Today’s daf (Yevamot 86b) quotes a verse (Ezra 8:15) describing an event which ostensibly only took place because of a principle explained elsewhere (Eruvin 65a) which is a problem that I, and I think so many others, face on a very regular basis.
To explain what I mean, our Gemara makes reference to the fact that most of the Levi’im living in Bavel following the destruction of the First Temple did not heed the call to return to the Land of Israel soon after the rebuilding of the Second Temple. And how do we know this? Because when this travelling group, led by Ezra, encamped by the banks of the River Ahava en route to Israel for a period of three days, Ezra surveyed his fellow travellers and ‘could find no Levi’im there’ (Ezra 8:15). Admittedly, our Sages (see Yalkut Shimoni on Tehillim 137) explain that this does not necessarily mean that the group had no Levi’im at all. Moreover, we are taught that Ezra then sent a delegation to the town of Kasifya to encourage more Levi’im to join the group. Still, at that moment, Ezra’s survey concluded that there was an imbalance in terms of those joining him on the trek to Israel.
But why was Ezra performing this survey? Surely, as a great Sage there were other things that should have also been on his mind, or perhaps other more qualified people to perform this survey?
The answer to this question is given in Eruvin 65a where we are taught that someone who has been travelling (which, in those days often took weeks or months and was fraught with danger) should not pray for the first three days once they arrive at their destination. And why? Because, as Rav Chiya Bar Ashi says while quoting Rav, someone who has been travelling lacks ‘yishuv hada’at’ (literally ‘a settled mind’ but which is explained by Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Epstein in his book ‘Living in the Presence’ as ‘Jewish Mindfulness’). Thus, given that Ezra lacked ‘yishuv hada’at’ to pray, he turned his mind to other things and chose to survey the people.
Today travel is much easier than in the time of Ezra. Yet at the same time nowadays we try and cram a huge amount of activities into our waking hours, which means is that while we may not be physically travelling every day, we are nevertheless constantly moving – with this pace of life often becoming a profound impediment to achieving yishuv hada’at and to being able to pray as we should. In fact, while I pray thrice-daily, the pace of my week is often so frenetic – like a metronome on high speed – that it is only on Shabbat, where both my body and soul slow down just a bit, that I feel that I am able to come closer to the kind of prayer that I should be offering every day.
Still, as Rabbi Epstein writes that, ‘we have a fundamental spiritual need to cultivate and develop yishuv hada’at’, and though achieving this state of Jewish Mindfulness may take some effort, it is nevertheless attainable with some practice. Personally this is something I am working on – and perhaps this is something you may want to work on too.