a new house and has not inhabited it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man inhabit it.” And the same instructions were given to those who planted a vineyard and had not redeemed it, and to someone who was engaged, but not yet married.  At first glance, these seem to be relatively weak excuses for not being able to fight in the war. Why do these cases warrant exemptions?

Rashi comments that the thought that someone else may finish the task causes psychological anguish.  Chizkuni elaborates that his whole heart and desire will be to finish the job that he started, and he will therefore not be able to concentrate appropriately to the task at hand. His distracted self will be a risk during battle and have dramatic consequences for the entire army. Being in battle requires deep work and concentration. Any distraction will have disastrous consequences.

If we want to be successful in our learning, our careers, our or personal growth, we need to learn how to be fully absorbed in the task at hand. If we are consistently distracted and only addressing surface level ideas, we will have a hard time making any meaningful progress.  In a reality where many of us have multiple responsibilities driving us in different directions, compounded with even more technological distractions, it has become even more important to carve out time and space for deep work.




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