On his way to the beis midrash, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev saw a man racing across the market square. He ran so fast that his coattails and tzitzis flapped behind him. In one hand he clutched a tattered briefcase; the other hand was clamped on top of his hat to keep it from flying off his head. As the man ran past, Reb Levi Yitzchak called to him. The man stopped for a moment in deference to the rebbe, and greeted him between gulps of air.
“Where are you running to so swiftly?” the rebbe asked.
“What do you mean, Rebbe?” the man said sharply, making, no attempt to hide his displeasure at having to make this detour. “I am earning my living, running alter my livelihood. There are opportunities for success ahead of me, and if I don’t race after them they will escape me.”
“And how do you know,” the rebbe asked, “that these opportunities lie before you? Perhaps you are racing right by them? Or even worse, perhaps they are behind you and you are running away from them?”
The man simply stared at the rebbe uncomprehendingly.
“Listen, my friend.” Reb Levi Yitzchak said, “I am not saying you should not earn a living. I am only worried that in your obsession with earning you are missing out on the living.”
Beis midrash (literally, “House of Study”): A communally run center for religious learning where young men would spend the entire day poring over the Bible and Talmud. Today, such centers are usually privately run.
Tzitzis (“fringes;” modern Hebrew, tzitzit or arbah kanfot, four corners, or tallit katan, small prayer shawl): A four-cornered fringed undergarment worn by observant Jews in fulfillment of the commandment “They shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments for all generations…” (Numbers 15:38). One is supposed to look upon the fringes and be reminded that one is always surrounded by the Presence of God. To be made visible, the tzitzis are worn long so they hang below one’s clothes.
Do you know the difference between earning a living and earning a livelihood? Many people don’t. You don’t earn your living; your living is a gift from God through your parents. Your livelihood must be earned, but what if earning your livelihood interferes with honoring the gift of your living? This is the question that troubles Reb Levi Yitzchak.
And how are you to know what your livelihood really is? In your scramble for money to pay your bills, could it be that you are missing opportunities not only for living, but for livelihood as well?
There is a tendency to mistake movement for living. If you keep busy, you must be living. The business magazine Fast Company has as its motto a quote from Hunter Thompson: “Faster and faster until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death.” Levi Yitzchak wants us to slow down to the speed of life. What is that speed? When Jacob becomes Israel (the God Wrestler, or Spiritual Warrior), he reveals to his brother Esau, the conventional warrior, what the speed of life really is: “I will walk on gently according to the pace of the cattle and the nursing calves, and the gait of the children…” (Genesis 33:14). The speed of life is the pace of the nursing and the nursed. If you want to live well, slow down.