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Emor: A Lunchbox Lesson

Each weekday morning, my day begins the same way. I roll out of bed and make the kids’ lunches. I pack a sandwich in a Tupperware box and then gather the fruit, granola bar, and cheese-stick, and shove them all in the lunchbox. Some mornings, the items fit in the lunchbox with ease. Other mornings (if I’m too sleepy and not paying attention), I have to take everything out and rearrange the items. As I do this mundane task each morning, I am reminded of something one of my teachers taught me in rabbinical school.

Rabbi Ron Shulman, my homiletics instructor, once recounted a principle he learned from Dr. Stephen Covey, the author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Affective People.” He explained that when filling a rectangular jar with rocks and pebbles, if you put the large rocks first, the pebbles will fill the remaining space, and both will fit. However, if you put the pebbles first, all the rocks will likely not fit as there is less room for the rocks. (Likewise, if I put the Tupperware in the lunchbox first then all the rest of the food items fit with ease. However, if I place the snacks in first, the Tupperware just won’t fit!)

Rabbi Shulman explained that what is true of space is also true of time. The “smaller” items (such as checking email or making phone calls) take up a great deal of time. They’ll take up all our time if we let them. He recommended that when crafting our weekly calendar, we make sure to schedule the larger, more important items first — such as making time for our continued study and writing. That way, all our goals will fit into our week. Applying the “rocks” principle is easy when making lunches. However, applying the principle in regular life is more complicated. We are engaged in many important, time consuming projects every day. How do we choose between competing priorities?

This week’s Torah portion begins with a conflict between professional and personal obligations. In the parasha, called Emor (Speak), God instructs Moses to speak to the priests about how to handle this dilemma. The ancient priests who worked in the Temple were supposed to avoid ritual impurity (which was acquired by coming close to a dead body). The portion begins with God specifying that the priest should nevertheless make an exception for “his closest relatives: his mother, and father, son, daughter, brother, or sister.” In this conflict between work and family, the Torah asserts that family comes first.

Oddly, the priest’s wife doesn’t appear on the list, but the rabbis of the Talmud clarified that the phrase “his closest relatives” surely refers to her, too. In reading this passage, I was struck by the idea that the person he was presumably closest to — his wife — wasn’t mentioned explicitly but was taken as a given.

This textual omission reflects a tendency in life. Sometimes, among our many tasks, the relationship between spouses can be taken for granted. This relationship is the foundation of the family, but we easily forget to prioritize it. My husband and I are coming up on our tenth anniversary this year. We’re still very much in love — and extremely busy with all the demands of our personal and professional lives. Recently, we realized that we should make more time to connect with each other. For the first time in a while, we went out two weekends in a row, not for any occasion, but just to be together.

Sometimes the power of Torah is in the questions it raises. This week’s portion asks: What is the biggest item in your lunchbox? Are you putting it in first?

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.

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