What if They Repent?

What if they repent?
— TB Sanhedrin 25b

How could you not love a book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World? Its author, Cal Newport, describes a time of focus that many of us recognize, what I'll call B.C. or Before Cellphones.  Who could have imagined a time when we would carry a phone with us everywhere we went, at the constant beck-and-call of anyone who wants to reach us at their convenience? Screen pop-ups and e-mails produce constant mini-interruptions in our thought patterns, making it virtually impossible - unless we are titans of discipline - to immerse ourselves in distraction-free work. This is shallow work at its "best."

Newport defines shallow work as, "noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate." Much of our daily lives are now spent in shallow work. Often it's the shallow work we confront right in the morning, framing much of the day in a state of mental passivity, always responsive, always bending in the direction of an answer to someone else's question and rarely with the kind of focused attention produced by our own strategic thinking and planning. When Newport writes that this produces little new value, he makes an assumption about what work should be: activities that produce original contributions.

In contrast, Newport defines deep work this way: "Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate." He spends most of the book describing the conditions that need to be created to achieve this kind of state and reminds us that, "Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love - is the sum of what you focus on." Deep work is the answer, he believes, to combat the illusion of multi-tasking: "...recognize a truth embraced by the most productive and important personalities of generations past: A deep life is a good life." 

Approaching Rosh Hashana is a good time to think about what it might mean to do deeper work and not only at work. I began to consider new categories of teshuva: shallow repentance and deep repentance. Shallow repentance is how so many of us run quickly through prayer, beat our chests at the appropriate moments, and give spiritual lip-service to how different we want to be and then not do much about it. The deep work of change is much more destabilizing, involves difficult self-questioning and makes us think about what it might look like to create "new value in the world."

I found a piece of Talmud that may help us understand what this kind of deep inner work might actually look like. There is a mishna that states: "One who plays with dice, one who lends money with interest, those who fly pigeons and merchants who trade during the sabbatical year are disqualified from being witnesses" (BT Sanhedrin 24b). These individuals engage in behaviors that are regarded as untrustworthy. Since integrity is essential to good judgment, we need all witnesses to be people who by profession and proclivity are upstanding citizens. But, the Talmud inquires, what if they repent? Could they then serve as witnesses?

The Talmud goes into detail about what would be considered repentance in each case - and in each case, shallow repentance will not do (BT Sanhedrin 25b). For deep repentance to take place, the individuals in question have to stop the behaviors that are inducing this lack of trust (paraphrased for ease of reading): "Once they break their dice and repent of them completely, for example they do not play even when no money is involved, even when they are not betting." What about our lender? "One who lends interest? - Once they tear their promissory notes and repent of them completely...Fly pigeons? Once they break the stands upon which competing birds perch, and they do not even fly the birds in the wilderness. Trading during the sabbatical year? Once another sabbatical year occurs, and they refrain from selling produce, they are considered as penitents." Another sage believes that this trader must actually return the money he was given to be considered a penitent. Since this may prove challenging for a vegetable seller, this sage permits him to gives gifts to the poor.

If you want to change in this Talmudic passage, you need to dismantle the objects and break behaviors that condition bad habits. Deep repentance involves serious behavior and attitudinal changes so that the temptation to revert to one's old ways will feel foreign and unattractive. That takes more than a few holy days on the calendar. That takes focus and commitment. It takes deep work.

Shabbat Shalom